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How To Cook Fish – The Ultimate Guide

By colm
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It doesn’t matter what the recipe says, or what species of fish you happen to be cooking, whether its whole or cut into fillets, or if your baking, pan-frying, or poaching. When it comes to cooking  fish I’ve got  a  golden rule…..

how to cook fish

Whatever you do….don’t overcook it.

I like to eat my salmon pink and It hasn’t killed me. The japanese have been eating raw fish for centuries and it hasn’t done them any harm. As long as your fish is perfectly fresh then you can eat it when it’s a little underdone, it’s so succulent and delicious with the center translucent and just cooked.

It’s definitely better than if you’d overcooked it and your fish is dry, has an unpleasant texture, and lacks flavour. Any time your cooking fish don’t worry if you took if off early, you can always cook it a little more but once it’s overcooked all you can do is serve it to your cat.

Fish is the ultimate fast food. Cooking times are measured in minutes. There’s no long drawn out cooking to soften tough fibers or a need to rest it like meat. Throw a pan on the heat add a knob of butter and heat it till its foaming, fry your fish for a couple of minutes and finish it with some freshly chopped herbs and a squeeze of lemon and you have a supper fit for a king cooked in minutes.

Before you put your fish anywhere near the heat you’ve got to buy and prepare it. I’ve written a post about the beat way to find the freshest fish possible, you can read it here. I’m also not going to go into detail about how to gut, fillet, and scale fish. Get your fish monger to do this donkey work. He can do a far better job in a lot less time than you can do at home.

To cook the perfect piece of fish it will help to know what heat does to its delicate flesh.

How Heat Transforms Fish

The flesh of raw fish reacts to heat in exactly the same way that meat does. The big difference is that fish is a lot more delicate and sensitive to heat.


When cooking anything the aim is to get the texture right. To do this you’ve got to cook food to a certain temperature. With meat that temperature is 60c / 140f. Once it reaches that temperature a protein called collagen collapses and moisture is squeezed from the meat. In fish cookery collagen doesn’t play the same role. Instead it’s a protein called myosin that determines moisture loss in fish and it’s really sensitive to heat.

I could go on but enough of the science before i bore you all to tears (I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to this stuff) All you really need to know is that by the time a piece of fish reaches 50c / 120f fluid loss is already well under way and by the time its at 60c /140f its starting to dry out.

Generally speaking fish will be cooked and still moist at around 55 c / 130f so that’s the best temperature to aim for. By comparison a fillet steak cooked to this temperature would still be really rare and quite bloody.

But how do you know when it’s reached this temperature? When is it cooked just right?

How To Know When Your Fish Is Cooked

Check it early and check it often, is a good rule for cooks to follow. Fish cooks a lot quicker than you think and it’s a fact that most people cook fish for far too long. Watch a piece of fish as it cooks and notice the subtle changes in the colour of its flesh, its texture, and smell.

  • Sight – as fish cooks the flesh turns from translucent to opaque. This is most noticeable with species like salmon or trout. When the flesh turns from a deep pink to a lighter shade it’s ready.
  • Touch – This takes a little practice but if you think about a fillet of fish in its raw state, how soft the flesh is with a slight bounce. As heat is applied it loses moisture and the flesh starts to firm up. A perfectly cooked piece of fish will give very slightly when you press it.
  • Texture – cooked fish has a flakiness to it. When the fish is raw the flakes are bunched together but when it’s perfectly cooked their easy to prise apart.
  • Smell – Raw fish doesn’t smell (unless it’s not fresh) but as you apply heat the appetizing aroma intensifies. The mild flavour of raw fish gets stronger and more complex as the heat gets turned up.

There’s a load of ways you can test a piece of fish to see if it’s cooked.  If it’s got a flakey type of flesh you can peer in between them to see if it’s ready. You can try to pull out a bone if it’s got any, and it comes out easily then it’s done. Pierce the fish with a toothpick or skewer and  if it goes into the flesh without much resistance then you know it’s cooked, or place the skewer on your bottom lip to see if it’s hot.

