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How to Cook Fish


Fish is finding its way onto more tables than ever before. Everywhere you look, people are singing the praises of seafood. It cooks quickly and is very versatile, not to mention delicious and nutritious. Nowadays, nearly everybody recognizes that fish are a good source of protein and rich in healthy oils.

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Here are some fish recipes from our collection:


Despite this growing popularity and glowing press reviews, most fish is still eaten out. Many cooks are simply reluctant to try cooking fish at home, and they are unsure about how to buy the right type and handle it properly. This article will give you the facts, and the confidence, you need to start making fish a more regular part of your
home cooking repertoire.

There are so many ways to prepare fish and so many different varieties that you could probably eat a different fish dish every day of the year and not even make a dent. Traditional preparations
are always popular, but with growing interest in global cuisines, more ethnic fish recipes are entering the mainstream. Surprisingly, few of them are complicated or difficult.

It's important not to overcook fish, as this makes the meat tough and destroys flavor. Fish is done cooking when the flesh turns opaque and begins to flake easily when tested with a fork. Cooking times vary with each fish and cut. The following are typical cooking times:

  • 10 minutes per inch of fish
  • 5 minutes per inch of fish cooked in a sauce
  • 20 minutes per inch of fish if frozen

If you simply master a few basic preparation steps and easy cooking techniques, you can cook just about any fish recipe on the planet. Before you delve into each technique, however, take a look at the chart on the next page that provides some helpful information on all types of fish.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.

Fish Cooking Chart

One of the factors that potential cooks find so intimidating about buying fish is the sheer number of varieties available. To help you manage the options and narrow your selection, we've provided you with this handy chart:


   Availability  Type of Fish
 Cooking Methods
Bluefish year round
fatty  baking, broiling, grilling 
Cod year round   lean  poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying 
Cusk  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Flounder  year round 
lean
poaching, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Grouper  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Haddock  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Hake  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Halibut  early spring to early fall  lean
poaching, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Ling  year round 
lean
stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Mahi Mahi  year round 
medium-fatty
broiling, grilling
Monkfish  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Orange Roughy  year round 
lean
poaching, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Perch  year round 
lean
poaching, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Red Snapper  summer  lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Salmon  summer to fall  fatty  poaching, baking, broiling, grilling
Sea Bass  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, pan-frying
Shark  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Skate  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Sole  year round 
lean
poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Swordfish
late spring to early fall
medium-fatty
poaching, baking, broiling, grilling
Trout
year round 
fatty
stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Tuna
late spring to early fall
fatty
baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Clams
summer
mollusk
baking, steaming
Crabs
summer to winter
crustacean
poaching, stewing, steaming
Lobster
spring to summer
crustacean poaching, steaming
Mussels
early fall to spring
mollusk
baking, steaming,
Oysters
early fall to spring
mollusk baking
Scallops, Bay
fall
mollusk poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, frying
Scallops, Sea
mid fall to mid spring
mollusk poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, frying
Shrimp
year round 
crustacean poaching, stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying
Squid
fall to winter
mollusk stewing, frying

Now that you have all of this great information at your fingertips, it's time to learn about going out and purchasing fish for your next meal. Find tips in the next section.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.

How to Buy Fish

The first step in becoming a seafood aficionado is buying the right type of fish for your recipe. The seafood counter at your local supermarket can be a little intimidating, but here is a quick guide for choosing the perfect fish.

Try It!
Here are some fish recipes from our collection:
Types of Fish

There are literally hundreds of species of fish readily available today. From this vast variety there are bound to be types sure to please any taste.

Fresh fish are generally separated into two categories -- lean and fatty. Lean fish contain 1% to 5% fat. Fatty fish contain 5% to 35% fat,
which makes their flesh darker, richer, and stronger tasting than lean fish.

The type of fish is an important factor when it comes time for preparation and cooking. For
easy reference to types of fish, their availability, and preferred cooking methods, we've created a handy Fish Cooking Chart for your reference. Due to the wide variety of fish, this chart only covers the fish that are readily available at supermarkets and retail fish markets.

Fish also are categorized as either round fish -- fish with rounder bodies and one eye on each side of the head -- or flat fish. Flat fish have both eyes on one side of the head. Depending on whether they are flat or round, fish also come in various cuts:

Whole fish of both types are sold with the head, tail, fins, and scales intact and must be gutted and scaled before cooking. Dressed fish are gutted and scaled with the head, tails, and fins intact. Pan-dressed fish are dressed and have the head and tail cut off so that the fish fits into a skillet. If fresh whole fish is readily available, you not only benefit economically but also receive the highest quality in freshness and taste. The skin acts as a protective covering and keeps the fish more flavorful and juicy.

Whole fish is the cheapest, freshest fish, but they require a great deal of preparation.
Whole fish is usually the cheapest, freshest fish you can buy, but it
also requires a great deal of preparation.


Fillets are boneless pieces or sections of any kind of fish; they may or may not be skinless.

Filets come deboned and skinless, and are ready to cook.
Fillets come deboned and are ready to cook.

