I’ve heard lots of people claim that they are “afraid” to cook fish at home. I get that. Really. I feel the same way about nice steaks. Why is that? Well first, good seafood (like good steak) can be pricey, and nobody wants to mess up and waste expensive ingredients. Then there’s the intimidation factor: Don’t you have to be a skilled chef to make a nice seafood dish turn out well? What if it comes out dry? Aren’t certain fish supposed to be cooked in specific ways? These are legitimate concerns, and you’re not alone. The thing is, seafood has so much good stuff going for it nutritionally that it’s a shame to shun it at home. To help alleviate your fish-cooking phobia, I’ve put together three tips to address your concerns and boost your confidence. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Select seafood with an eye toward freshness.
First, I should clarify what I’m talking about when I talk about “freshness.” I am not referring to whether the fish has been frozen or previously frozen and then thawed for sale (frozen fish is convenient, nutritious and may in fact be “fresher” than fish that’s labeled “fresh”). What I’m talking about is freshness as in non-spoiled. Seafood is highly perishable and needs to be handled correctly all along the supply chain in order to make it to your plate in a safe condition for consumption. Here are the selection points that the Food and Drug Administration suggests for selecting fish, shrimp and shellfish. I’ll hit the high points here, but do click on the full list of tips as they are helpful (and there aren’t that many).
- Fish should have a mild aroma and not smell overly fishy (and certainly not smell like ammonia).
- Fillets should be firm and shiny, and not look dry or discolored at the edges.
- Fish and shrimp should be displayed in a covered, refrigerated case and/or on a thick bed of fresh ice (also covered).
- Shellfish should close if their shells are tapped—that indicates they are alive, and that’s what you want. Don’t buy shellfish that doesn’t react to your tap.
- When purchasing frozen fish, avoid packages with signs of frost or ice crystals—the seafood may have thawed and been refrozen.
Choose the right fish for the dish.
Not to get overly complicated, but selecting the most appropriate species of fish for the recipe you want to make does help ensure success. The thickness of the fish, whether it is a whole fish, a steak cut or a fillet, an oily fish, a strongly flavored fish or a firm, meaty fish all impacts how it is cooked. That said, you can cook fish pretty much any way you like, though sometimes it may fall apart a bit. Some willingness to experiment is needed. This is a nice reference for suggesting different preparation methods for different types of fish, but in general, if you follow a couple basic rules you should be fine:
- Shellfish and shrimp are commonly steamed (shrimp and scallops also are grilled).
- Fish steaks or sturdy finfish fillets and whole fish do well on the grill, baked or broiled.
- The more delicate or flaky the fish is, the more easily it can dry out or fall apart if handled too much (such as flipping when grilling or frying).
- Oily fish stand up well to baking and dry heat methods, but are not great fried (too much fat!).
Don’t walk away when cooking fish.
I’m one of those people who starts cooking and then tends to get distracted and wanders off to do something else for a few minutes. Trust me, you don’t want to do this when you’re cooking fish. Why? Because it doesn’t take long to go from raw to perfectly cooked to dried out beyond recognition. When I cook fish I usually test it for doneness with a fork—flaking it a bit, or cutting off a tiny bit—to see if it’s done to my liking. People can get picky about the way their fish is cooked. My father always liked his fish a little on what I’d call the overcooked side (read dried out), some folks like their scallops basically raw in the center (not me). If you stay in the kitchen and test as the fish cooks, you’ll be assured that it’s cooked to your liking. In general, fish cooks quickly compare to other proteins. You won’t be standing there long, so just plan on hanging around.
I hope this has helped you feel more courageous about cooking fish. It isn’t hard, but you also won’t learn if you don’t try it! I’d love you to get hooked on cooking seafood at home! If you need some recipe inspiration, check out this summer seafood roundup.