We sell large amounts of fish at our restaurant, it is always one of the most popular items on our menu, which leads me to the conclusion that many people are unsure of how to deal with fish at home. People tend to order dishes in restaurants that they are unlikely to cook themselves.
I have a friend who recently got a job in the seafood industry. She was offered some whole fish at very reasonable prices, but turned the offer down. Aghast, I asked why. "I would have no idea what to do with it" was the reply.
This got me to thinking, are people really that intimidated with fish cookery? In reality, there is little to it. Hopefully this mini-guide will give you the confidence to buy the right fish and cook it well. I will show you how to select a fresh fish. How to cut and portion it, then finally some of the basic methods of fish cookery, such as grilling, roasting and pan frying and what type of fish is suitable for each method.
Unfortunately, the common names for different fish species vary widely even within Australia. I can imagine that the common names will vary even more abroad. I will try to give as many common names as possible, but ultimately, this guide will be skewed towards my experiences in Australia.
This section is largely based on where you live, your proximity to the coast and a good fish market. In Sydney we are blessed with one of the largest and best fish markets in the world. I have been to pre-dawn auctions housed in football-field size sheds that contain hundreds of different species. Truly awe inspiring. The first thing to do is find the best local seafood market in your area. The closer you can get to the boat that caught the fish, the better. Failing that, search out a busy local fishmonger. The busier the better as quiet fish shops tend to store their fish for days. Not good.
Once you know where you will buy the fish, you will need to make a selection based on several factors. These are, in order of importance, how fresh the fish is, it's price and what style of dish you are preparing.
Freshness is all important when it comes to seafood. Firstly, ascertain whether the fish has been frozen. Not an easy task. The first step is simply to ask the fishmonger. If it has been frozen, shop somewhere else. The fishmonger may not tell the truth either, he needs to move the fish after all. That's when you need to do a little detective work. The first sign is partially thawed fish. If it is still half frozen, then you have your answer. Fully defrosted whole fish can be a little harder to spot, but fillets are another matter. If the fillets have an unsightly greyish appearance and they are swimming in a pool of liquid, then move on as they have most likely been frozen.
Once you are confident the fish is unfrozen, the next step is to find out how fresh it is. If possible, always try to purchase whole fish. This will make telling how fresh it is a lot easier. If the fish is small enough, pick it up, or ask to hold it. About 6 hours after the fish is caught, rigor mortis sets in and the fish will go rigid. This is one of the best indicators of freshness. Hold the fish by the tail end horizontally. If it is rigid and flat as a board, it is fresh. A few other things to look for. The eyes should be glossy and round. If they are cloudy and sunken, choose another fish. Inspect the gills, they should be bright red and fresh looking, not dull and grey. Lastly, smell the fish. It should smell pleasantly of the sea. If it has a strong fishy aroma, choose another fish. If you buy whole fish, but require fillets, simply ask the fishmonger to fillet the fish for you.
If your only choice is pre-filleted fish, testing freshness is a little trickier. The fillets should be free of any residual water, they should be bright, moist and fresh looking, not dull and grey. For meatier red fleshed fish, such as tuna, the colour should be bright red, with no sign of dullness.
By now you should have a selection of good fish to choose from. What is your budget? Fish is priced according to 2 main factors, popularity and availability. Just because a fish is expensive does not necessarily make it the best choice. That species may be out of season, so it may not be at it's peak eating. Yes, fish have seasons, just like all fresh produce. Some great bargains can be had by choosing lesser-known fish that are in plentiful supply. If you trust your fishmonger, let him be your guide.
Lastly, what cooking style did you have in mind. Are you planning a barbecue? If so, choose oily, meatier cuts of fish that can stand up to the rigors of the open flame. Think tuna, albacore, mahi-mahi (dolphin fish), swordfish, Spanish mackerel, sailfish and marlin. These fish all have a few things in common. They are all large game fish that are generally cut into steaks and cutlets, perfect for the barbecue. They also have a high oil content, which prevents them from drying out during the barbecue process.
If you are grilling (broiling) or pan frying, choose smaller firm fleshed white fish. Some suggested species are snapper, cod, bream, kingfish, barramundi (an Australian fish), trevally and whiting.
Delicate cooking methods such as steaming or poaching suit delicate fleshed fish. Any of the salmoniod family, salmon, trout and ocean trout; flat fish such as sole, turbot, plaice and john dory (St Pierre) will work fine.
If your fish has been filleted for you, there will be little to do. Depending on the size of the fillets, you simply need to cut them into portion sizes. A little background on protein portion sizes may be of help here. In a restaurant all protein sources (read meat, poultry, game and fish) are generally portioned into 180 gm (6 oz) serves. This accounts for any accompaniments such as salads, grains, starches and vegetables. It also takes into account the diner having 2 - 3 courses, including a starter and a dessert.