After you’ve been cooking fish for a while you won’t need any of them. You’ll develop a sixth sense and will know simply by looking at it that it’s ready and a quick press on its flesh will confirm that it’s good to go.

Remember that fish will continue to cook after you remove it from the heat so even if you think it’s a little under, take it off anyway, odds are it will finish cooking before you sit down to eat it.

Before you attempt any fish recipe though, there’s two things you really need to know.

The Two Problems Every Fish Cook Faces

Not all fish are the same and how they respond to heat can vary widely. Species like cod, hake, and haddock have a flakey flesh that heat can penetrate rapidly. Others like tuna and swordfish  have a flesh that’s more dense and contain a lot more protein, so it takes a lot longer for the heat to penetrate the flesh and for the fish to cook.

different types of fish flesh
The dense flesh of tuna (left) would take longer to cook than the flakier flesh of salmon (middle) if you were inclined to cook it well done. While salmon in turn takes longer than the really flakey cod (right)

Fat also transfers heat more slowly than protein. So a fatty fish will take longer to cook than a leaner species of the same size. That’s why oily fish like salmon and mackerel take longer to cook than white fish like cod or haddock.

Even the very same species of fish can have a high protein or fat content one month and be depleted and cook much quicker the next. So just because you gave a piece of cod 10 minutes in the oven and it was cooked perfectly today, doesn’t mean it will be cooked  in 10 minutes tomorrow.

This may seem like stating the obvious but the next problem is that fish is not a regular shape, whether it’s whole or cut into fillets. It’s thick in the center than tapers down to the tail and at the edges. This means that the thin areas get overcooked while the thick part in the centre is still way underdone especially when you’re cooking whole fish or larger fillets.

different shapes of fish

There are a number of ways around this problem. You can cook the fish on a really gentle heat so that the outer parts of the fish don’t get badly overcooked. Slow baking in an oven or moist cooking methods like steaming and poaching are good ways to do this.

You could cover the thinner parts with foil so that heat doesn’t penetrate them as rapidly or cut them off altogether so that your piece of fish is a more regular shape. None of these solutions is ideal for every situation though.

The best and most convenient way to overcome this problem is to cut incisions in the thick part of the flesh to allow the heat to penetrate more rapidly. Not only does this help to cook the fish evenly, but it also looks good for presentation and can help get the skin nice and crisp if you’re pan-frying.

Prepared fish

Seasoning Fish

The last thing you’ve got to do before the fish hits the pan is season it. There’s been much debate amongst chefs about when it’s best to season food. Before, during, or after cooking.

When it comes to fish though you’ll want to get it out of the fridge about half an hour before you’re going to cook it and season it with a little salt. This helps to get it back up to room temperature so it cooks more evenly. While a little pre-salting helps to magically improve the fish’s texture and boost the natural sweet flavour.

The salt also removes the outer layer of moisture and firms up the flesh which is handy for getting the skin brown and crispy if you’re planing on pan frying or grilling your fish.

Whether you use pepper as a seasoning on fish is really up to you. Personally I find it a little overpowering for most fish dishes. So if you like a bit of pepper, go easy. Having said that there’s some types of fish like mackerel and salmon that love pepper. It’s all subjective really but one thing I would say is be careful using whole or cracked pepper.  It tends to burn if your frying or grilling, ruining your fish and making it taste bitter.

Fish is a very versatile ingredient and unlike meat most cuts and species can be teamed up with almost any cooking method with good results though there are a couple of exceptions.

How To Pan-Fry Fish

Searing, sauteing, or shallow frying. Call it what you will but it’s the cooking method most loved by chefs everywhere because it’s quick, controllable, and delicious. There’s really nothing like a freshly seared piece of fish with a crispy skin and a moist, sweet, melting interior.

pan fried fish

Pan-frying fish is good for you too, there’s only a little oil used which keeps the calories down. It’s also dead easy to do once you’ve invested in a good quality non stick pan.

