After a childhood spent hating fish — and another 20 years of eating it only when fried — I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to cooking what I catch. Only over the course of the last few years have I started rounding out my game, learning different ways of cooking fish that don’t require a pot of boiling oil. Here are six techniques I’ve mastered that every cook should know for cooking the perfect fish.
For whatever reason, poaching fish sounded intimidating, but it’s actually one of the easiest techniques there is. It works well with any white-fleshed fish, especially thinner fillets. The secret is in the simmering liquid, which should carry a lot of the flavor, and a bit of vigilance. For the former, a classic court bouillon made of equal parts water and white wine along with a squeeze of lemon and a few fresh herbs is simple. A tomato-based poaching liquid also works well. Either way, bring the liquid just to the boiling point to the flavors come together then lower it to a light simmer before adding the fish. It’s said a round piece of parchment paper floated on the liquid keeps it from evaporating, but cook times are typically so short—about 5 to 7 minutes per fillet—that I find it isn’t necessary for the home cook.
A lot of folks get freaked out about flipping fish in a pan, because that’s when thin, delicate fillets fall apart. After learning how to sear the perfect fish from Hank Shaw, I decided to adapt his technique without the flip, particularly when using a thin piece of catfish, panfish, or walleye. Instead, I rely on near constant basting with the hot butter from the pan with a little white wine added to cook the fish through. It’s a bit of work and requires some heat management to ensure the down-side doesn’t burn, but it eliminates any chance of ending up with pan full of fish bits. For thicker cuts of fish, like halibut or salmon, a flip is usually necessary.
3. Whole Roasting
Grilling a whole, gutted fish, like redfish or sea bass, is a good technique and one you should learn, but roasting one is easier and you still benefit from the kick-ass presentation of serving a fish—head and all. It’s not at all difficult either, once you figure out how to check for doneness. Figure it will take about 10 minutes per inch measured at the fish’s thickest point when roasted at 450 degrees. When you think it’s getting close to done, make a small slit with a paring knife down to middle of the fish. When the meat is opaque and the juices are clear, it’s done. (If you’d rather grill a whole fish, Johnathan Miles has a foolproof recipe here.)
I’ll admit I was skeptical of this technique before a friend served me cedar-planked salmon at a summer barbecue. Now I am hooked. It’s amazing the flavor the cedar imparts and they couldn’t be easier to use. Just be sure to soak the planks for at least a couple of hours to prevent over-charring them on the grill. Water works fine for the soaking, but don’t be afraid to experiment with wine or stock, and feel free to lay a base of lemon slices and/or herbs between the plank and the fish of your choosing. (And don’t think you have to stick to salmon.)
According to my good friend Scott Leysath, better known as the Sporting Chef, there’s fish cooked with blackened seasoning and then there’s true blackened fish the way the Cajuns do it. This requires a screaming hot skillet and a disabled smoke detector. Better yet, do it outside with a sturdy cast-iron pan and a high-BTU burner. You can still use commercial blackened seasoning, or you can make your own using Leysath’s recipe. Either way, be prepared for a lot of smoke. I mean A LOT. You’ll know you’re doing it right if the fire department shows up.
If you’re practicing all these techniques for cooking the perfect fish, you’re going to have some left over. In my mind, there are only two acceptable ways of eating leftover fish—cold while standing in front of the fridge late at night, or as fish cakes. How the latter tastes on the plate depends on how the fish was originally prepared, but there are a few requirements for the perfect fish cake: mashed potatoes, a beaten egg with a little bit of butter, panko, and a sprinkle of Old Bay.