A Beginner’s Guide to How To Buy and Cook Fish

As a kid, I hated fish, but it wasn’t due to the taste or the texture… I didn’t like fish because the only fish we ever had was trout we caught in the river by our house and I didn’t like having to gut it myself. (Right?! That’s not delicious!) I distinctly remember the first time I set out to buy fish for myself in college. I had decided that I was an adult and I was going to like fish. It’s good for me, some kind is almost always on sale, and everyone else seemed to like it. I spent 45 minutes staring at the fish counter wondering if it was fresh, what kind would be good, and how was I going to cook it…. I was totally overwhelmed! Now, several years later, fish is my go-to weeknight meal. It defrosts quickly, bakes almost instantly, and is reliably good.

If you’re a novice in the world of buying and cooking fish, this is for you…

Buying Fish

Fish can seem a little intimidating to buy, but making sure you’re getting fresh, high quality fish is easier than it seems. Just follow these shopping guidelines:

  1. Get it fresh! If you’re lucky enough to have a fish market nearby definitely go there. If not, go to the fish counter at your local grocery store. Not only will the fish be fresher there, but they will be able to offer great suggestions about what’s fresh or a good buy.
  2. Look out for fish that smells like seawater or cucumber — if it has a strong odor (particularly one that makes you go “ick!”) then it’s probably past its prime.
  3. Fish should look freshly cut and not dried out, and the skin should be unfaded or appear “ruffled” (you’ll know if if you see it).
  4. If you’re buying frozen fish make sure it is frozen solidly and doesn’t have any dry looking, very white dehydrated areas (this is a sign of freezer burn). Many fish sellers are vacuum sealing individual fish fillets these days, which ensures freshness.

Another consideration when buying fish is which types are the most sustainable to buy (which should be wild vs. farm raised and which should just be avoided). The Seafood Watch is an extremely comprehensive resource, but again your local fish market or the counter at your grocery store will be able to help as well.

And once you get your fish home:

  • Make sure to use fish within two days of purchase. If you’re unable to do that, you can cook the fish (it will keep for another two days once cooked), or freeze it.
  • Always defrost fish by placing it in the refrigerator or in cold water (put it in a baggie under cold, running water), never just at room temperature. And don’t refreeze it.

Cooking Fish

We have five favorite ways to cook fish at home…

1. “Naked” Fish in a Packet
Fish is probably one of the easiest meats to prepare flawlessly every time. If you’re worried about over-cooking your fish, we suggest cooking it in parchment packets. This will keep the fish moist and allow it to cook evenly, and more importantly, it’s so easy and there is virtually no clean up! It works with literally any fish and is my go-to for a quick weeknight meal. The “hardest” part of baking fish in a packet is properly folding the packet.

For a parchment packet:

  1. Cut 1 (14 inch-ish square-ish) piece of parchment per fish fillet you are baking. Fold them in half.
  2. Unfold the parchment and lay the fish on one side of the crease. Top the fish with whichever herbs and spices you’re using.
  3. Fold the paper over to completely cover the ingredients. Fold the front edge over, then each of the sides, and then repeat (starting with the front side again). The second fold will help keep the folds in place while it bakes.

You can also use foil (which we suggest if you’re grilling it), but parchment is just so pretty! Once the fish is in the packet, it’s as easy and popping it in the oven and waiting for a few minutes, then voilà! Perfectly done fish every time.

2. Fish + Extras in Parchment
Once you’ve mastered the basic fish in parchment, you can even try adding in grains and other veggies, like in this Salmon in Parchment recipe.

Fish in parchment is virtually foolproof so you might only ever cook fish this way and that is just fine. Packets are great for most fish, but for fish that comes in steaks (tuna, swordfish, shark) are a better fit for dry heat methods (like searing, roasting or baking). It took me years of cooking fish to ever want to try something new (it was SO easy and SO reliably good, why would I ever change it up?!).

That said, with only slightly more skill (ok, so really not even skill, just willingness to try new things) there are numerous other ways to cook fish.

3. Pan-Seared
If you want to change it up or just don’t want to heat up the house with the oven, pan searing or frying fish is an easy alternative.

A couple tips for perfect fish every time:

  1. If you have time let the fish come to room temperature first. This is less important for thin fish fillets but makes a big difference for thicker cuts of fish and is absolutely crucial for Ahi Tuna. This is a good time to spice or bread your fish as desired.
  2. Pre-heat your skillet and oil over medium high heat. You want the pan and oil very hot before adding in the fish to prevent sticking. Reduce the heat to medium once you add the fish (but not lower).
  3. Let the fish cook, undisturbed for the initial cooking time (time varies depending on the recipe, fish type and thickness, but is usually about 4-6 minutes).
  4. Fish is ready to flip when it easily releases from the pan. Try shaking the pan – if it moves a little it’s ready to go. If it doesn’t release by a minute after the given cooking time, go ahead and flip it anyway, the heat was likely a little too low (it will still turn out fine, just remember to increase the heat a little next time).
  5. Flip the fish and cook for another few minutes – usually half the initial cooking time for thin fillets and an equal time for thicker ones.
  6. Remove from heat, cover, and let rest for a little bit before adding fresh herbs and serving. So delicious!

Try the Shockingly Good Pan Seared Halibut – it really is as simple as it gets. This recipe also works very well with turbot, a less expensive halibut substitute.


4. Baking and Roasting
Baking is a great method for fish that comes in steak form (tuna, swordfish, shark) or oilier fish with a high fat content (salmon or halibut). The key to baking is great flavorings and good quality fish. Leaner fish – like cod, haddock or plaice – will often call for additional oil of some kind to keep them from drying out. Cooking times and recipes vary widely for baked fish so finding a recipe you like is key. We love the Roasted Caesar Swordfish.

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5. Grilling

Grilling anything imparts such a great flavor and fish is no different. When I first started grilling fish I would lose what seemed like most of the fish as it stuck to the grill grates. Here are a few tips that I’ve picked up to keep the fish intact:

  1. Make sure the fish is dry, wrap it in a paper towel in the fridge for a few minutes before grilling to remove extra moisture so that you get a great sear instead of steaming the fish
  2. Hot, well oiled grill grates are truly the key for great grilled fish. Cover the grill grates with aluminum foil as it preheats to super-heat the grates. Right before cooking give the grates a good brushing to ensure that they are super clean and then oil them by dipping a paper towel in oil and then use tongs to rub the grates several times (re-dipping the paper towel each time).
  3. Like with pan-searing it’s important to let the fish cook undisturbed until it easily releases from the grates.

Fish that comes in steaks, like halibut, tuna, or salmon are best for direct grilling. More delicate fish is also great on the grill but sometimes benefits from a foil packet. If you can find good mangoes absolutely don’t miss this Grilled Tuna With Cilantro and Mango!


Happy cooking,

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