Pan-frying is most suited to thicker fillets with the skin left on though smaller whole fish like sardines, farmed sea bass, or red mullet also work well. Always ask your fish monger to scale your fish if you’re planing on frying it. There’s nothing worse eating a perfectly cooked piece of fish and ending up with a mouth full of scales.

When your pan-frying fish use olive, sunflower, or groundnut oil. Don’t bother with second-rate oil and never use margarine. Butter is great and really adds to the flavour but unfortunately it tends to burn at the high temperature that’s needed to get a crispy skin. You can avoid this by using unsalted butter or better still butter that’s been clarified. For the best results use a combination of oil and clarified butter. This raises the burning point of the butter high enough to cook most fish. If you’re using thin fillets you might get away with butter on its own.

To pan-fry fish put a pan on the heat and let it get quite hot before you add the oil. When the oil is good and hot the fish goes in skin side down. Don’t overcrowd the pan because it lowers the temperature of the fat. Press the fish gently to the pan for about 20 seconds to maximise contact between the skin and the hot surface. Avoid the strong urge you’ll probably have to move the fish about or to shake the pan around. If you’re not using a non stick pan and you fiddle with it at this stage there’s a chance it might stick to the pan and you’ll end up with a right old mess.

Let the fish cook on the skin side till it crunchy, caramelized, and golden before turning it over and lowering the temperature a little so that the heat can penetrate without burning. Thin fillets will just take a couple of minutes each side but will need a hotter pan to get the crispy skin we’re after. While thicker cuts might need to be finished in the oven.

Coating fish in flower is not strictly necessary but it does give a lovely finish and a light crust. The best way to do this is to season some flour quite generously with salt and pepper and just before the fish hits the pan give it a good coating shaking off the excess.

Lastly make sure to serve the fish skin side up if you want it to stay crispy. Very often if you serve it skin side down it will reabsorb moisture and begin to soften. The skin needs contact with air to stay crisp.

How To Stir-Fry Fish

Stir-Frying is not a cooking method used to cook fish all that often and with good reason. The flaky nature of most varieties means it’s just not suitable and most species will simply fall apart with all that tossing and stirring around.

There a few types of fish that I’ll get the wok out for occasionally. Tuna, swordfish, shark, and my personal favourite squid can all go in a stir fry without breaking apart.

To stir fry fish you really need a wok and a violent flame. If you happen to cook on electricity your out of luck, it simply won’t provide the fierce heat that’s required, gas is the man. A traditional chinese wok also works 10 times better than a large frying pan, it’s so much better at conducting heat.

When you’re stir-frying fish cut it into strips and coat it in a little flour or cornflour. This helps it hold together a bit better. Try not to toss or stir the wok as vigorously as you normally would if you don’t want your fish to collapse into a flurry of flakes.

How To Deep-Fry Fish

Who doesn’t enjoy a traditional fish and chips for their supper every now and again. It’s a dish that never goes out of fashion. Normally Cod is the fish of choice but if you want to eat a more sustainable species than any flakey white fish will work. Hake, haddock, whiting and pollock are all good alternatives.

There’s a couple of other varieties you can use too. Halibut, anchovies, squid, whitebait, place, sole, and tilapia can all go in the deep-fryer. No matter what fish you’re using it’s going to need a coating to protect its delicate flesh from the extreme heat of the oil.

The coating can be as light as a dusting of flour or something more substantial like breadcrumbs or batter. Make sure the fish it totally covered by the coating and dip it in just before you’re about to cook it, the one exception is breadcrumbs which work better if you give them a couple of hours to set.

The coating creates a barrier between the fish and the oil that stops moisture escaping. So the fish gets slowly and evenly cooked from all sides while the coating becomes brown and crispy . If there was no coating on the fish it would dry out rapidly and over cook in the hot oil.

The best temperature to deep-fry fish is at 180 /190c (350/375 f) You can test the oil to see if it’s hot enough by dropping in a piece of bread. If it starts to sizzle then you’re ready to go. Never start deep-frying fish in oil that’s not hot enough. I can guarantee it will turn out soggy and a bit greasy.

