How to Cook Fish for Beginners
Learning how to cook fish—and actually making it taste good—has never been easier.
Simply put, making fish at home can be intimidating. It's easy to overcook, difficult to know when it's overdone, confusing to season, and if you choose a pricey fish, the pressure to create a dish you'll actually want to eat gets cranked up to 11.
That's why Whitney Otawka, the executive chef at the Greyfield Inn in Cumberland Island, Georgia, and the author of The Saltwater Table, is here to provide a step-by-step guide on how to cook fish. Take her tips with you the next time you hit the grocery store and never choke down soggy, flavorless fish again. (Related: How to Cook Fish, According to Obama's Former Chef)
1. Choose a Fish for Your Flavor Palate
Cooking a fish that makes your tastebuds dance all starts with picking out the best fish for you.
- Mild: If you're looking for mild fish to jazz up, opt for flounder, cod, or halibut.
- Flexible: For fish that packs a flavor punch but doesn't overpower the plate, turn to grouper, red snapper, or trout.
- Flavorful: And if you want a fish that's the star of the show, buy salmon, tuna, or bluefish.
2. Shop Sustainably—Including Frozen
Do what chefs like Otawka do and download the free Seafood Watch app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium (available for iPhone and Android). When you’re out shopping, just type in the name of the fish you want to buy and whether it’s wild or farmed and domestic or imported. The app will give you the information you need about the pros and cons of purchasing it, so you can make a decision that’s healthy for you and the planet. (Related: Eco-Friendly Fish Recipes for Sardines, Herring, and Other Small Fish)
Don't shy away from frozen fish, either: “Fresh seafood is great, but it’s not the reality for many people,” says Otawka. “A lot of what’s at the fish counter was previously frozen anyway, so it’s better to buy it directly.” She recommends sea2table.com to order sustainably caught seafood that’s frozen at peak freshness.
How to Defrost Fish: You can defrost fish in as little as 10 minutes. Keep it in the packaging, and place in a cool-water bath (follow the label) before preparing. (BTW, it's totally healthy to eat these frozen foods, too.)
3. Add Some Herbs
For a burst of flavor on mild fish, turn to fresh herbs. “Chervil, which tastes like a combo of parsley and fennel, is great with seafood,” says Otawka. “Chives, dill, and cilantro are some of my other go-tos. Chop and toss them on fish before cooking.” (Here are other recipes with fresh herbs, in case you need a little inspo.)
4. Cook It
Now to answer the most important question of how to cook fish: What's the easiest way? In the oven, according to Otawka.
How to Cook Fish In the Oven: “Roast fish in the oven at a low temperature, about 325 degrees,” says Otawka. “This gives it the best, flakiest texture. I brush it with egg first and put seasoned breadcrumbs on top for some crunch.”
The cooking time depends on the size and thickness of the fish, but small fillets can be ready in 15 minutes. To check for doneness, use the tip of a knife to cut into the fish. The flesh should be opaque throughout. (See: 5 Ways to Cook Salmon in Less Than 15 Minutes)
5. Add a Flavorful Topping
If you want a bit of zest, make a roasted pepper escabeche:
- Lightly char 1 large whole red pepper over high heat. Seed it, then dice.
- Combine with 2 tablespoons diced red onion, 1 small minced garlic clove, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano, 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, and salt to taste.
- Spoon mixture over fish.
Or for a smooth and rich addition, drizzle on an aioli. “It adds a rich creaminess,” says Otawka. “I like to update it by deepening its flavor with burnt lemons." To do: Grill whole lemons, and finely grate the charred zest into aioli. Finish by squeezing in some of the juice. (Or try this addicting garlic aioli from Carla Lalli Music.)
Shape Magazine, June 2020 issue