Steaks are the cross sections from large round fish; they vary from 3/4 to 1 inch in thickness. Steaks contain part of the backbone and often the outside edge is covered with skin.

Steaks are a cross-section or slice of a large round fish.
Steaks are a cross-section or slice of a large round fish.

Purchasing Fish

It is important to know what to look for when purchasing fresh fish. One can find fresh fish at most large supermarkets or at a retail fish market. An independent retail fish market usually buys its fish on a daily basis, whereas chain stores order in large quantities and usually do not receive daily shipments.

When buying whole fish, first look at the eyes. A fresh fish has bright, clear, and protruding eyes rather than dull, hazy, sunken ones. The skin should be moist and shiny, the gills red or pink, and the flesh firm and elastic. The odor is also a sure sign of freshness. A fresh fish has a fresh, slightly oceanlike, mild odor. If there is a distinct fishy, sour smell, do not buy it.

When purchasing fillets and steaks, look for cuts with moist flesh that is free from discoloration
and skin that is shiny and resilient. Again, if the fillet or steak has an off odor, do not buy it.

When purchasing frozen fish, the package
should still have its original shape with the wrapper intact. There should be no ice crystals, visible blood, or discoloration on the skin and flesh. Select frozen fish packages from below the load line of the freezer case and do not allow them to thaw on the way home from the store.

When storing fish, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. If possible, set the package on ice and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Be sure melting ice drains away from the fish. If the flesh comes in contact with moisture, it may become discolored and dried out. Fresh fish should be used within 1 to 2 days.

To freeze fish, wrap it tightly with freezer paper or heavy-duty plastic wrap, or place in a freezer-weight plastic storage bag. Label the package with the type, cut, and weight of the fish and the date. Freeze lean fish up to 6 months and fatty fish up to 3 months. To maintain the texture and quality during thawing, place the package in a dish and thaw the fish overnight in the refrigerator. Drain the fish and pat it dry with paper towels before using.

Now that you have selected the right fish, it's time to start cooking. In the next section, we will show you how to fillet your fish.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.

Filleting Fish

In most modern markets, you can get the fish department to prepare the fish just about any way you want it. But you should still know the basic techniques for filleting and skinning a whole fish, just in case you have the need.

Traditionally, fish are classified as either a round fish or a flat fish. Round fish, those with rounder, larger bellies and an eye on each side of their heads, have a backbone along their upper bodies, with a fillet located on each side. Round fish include cod, trout, bass, snapper, salmon, pike, haddock, hake, and whiting.
How Much to Buy?
The amount of fish to purchase per serving varies according to the cut. Here are some general guidelines to follow:
  • Whole fish -- 3/4 to 1 pound per serving
  • Dressed fish -- 1/2 to 3/4 pound per serving
  • Pan-dressed fish -- 1/3 pound per serving
  • Fillets -- 1/4 to 1/3 pound per serving
  • Steaks -- 1/4 to 1/3 pound per serving

A flat fish has an oval-shaped, flat, and narrow body. As a flat fish matures, its swimming style becomes horizontal rather than vertical and its eyes move to one side of the head. Flat fish include sole, flounder, and halibut.

Flat fish are generally sold already filleted. For this reason, this section focuses on filleting round fish:
  1. Leave the head and tail intact. Cut the fish along the backbone from just behind the head to the tail with a sharp utility knife. Then make a cut just behind the head to the backbone.

    Filleting a fish begins with a long incision down the fish's backbone.
    Filleting a fish begins with a long incision down the fish's backbone.

  2. Holding a utility knife flat and parallel to the body of the fish, carefully cut away the delicate flesh along the backbone to the tail. Cut over the rib bones to loosen the flesh completely. Remove the fillet; turn the fish over and repeat this procedure.

    To remove the fillet, cut along the rib bones.
    To remove the fillet, cut along the rib bones.

  3. To skin a fillet, place it skin side down on a cutting board. Holding the blade of a sharp utility knife almost flat, insert it between the skin and flesh at the tail end. Then hold the skin in one hand and cut the skin away from the flesh using a sawing motion. You should be working away from you.

Carefully cut away the skin using a sawing motion.
Carefully cut away the skin using a sawing motion.

Once you've got the filleting technique down, you're ready to start cookin'! See the next section for tips on pan frying fish.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.

How to Pan-Fry Fish Fillets

One delicious way to prepare fish that has been filleted to Southern pan-frying. This method usually involves a cast-iron skillet, but any heavy skillet will suffice.
  1. Rinse fish pieces and pat dry with paper towels.

  2. Dip fish in coating mixture of your choice.

    Coat the fish in a mixture of your choice.
    Coat the fish in a mixture of your choice.

  3. Heat 1 inch of oil in large, heavy saucepan over medium heat until a fresh bread cube placed in oil browns in 45 seconds (about 365 degrees Fahrenheit).

    Use a heavy saucepan to heat the oil to avoid burning.
    Heat the oil until a cube of bread browns in 45 seconds.

