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Beginner needs help cooking fish!

lemonseleven May 19, 2011 02:07 PM

I love fish, but haven't had much success making it myself. I've mostly tried the cheap/frozen fish that I've found at Trader Joe's or other local grocery stores- usually bake and am displeased with the resulting taste/texture.

I need some advice on what kinds of fresh fish I should buy and some easy methods of preparation. I'm looking for something affordable, easy to find (live in Chicago), and relatively easy to prepare, and not too fishy-tasting. I'd also love any tips on better ways to choose & prepare frozen fish.


  1. s
    sushigirlie Jun 18, 2011 09:28 PM

    I suggest 1) buying James Peterson's book Fish and Shellfish; and 2) learning to pan saute fillets. Baking, steaming, and poaching are easier than sauteing, but sauteing provides more flavor and texture.

    1. Bada Bing May 20, 2011 02:01 PM

      What types of fish dishes have you enjoyed? Are you trying to emulate any in particular? The optimal techniques (deep-frying with batter, pan-searing, broiling, baking, grilling, parchment packs, salt-encasing) vary a lot according to fish species and "format" (filets, steaks, whole, bone-in or boneless, skin-on or skin-off, etc.). No need to try all, of course, but it would be good to know what you know you already love.

      1. l
        lemonseleven May 20, 2011 07:41 AM

        Thanks everyone for the great advice! I think I'm going to try finding a good fishmonger and asking for some tips. I also don't think I've been defrosting my frozen fish so I'll give that another go.

        2 Replies
        1. re: lemonseleven
          ferret May 20, 2011 07:52 AM

          Check my post above Re: FishGuy

          1. re: lemonseleven
            sunshine842 May 21, 2011 03:16 AM

            Oh dear - yes, you have to defrost those fillets, or they'll just end up as a pile of mush (defrost in the fridge and they'll be fine -- what you don't want is to thaw it too fast, as it tends to destroy the texture.

            Then try the pan-sear techniques (I do both -- sometimes I dredge it lightly in flour as it makes a nice crust, but sometimes I just put it straight into the oil...depends on my mood) You'll be a convert.

            Another easy thing for baked salmon (steaks or fillets) -- crazy simple, but tasty -- spread the fish lightly with a little mayonnaise then sprinkle with dill and bake at 350 til done - the 10 minutes per inch rule is a pretty good one here.

            And while a fishmonger is great, if you don't have one conveniently located, don't worry -- sometimes the guys behind the fish counter at the local supermarket are more knowledgeable than they get credit for. (my "fish guy" at the Publix in Florida, where I used to live, got to know my preferences pretty quickly and would tell me what came in today, what had been in the case for a couple of days,e tc. )

          2. d
            DAnnieNM May 19, 2011 08:21 PM

            I remember when as a young wife I couldn't get fish to taste right the way I cooked it, but my mother-in-law made wonderfully tasty fish. Her secret? Dip the fillets lightly in flour, dust off as much as you can, then saute in butter, or olive oil until golden and fish flakes easily. Be sure to salt generously (fish is bland) and pepper or paprika. Takes only a couple minutes per side. I like to add a little white wine after the fish has browned, take out the fish, cook the sauce until slightly thickened, and pour over the fish. I still cook it this way 55 years later!

            1. ipsedixit May 19, 2011 05:10 PM

              Well, let's start with what fish you have been eating and which you've found lacking. That will help guide you in your future endeavors.

              That said, here are a few general thoughts.

              - There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- wrong with frozen fish. In fact, most of the fish you find "fresh" at the market will be previously frozen.

              - Find a good fish monger, then befriend him/her.

              - If you don't have a fish monger, then start with fillets, since steaks are a bit tricker to prepare (but not by much).

              - Keep it simple. You want to prepare fish so that you are tasting fish, not sauce and seasonings.

              - If prepping frozen fish, thaw completely first.

              - Baking is usually not the best way to prep fish, esp. lean cuts like halibut or cod. Try pan-searing -- i.e., get a pan nice and hot, add a bit of oil or some other type of fat, then place fish skin side down first, and just leave it alone until it lifts with the slightest of nudge from a spatula, then flip it and let it sear for about another 1 or 2 minutes. Voila, perfectly pan-seared fish.

              But, like I said, we need more info on what you have tried and found lacking.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ipsedixit
                biondanonima May 20, 2011 01:31 PM

                I heartily second ipsedixit here. Baked fish is generally nasty to me - it exudes a bunch of liquid and basically just boils in those juices rather than developing any sort of caramelization/flavor. If i were going to put fish in the oven, I would only do it with something THICK and I would put it on a rack so that it stayed out of its own juice. I much MUCH prefer to pan-sear/saute pretty much any type of fish. Use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or better yet, a non-stick pan for the easiest results. Dipping in flour is nice, but optional!