Be careful when sliding your fish into the hot fat. I’ve spent my entire working life in professional kitchens and it’s a fact that the deep fat fryer is the number one cause of accidents.

how to deep fry fish

Only cook a couple of pieces of fish at a time. Overcrowding causes the temperature of the oil to plummet and you run the risk of the fish absorbing a lot of oil and turning out greasy. When it’s cooked all you have to do is drain it well, sprinkle it with some flakey sea salt, cut some lemon wedges, and get the tartar sauce out.

If I’m doing any deep-frying at home I like to use my wok. It conducts heat well and its sloping sides means you don’t need that much oil. If you’re in a hurry deep-frying is the definitely way to go. It’s so quick, especially if you make my favourite, the classic Japanese tempura batter.

To make it, quickly mix some eggs, cornflour, and ice-cold water together. Than just cut the fish up quite small and give it a quick coating in a little flour before dipping it in the batter and frying it in the hot oil. The icy water makes the batter very viscous and it clings to the fish producing a super crispy result. You don’t even have to worry about mixing it that well, tempura batter works best if it’s a little lumpy.

Always make a tempura batter just before you’re ready to cook your fish. You want it to be as fresh as possible so the flour particles haven’t been given enough time to absorb water and they evaporate from the surface quickly producing a super crispy piece of fish. Tempura batter doesn’t need time to rest and it doesn’t like to wait around.

Grilling, Broiling, And Barbecuing Fish

Grilling, broiling, and barbecuing are all excellent ways to cook fish. It’s so easy and quick. Plus you get a nicely browned exterior and a moist succulent center. Unfortunately we don’t really get the weather here in Ireland to do much cooking on the bbq but under a hot grill is one of my favourite ways to cook fish.

It requires only a little attention and if you line your grill pan with some foil you’ll save yourself a bit of washing up. Cooking under a flame like this is best suited to small fillets. They get nice and crisp on the outside but stay moist and melting in the center.

How to grill fish
Cooking fish under a grill is quick and convenient

When it comes to a bbq or cooking over coals chunky steaks cut from larger fish like tuna, halibut, monkfish, and swordfish work better. Though you could use some smaller whole fish like bass, mackerel, sardines, or mullet.

The best fish to use are ones that are firm enough to hold together and not fall apart on the grill or bbq as they cook. If you’re going to cook fish on a bbq or chargrill try to turn it just the once. Too much fiddling with it can end in disaster. Theres closed wire racks that you can buy to support the fish as it cooks. They make it so much easier to turn the fish over and move it about. So if you’re planning on doing a lot of fish barbecue getting one would be a worthwhile investment.

It’s a nice coincidence that the types of fish that work well on a grill or bbq can also handle a marinade. You don’t even have to get too complicated here. Simply coat your fish with a glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, a little garlic, and some freshly chopped herbs about an hour before you plan to cook it for an added flavour boost.

If you’re grilling or broiling fish remember to pre-heat the grill for a good five minutes before you start cooking. If you’re lucky enough to have the weather for a bbq let the flames die down and wait till the coals are blistering hot and at the peak of their searing power before you throw the fish on.

Brush both the fish and the grill rack with oil to prevent sticking. Grill your fish as close to the heat source as possible so that you get a crispy exterior without overcooking the inside. To do this you’ve got to balance the thickness of the fish with the distance from the heat source. This can prove a little tricky and takes a bit of practice. We’ve all been to barbecues where the food was burnt to a crisp on the outside but raw in the middle, something you’ll what you want to avoid.

Cooking Fish In the Oven – Steaming, Baking And Roasting

how to bake a fish in the oven

When I think about it, it’s not that often you technically bake fish and just because you’re using the oven doesn’t mean your baking. It seems to me the only foods you ever really bake our cakes, pastries, and potatoes

If you cover the fish in any way either with a lid, foil, or greaseproof paper then what’s really happening is steaming also known as cooking en-papillote. it’s a great way to cook fish, convenient for smaller or thinner fillets. It keeps the moisture in so the flesh remains succulent and doesn’t dry out.

