Recipe Hacking: How to Substitute Different Types of Fish

One of the recipe testing tasks that I often find challenging is choosing the best fish to recommend for a recipe. Surprisingly it’s not because it’s hard to find the perfect fish, it’s because I’m so often tempted to say “choose whatever fish you like” and go from there.

With concerns about over-fishing of popular types of fish, many markets are beginning to carry a wider selection of fish. I love trying new varieties and will readily admit that when cooking for myself I rarely buy the suggested fish, but rather I try something new, what’s on sale, or what the fish guy recommends. Here are a few tips to make sure your recipes still end up great.

  1. Flavor: Fish is generally categorized into three flavors – mild, moderate, and full. Mild fish will take seasonings well and not exert a lot of their own flavors onto a dish and so can be very easily substituted for each other.
  2. Texture: Delicate, moderate or firm. This is important for cooking times, if substituting a firmer fish for a more delicate one you’ll need to increase cooking times a bit.

If you’re not sure about how strong of a flavor a fish has or how firm it is, ask the person working at the fish counter of your local grocery store. Chances are they are extremely knowledgeable and will love to help out!

Substituting by Flavor & Texture

Here are some tried and true substitutes. While each fish does have its own flavor, these each taste very similar and cook almost identically. (Read our guide to cooking fish)

  • Delicate texture, mild to medium flavor: Cod, flounder, haddock, pollock, butterfish, lake perch, lingcod, and sole. Great for cooking in packets.
  • Moderate texture, mild to medium flavor: Tilapia, rockfish, sheepshead, redfish, black drum, walleye, pike, trout. Excellent for fish tacos! These versatile fish are easy to work with and are a great base for any flavor.
  • Firm texture, mild to medium flavor: Halibut, grouper, monkfish, snapper, tautog, turbot, tripletail, golden tilefish, pompano (stronger flavor), hogfish, catfish, mahi mahi, drum, shark (stronger flavor). These firmer fish hold up well for grilling, baking, pan-searing or almost any cooking method. Their solid flavor makes them a great candidate to pair with stronger sauces and bold flavors, or to serve simply to enjoy their great natural sweetness.
  • Firm texture, full flavor: Swordfish, cobia, tuna. These are some of the only fish that I don’t recommend cooking in a packet. Their higher fat content makes them a great candidate for higher, drier heats like roasting or grilling.

Ok, ok, there are a few fish that really have no great substitute that won’t drastically alter the recipe. These types of fish are too good to substitute:

  • Black Cod: Also known as sablefish, it is buttery and delicious in a way that is hard to rival. Regular cod might sound similar but is actually extremely different. Surprisingly, in many dishes salmon is the best substitute since they have similar fat contents, but it will be a very different flavor.
  • Salmon: Maybe loving salmon is a West Coast thing, but we can’t seem to get enough and there really isn’t any other way to get both the firm texture and distinct flavor of salmon. Marlin and swordfish will yield the same texture, but again will taste quite different.
  • Albacore or Ahi Tuna: For a special occasion this can’t be beat. It has a flavor and cooking method all its own. While substitutes might still taste ok, it changes the dish in it’s entirety.

Happy hacking,

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