              2. l
                Lady_Tenar May 19, 2011 04:33 PM

                It looks like nobody here has mentioned one of my favorites, rainbow trout. It's not too expensive, very healthy (it's an oily fish), and eco-friendly if you care about that kind of thing. You shouldn't have a problem finding it in Chicago. Usually they are sold skin-on and whole but already deboned. I cook them by dredging them in some flour or cornmeal and then searing them in a hot pan with butter, about 2 minutes per side until it's nice and browned.. Done in no time and absolutely delicious. You can make a pan sauce if you want to but all it really needs is a few squeezes of lemon and a little salt.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Lady_Tenar
                  DPGood May 19, 2011 04:47 PM

                  Love trout. Gotta keep it Eco-friendly. For that I use Seaffod Watch, a free Apple app.

                  1. re: Lady_Tenar
                    lemonseleven May 20, 2011 07:38 AM

                    I had some great rainbow trout when I was camping in the Smokey Mountains- I'll check that out up here. Thanks!

                  2. tim irvine May 19, 2011 04:13 PM

                    absolutely buy what's fresh. A technique I like that gets very little play is poaching. Enough water to cover the fish, throw in a little sliced onion, celery, a little wedge of lemon, a splash of wine, a blade of mace, some juniper berries...whatever. Cook without boiling. Sauce lightly if you like. Always thoroughly cooked but never dry. I love a thick chunk of cod or halibut with a SMALL amount of sage brown butter. Or a salmon steak with a little capered beurre blanc..

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tim irvine
                      DPGood May 19, 2011 04:16 PM

                      Yum! Fresh is best. Another way that works for me is en papillote. So easy, so good.

                      1. re: DPGood
                        gilintx May 20, 2011 04:24 AM

                        Papillote is a very forgiving technique, and if you don't happen to have parchment around, you can always just make foil packs. Shave some onion or shallots plus whatever other aromatics you might like (fennel, carrots, herbs), add a little butter, some white wine, and seal 'em up. Cook in a 350 oven (or on a grill) until they puff up (about 20 minutes, depending on the size of your fillet). Comes out beautifully every time.

                    2. d
                      DPGood May 19, 2011 03:48 PM

                      Another suggestion: find a good fishmonger near where you live. Tell him/her exactly what you said in your OP. Follow his/ her recommendations and go back afterwards and tell him/ her how that worked out for you. Better to go when they're not too busy. Get to know him/her. Let them get to know you.

                      The secret, as anyone will tell you, is to buy good fish and don't ruin it, meaning (mostly) don't overcook it. Keep it simple. BTW, good fish doesn't have to be expensive to be good.

                      You'll get the hang of it, so stick with it. You'll be richly rewarded.

                      1. JoanN May 19, 2011 03:35 PM

                        Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of "Fish Without a Doubt" by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore. I love fish, been cooking it all my life, have at least five fish cookbooks, and this book taught me super-simple techniques I'd never heard of before and now use on an almost weekly basis.

                        The book was Cookbook of the Month in March of 2009 and if you follow the links in this thread http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/600185 you'll see reviews of many of the recipes as well as some pix posted by those of us who tried them.

                        I wouldn't necessarily recommend that someone who was looking for a single recipe buy a book. But you say you love fish, which makes me assume you'll want to cook it often once you know how. This is a book you will be using for many years to come--and you can buy it used on amazon.com for less than half price: http://www.amazon.com/Fish-Without-Do...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: JoanN
                          lemonseleven May 20, 2011 07:37 AM

                          Oooh sounds interesting- I will definitely check that out. I remember Rick Moonen being the fish expert on Top Chef Masters.

                        2. f
                          ferret May 19, 2011 03:27 PM

                          Go to the FishGuy or Dirk's. FishGuy (Elston/Pulaski) has $10 Tuesdays - a number of his fresh fish offerings can be had for $10/lb. See what they have, ask for advice based on your tastes and they'll sell you something you'll be able to prepare. It's a good start and a good resource. Dirk's is also very good but can get pricey.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ferret
                            igorm May 21, 2011 09:13 AM

                            The other two recommendations in Chicago are Isaacson and Stein fish co.and Whole Foods. Isaacson and Stein is located 800 W. Fulton Market and is a wholesaler/retailer with the largest selection of seafood and good prices.

                          2. ROCKLES May 19, 2011 02:29 PM

                            Not that I would suggest using frozen fish unless you have too. If you do have to after thawing-wash with lime juice or lemon juice. That will help kill that fishy smell. As far as texture, choose a firmer fish like salmon or tuna, or halibut. Thinner fish tends to become mushy.
                            after defrosting try to bring up to room temperature for faster cooking and broil it.

                            1. i
                              Isolda May 19, 2011 02:22 PM

                              I would take this question straight to the market where you plan to buy your fresh fish. I don't know what fresh fish is availabe in Chicago now. But don't buy anything until you've smelled it. If it's fishy or smells like ammonia, choose another fish or a different market.

                              If you buy a filet, all you'll need is a little olive oil, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Bake 10-12 minutes at about 400, depending on the thickness. If you've got a fatter filet, you may need a few more minutes. In any case, your fish will turn opaque when done.