  4. Fry fish, a few pieces at a time, 4 to 5 minutes or until golden brown and fish flakes easily when tested with fork. Adjust heat to maintain temperature. (Allow temperature of oil to return to 365 degrees Fahrenheit between each batch.) Drain fish on paper towels.
Looking for a healthier method? Check out the next section for tips on baking fish.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.

How to Bake Fish

Baking refers to cooking with a dry heat, usually in an oven. Because the heat is dry, when baking fish it is important to keep the fish moisturized.

To bake stuffed whole round fish:

Please note: The photographs below show a whole red snapper (about 2 pounds). Fish should be gutted and scaled with head and tail left on.
  1. Rinse fish and pat dry with paper towels. Season fish with salt and pepper both inside the cavity and on the outside. Place fish in a rectangular or oval baking pan.

  2. Spoon stuffing mixture into cavity of fish. Add fresh herbs, if desired.

    Your stuffing mixture will go directly into the cavity of the fish.
    Your stuffing mixture will go directly into the cavity of the fish.

  3. Drizzle fish with oil; sprinkle with chopped parsley.

  4. Bake 30 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork, basting occasionally with pan juices.

    Occasionally baste your fish with the juices released from cooking.
    Occasionally baste your fish with the juices released from cooking.
To bake stuffed whole flat fish:

Please note: The photographs below show a whole flounder (about 1 to 11/4 pounds). Whole flat fish such as flounder may need to be special ordered from your local market's fish department. Fish should be gutted and scaled with head and tail left on.
  1. Rinse whole flat fish and pat dry with paper towels. Place fish on greased baking sheet with head side up. Cut slit down backbone in the center of the top of the fish, using sharp utility knife.

    Grease your baking sheet before you place the fish to avoid sticking.
    Grease your baking sheet before you place the fish to avoid sticking.

  2. Starting on side of fish, insert knife horizontally into slit. Begin cutting, about 1 inch from head, between flesh and bone, stopping just before tail to form pocket. Cut another pocket on other side of slit.

    Begin you cut just below the head and stop just above the tail.
    Begin your cut just below the head and stop just above the tail.

  3. Prepare stuffing and spoon mixture evenly into prepared fish pockets.

    Place your stuffing evenly throughout the fish.
    Place your stuffing evenly throughout the fish.

  4. Sprinkle fish with breadcrumbs and drizzle with butter.

  5. Bake 25 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with fork.
Poaching is another excellent option for fish. Learn about this cooking method on the next page.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.

How to Poach Fish

Poaching refers to the technique of cooking food slowly and gently in a simmering, but not boiling, liquid. The poaching liquid may be flavored or seasoned. This flavor will then transfer to the fish. Here's how to poach fish steaks:
  1. Rinse fish steaks and pat dry with paper towels.

  2. Place fish in saucepan just the size to hold them. Add enough poaching liquid to barely cover fish.

    Add enough liquid to just barely cover the fish.
    Add enough liquid to just barely cover the fish.

  3. Bring liquid to a simmer over medium heat. (Do not boil. This will cause fish to break apart.) Adjust heat, if necessary, to keep liquid at a simmer.

  4. Simmer 10 minutes or until center is opaque and fish flakes easily when tested with fork.

  5. Remove fish with slotted spatula.

  6. Remove skin and bones from fish with paring knife.

    Before serving, remove the skin and bones.
    Before serving, remove the skin and bones.
Cooking fish in parchment is a great way to keep moisture in. Find out more in the next section.

Want more information? Try these:
  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.

How to Cook Fish in Parchment

Cooking fish in parchment not only cuts down on the mess, but it also keeps your fish moist during cooking.
  1. Rinse fillets and pat dry with paper towels.

  2. Lightly butter inside of each parchment heart. Place 1 piece of fish on 1 side of each heart.

    Lightly butter each side of the parchment before placing the fish.
    Lightly butter each side of the parchment before placing the fish.

  3. Add additional ingredients, such as vegetables, and flavorings.

  4. Fold parchment hearts in half. Beginning at top of heart, fold the edges together, 2 inches at a time. At tip of heart, fold paper up and over.

    Seal the fish inside by folding the parchment in half.
    Seal the fish inside by folding the parchment in half.

  5. Place hearts on large baking sheet. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with fork. To serve, place hearts on plates and cut an "X" through top layer of parchment, folding points back to display contents.

    Place the fish directly on the serving plate inside the parchment.
    Place the fish directly on the serving plate inside the parchment.

While there are a few more health and sanitary issues to consider when cooking fish, it truly is no more difficult that any other meat. And, with all of the health benefits seafood provides, it more than makes up for its shortcomings.

Want more information? Try these:

  • Cooking: Learn the ins and outs of some basic cooking techniques in this helpful article.
  • Cooking Seafood: Get your feet wet by exploring the best ways to prepare seafood.
  • Fish Recipes: Reel in dozens of amazing fish recipes from this article.
  • Shellfish: From shrimp and lobster to clams, mussels, and more, you'll find valuable information on shellfish at HowStuffWorks.