Fish Cooking Basics
I must admit that I have met more than a few fishermen that know every trick in the book to catch fish, but after they have caught it, have no idea what to do with it. So if you are still wondering what you should be doing with those fish you caught, I have some help for you. The basic techniques for turning those fish into food are very simple and I have outlined the basic information and cooking methods for you.
10 minutes to the inch
Whether you are grilling, frying, baking, poaching, steaming of broiling your fish, the basic rule is that it will take 8-10 minutes of cooking time for every inch of thickness. The biggest mistake most people make in cooking fish is to over cook it. Now if the fish is frozen, count on 20 minutes per inch.
It starts at the water
Fish can degrade quickly after you catch it. One thing you can do to prevent this is kill the fish as quickly as possible. Smack it in the head with a club, then cut the gills with a knife. This will bleed the fish out quickly and slow down spoilage.
You caught it, you clean it
OK, so you probably know this already, but you need to clean the innards out, using a sharpknife and your thumb or narrow spoon. The longer you leave that stuff in there, the more chance it will have to start messing with the fish’s flavor.
When is it done?
The classical definition is that fish is done when it hits 160° and the juices run clear. Stick a fork into the thickest portion and twist gently. It should be flaky, but please, what ever you do, don’t let it cook into dry nastiness.
NUKING (MICROWAVING) FISH – Fillets, 1″ thick steaks
Yes, this is a valid fish cooking method!Microwaves cook by exciting (heating up) the water in whatever you put in there. Now call me crazy, but fish are just full of moisture. Gee… wonder why? Here are the proper steps for nuking fish. Allow 6 minutes per pound of fish, and remember that no two microwave ovens will be the same so adjust accordingly.
- Arrange the fish with the thickest parts towards the edge of the plate, and tuck and thin parts under so they don’t get overdone. One layer deep only please.
- Cover with plastic wrap, but pull one corner back just a little, or punch a little hole in it to vent steam.
- Don’t blast it! Cook at 70% of full power. Again, we are looking for just flaky.
- Let the fish rest for three minutes after you nuke it.
PAN FRYING (SAUTÉING) – Fillets less than 1-1/2″ thick, scallops, large shrimp
The old standby by for cooking fish, there are countless variations on how to pay fry fish.The basics are to heat butter or oil over medium heat in a pan big enough to comfortably hold your fish. Then cook on one side till brown then turn over and brown the other side. This shouldn’t take long so don’t over cook them!
What you do with them before you drop them in the pan is what matters the most. To be a purist, you can pat them dry and just lightly season them with salt and pepper. Of course if you want to get fancy, you can always coat them with egg and bread them with flour or bread crumbs.Then we get into seasoning of the breading and things get really interesting. Have fun, experiment.
BROILING – Fillets & Steaks 1/4″ to 1-1/2″ thick, Scallops & Shrimp
Think of broiling as blast cooking your seafood. Put the top rack ~4 inches below the broiling element and pre-heat that puppy. One thing to remember is that broiling can suck the moisture right out of fish, so you have to make sure it doesn’t dry out and get nasty. Fish like Salmon, Tuna and Swordfish have enough oil already to keep them moist, but think about marinating other types of fish.
Drop your fish on the broiling pan, season it lightly and get it under the broiler. Keep a watchful eye on it though. Broilers will take food from done to crispy in the blink of an eye.
STEAMING SEAFOOD – Fillets, Steaks, Whole Fish and Shellfish
Steaming is about as easy and healthy as it gets. No added oil is needed, just a little salt and pepper. If you like, you can steam your veggies right along with your fish! Just remember the 10 minutes to an inch rule and go for it.
BAKING SEAFOOD – Fish Fillets, Steaks, Shellfish & Whole Fish
Baking is the tame version of broiling. Set your oven for 450° and away you go! As for the fish, arrange them one layer deep in a lightly oiled pan, tucking any thin parts under so they don’t burn. Variations include breading, coating with oil/butter, and topping with fruit and/or veggies.
POACHING (NOT BOILING) SEAFOOD – Whole fish, Steaks, Fillets, Shrimp, Scallops
Basic poaching technique is to cook the seafood in a broad, shallow pan filled with enough hot, but not boiling liquid to completely cover it. Any liquid will do, from plain water to concoctions of water, wine, herbs and stock. The liquid should be brought to a boil then turned down till you see movement, but no bubbles breaking on the surface. Carefully place your food in the water and cook the required time. Another very healthy way to cook your seafood!
STIR-FRYING – Chunks and strips of firm fish, Shrimp, Scallops, Squid
Stir frying is broiling from the bottom effectively. This is because to correctly stir fry, even cooking, make sure that your pieces of food are fairly uniform. Here is the basic stir frying technique.
- Heat the wok over high heat with oil till the oil starts to smoke. Add your vegetables if any and stir constantly. Cook until they are just a little tender and then set aside.
- Add oil if needed and reheat the pan. Cook the seafood, stirring constantly so it doesn’t stick. Cook until it is browned slightly and opaque in the center.
- Add the veggies back in along with some sauce and any other seasonings you like. And you are done!
GOOD OLD GRILLING – What can’t you grill?
Whole encyclopedias could, and probably have been written about grilling. It must tap into some primal spot in our soul to be outside, cooking or burning a piece of meat over some hot coals. Here are the main points to remember.
- Keep your grill clean! Dirt grills cook unevenly and dirty grates are more likely to have food stick to them.
- Oil your grill grates! It will help keep the food from bonding to them.
- Grilling can dry food out like broiling does, so use fatty fish, and consider using a marinade or oiling and seasoning your fish before grilling.
- For fish that is small, or might fall apart, use aluminum foil on the grill.
- Once you put the food down on the grates, don’t mess with it! As my cooking hero Alton Brown says ‘Just walk away!’ Granted, not for long but don’t fiddle with it till it is time to turn it over.