                              Another delicious preparation is to sprinkle your fish with lime zest, salt, pepper and a little melted butter, then bake and serve with a sauce of melted butter, lime juice, garlic, lime zest and salt. (Blend sauce in blender for a nice texture.)

                              My family's favorite sauce for mild fish is to mix up some tahini and lemon juice until the mixture becomes very stiff, then thin with water, salt to taste and spread that over the fish and bake. This makes a delicious, nutty-tasting fish that most people I have served it to really enjoy. I use this on cod mostly (we call it tahini cod), but have also used on tilapia and haddock.

                              I don't like the way frozen fish comes out, either, so I can't help with that.

                              10 Replies
                              1. re: Isolda
                                hotoynoodle May 19, 2011 02:25 PM

                                if the op is cooking a filet of sole, 10 minutes and the piece would be ruined. this sounds like a lot even for something thicker like salmon, unless you want it well-done.

                                1. re: hotoynoodle
                                  Isolda May 19, 2011 02:55 PM

                                  I wasn't thinking sole, but that's a good point. And I do like my fish well done, but not too dry, or else it should be completely raw. (Dishes like seared tuna just aren't my thing.) However, I have cooked many types of fish for 10-12 minutes and they were just barely done. I'm pretty sure my oven temp is correct, because I do a lot of baking and stuff usually comes out well.

                                  So maybe it's the pan I use (usu a pyrex dish)? Or my idea of cooked is other people's idea of overcooked? Or the pan is more crowded than it should be?

                                  1. re: Isolda
                                    nobadfoodplz May 19, 2011 03:16 PM


                                    Is the pan hot or room temperature when you place in the oven. If it is room temperature only the top is taking advantage of the heated oven while the bottom half is waiting for the 70 degree pan to catch up to 400 degrees. I always found it better to preheat the pan for better consistency..

                                    1. re: nobadfoodplz
                                      Isolda May 19, 2011 03:24 PM

                                      Can i preheat a pyrex dish? I'm always afraid of shattering it. ETA: I do have older pyrex (20 years +) so it's not the scary new stuff you always hear about in the news, but because I like it, I don't want to wreck it.

                                      1. re: Isolda
                                        nobadfoodplz May 19, 2011 07:24 PM

                                        I've done it a few times. I would recommend placing it in the oven when you turn it on so it does not have the sudden temperature change.

                                        I agree, never place from fridge / freezer directly into pre-heated oven.

                                        1. re: Isolda
                                          thimes May 21, 2011 08:02 AM

                                          I wouldn't use pyrex at all for this. Putting the cold wet fish into the hot pyrex could cause it to shatter as well.

                                        2. re: nobadfoodplz
                                          Jay F May 20, 2011 07:40 AM

                                          I heat my pan (Le Creuset roaster or au gratin pan) in the oven or (watching constantly) on top of the stove before I put what I'm cooking in it. Usually I cook potatoes and/or other veg in the oven (S & P & EVOO), then put a piece of fish in when I have 10 minutes to go. I go by the 10 min. per inch rule, but generally take it out sooner. I like salmon rare, bluefish cooked all the way. It just depends. Roasting has turned out to be my favorite way to cook fish indoors (I like most pan-fried fish, but wanted to cut flour out of my diet).

                                          My rule for cooking fish is buy the best you can afford, at a good fish market. Stuff from most supermarkets convinced me over the years that I no longer liked fish, and then I discovered a great fish market (Penn Avenue Fish Company in Pittsburgh PA).

                                          1. re: Jay F
                                            Isolda May 20, 2011 10:56 AM

                                            I think I may switch to a metal pan. Love roasted veggies with the fish in the same pan. This will give me another use for my fabulous new All-Clad roaster. Got it for Christmas and can't believe how superior it is to my old crappy no-name one.

                                        3. re: Isolda
                                          mpalmer6c Jun 18, 2011 10:18 PM

                                          It's very simple on the stovetop cook 10 minutes
                                          pe r icnch of tickness on low to medium heat.. ThisSo for filet of sole, it's just 5 minutes
                                          per inch. This is perfect. If you don't like this, well, you may just not
                                          like the texture of fish.


                                          this is not rare, it is perfect. If you don't like this, well,


                                      2. re: Isolda
                                        nobadfoodplz May 19, 2011 02:45 PM

                                        hotoynoodle is correct. At 400 degrees you are bake 8-10 per 1" of thickness (not tuna, different preparation).

                                      3. hotoynoodle May 19, 2011 02:21 PM

                                        what do you like? if you don't like scallops, say, or mackerel, it's kinda pointless to write how i make them isn't it?

                                        is there a decent fishmonger near you?

                                        i live in boston, so pretty much never buy frozen fish (occasionally shrimp, but that's it) so can't offer help cooking the frozen stuff.

                                        make sure it's super-fresh, and start simple. pan-searing or baking in the oven and take care to not over-cook.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: hotoynoodle
                                          acbell May 20, 2011 11:01 AM


                                          Would you mind sharing the name of your fishmonger? I'm in Boston too and have been searching for a good one!


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