At home, with one course, you may want your portions to be a little larger, up to 250 gm (1/2 lb) if you are serving hungry diners. This weight is based on boneless edible flesh. A useful rule of thumb for whole fish on the bone with the head attached, half the whole fish weight is edible flesh. So a 1kg (2 lb) whole fish will yield 500gm (1 lb) of flesh. Suitable for 2 - 3 people. A simple caveat - this is a rule of thumb only. Some fish have startlingly sized heads, not to mention other appendages. If in any doubt, ask the fish vendor for advice.
If your fillets still have the skin attached, keep it on, as it will keep the flesh moist as it cooks. If you don't wish to eat the skin, simply remove it before serving, after the fish is cooked. Remember to cut the skin a little at the edges in several places as this will prevent the skin curling during cooking.
If you are cooking whole fish - whatever the cooking method, almost all varieties will benefit from slashing the flesh 2 or 3 times at the thickest part. The exceptions are small fish, such as sardines, whitebait and garfish. These slashes will ensure the meatiest parts are cooked at the same time as the rest of the fish.
Whether you are cooking right away, or storing the fish the next day, always wash the fish and pat dry as soon as you get it home.
Grilling (broiling) or pan-frying
This is the quickest and easiest method for dealing with fish, especially fillets and small whole fish. If you are using an overhead griller (salamander or broiler), the greatest danger is the fish drying out, as it does not involve any extra cooking medium, such as oil. This needs to be added to help baste the fish as it cooks. Place the fish on a piece of foil or a plate and dot with butter or oil. Add salt and pepper and some other flavourings of your choice, such as wine, herbs, spices, lemon, fish stock and the like. Pre heat the grill and cook until the top of the fish has gone opaque and has started to brown. Turn the fish over and cook the other side. You will need to test if the fish is done and this is where many cooks get nervous. Don't cut the fish to test, you will ruin the presentation and lose moisture. Here is the one tip for testing the doneness of fish that works for all cooking styles. Using a fork, a large 2 tined carving fork is perfect, insert the fork into the thickest part of the flesh. If the fork sinks easily right through the flesh without any resistance then it is done. If there is ANY resistance whatsoever, it will need more cooking. Remember that fish cooks very quickly, much quicker than chicken or red meat. If you have a larger piece of fish, this grilling method is not suitable.
Pan-frying is a little different. It is also suitable for fillets and small whole fish, but is cooked with direct heat in a fry pan or skillet. Use a mixture of butter and oil, butter for flavour and oil to stop the butter burning, then heat until it bubbles and smells nutty. If you are using fillets with the skin on, place this side down first. Cook at medium-high heat for about 2 - 6 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Carefully turn the fish over and cook the other side for up to 6 minutes, using the fork method to test for doneness. If the fish is not cooked at this stage, it will be best to finish cooking in a pre-heated 200 °C (390 °F) oven. Just toss the whole pan in the oven and check after a few minutes (No plastic handles on the pan please!).
This method is perfectly suited to large whole fish, but smaller fish and fillets can work as well. Using a large (2 - 3kg / 4 - 6 lb) fish as a guide, place the fish on a large piece of foil. Add flavourings and liquid. Herbs, garlic, onions, wine, lemon, salt, pepper and whatever takes your fancy. Wrap the foil around the fish to make a tight parcel. Preheat the oven to 200 °C (390 °F) and place the fish into a roasting dish. Check a 2kg fish after 30 minutes, using the fork test, inserting it into the thickest part of the fish. Return to the oven if the fish is still undercooked.
Perfect for delicate fish, smaller whole fish and fillets of white fish. Heat a large pot of water to boiling, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Place a steamer on top of the pot. Lay the fish on a plate, scoring if it is a whole fish, then add flavourings and liquid. Wine, stock, lemon and herbs are perfect. Season with salt and pepper then place the plate into the steamer. Keeping the water at a delicate simmer, steam for 7 - 8 minutes for small fish and fillets and more like 15 minutes for large fish. Once again, test with the fork method. This method is perfect for the health conscious, as little or no oil needs to be added.
This method is a little different, as the heat is much fiercer. In addition, most of the best barbecue fish, such as tuna and swordfish, actually benefit by being cooked a little underdone. This prevents them from being unpalatably dry. Extra moisture from a marinade works a treat here. Choose your favourite marinade or just place the fish in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, pepper, white wine and herbs. Preheat your barbecue, if you are using real fire let the flames die down first, just cook with the glowing embers. Cook the fish quickly, basting with the marinade. Beware of over cooking. If you are using oily fish steaks, serve them a little pink in the centre.
Hopefully by now you should realise that there is really nothing at all to fear when cooking fish. Cultures the world over have been preparing and cooking fish in all sorts of styles for millennia, and with this brief guide hopefully you can join in on the delicious bounty.