If you cook fish uncovered in the oven with  the aid of  oil then you’re not baking either, you’re roasting. Another excellent method of fish cookery and one restaurant chef use quite a bit because it’s so convenient and controllable. Very often we’ll fry a fillet of fish in a pan to get the skin golden before transferring it to the oven, pan and all to finish it off. The fish gets heat from all directions and cooks through quickly in just a couple of minutes without the need to fiddle around or turn it.

To truly bake fish it’s got to remain uncovered in the oven and allowed to cook without the aid of oil or steam. Although you’d rarely cook fish like this it’s actually not a bad way to do it. Heat gets transferred to the fish slowly by hot air and as moisture evaporates it cools the fish to well below the temperature of the oven.

This can make it harder to overcook but only as long as the fish remains open to the oven air. Cover it up and all bets are off. Another advantage of cooking fish in this way is that it concentrates the fish juices and can trigger aroma producing browning reactions.

To bake fish you don’t really need a recipe. Simply chop up some leeks or fennel finely and put them in a dish, moisten them with a small splash of your favourite white wine. Sit the fish on top, give everything a quick season and bake in a hot oven for 12 / 15 minutes. Quick, effortless, and delicious.

The best temperature for baking fish is about 180/200c (350/400f) If you set the temperature of your oven too low the fish ends up barely cooked with a custard like texture. Unfortunately fish baked at a low temperature although delicious is nearly always ruined by the white fluid that leaks to the surface. This happens because the oven was set too low for the proteins to coagulate inside the fish, so they leak marring the look and presentation.

white fluid leaking from fish
The white fluid that can leak from a piece of fish if it’s cooked slowly at a low temperature, ruining the presentation

How To Poach Fish

With the exception of eggs nobody seems to be poaching food anymore and you rarely see poached fish on restaurants menus. I think chefs are missing a trick here because poaching offers fish cooks unparalleled control over heat and temperature. Crucial factors for a moist and succulent result. Poached fish can taste absolutely sensational but if you don’t know what you’re doing it can end in disaster.

You might think poached fish is a bit boring and tastes a bit bland, but it all comes down to the cooking liquor. Poach anything in just H20 and it’s never going to taste great and the problem with fish is that it cooks so quickly it doesn’t have time to exchange flavour with the cooking liquid.

To overcome this you need to prepare any cooking liquid you’re planning to poach fish in ahead of time. In classic cookery you’d make what’s known as a court-bouillon. This is just a simple vegetable stock with peppercorns, aromatics, and vinegar that’s simmered gently for about an hour before you add your fish. In France they call this method of cookery a la nage or “aswim”, a very fitting name.

A whole fish cooked it a court-bouillon is absolutely delicious and adds both flavour and gelatine to the stock. It can than be boiled and reduced down for a succulent sauce or kept as a fish stock for later use.

Anytime I’m lucky enough to get a piece of wild salmon in the summer I get a court-bouillon up to a rolling boil and slid the fish fillets in. Then I just turn off the heat and let it infuse. By the time the stock is cold the salmon has cooked through with the most moist, succulent, and delicious results. Just serve it with some homemade dill mayo and a simple salad for the best lunch you’ve ever tasted.

All this might seem like a lot of unnecessary palaver and a lot trouble to go to just to cook a piece of fish. So if you’re tight on time you can make a quick version of a court-bouillon. To do this just add a tablespoon of white wine vinegar to some water along with a few slices of onion, a bay leaf, and maybe some peppercorns. You could also throw in whatever fresh herbs you have lying around. Parsley, dill,and fennel all work well.

You don’t have to use a court-bouillon and other liquids like butter, oil, wine, and stock can be used to poach fish. The advantage with these is that some of them conduct heat more slowly and at a gentler rate.

To poach fish place it in a single layer on a dish. Than pour over the cooking liquid and bring it very slowly up to the most gentle of simmers. By now smaller and thinner fillets will already be cooked and even thicker fillets won’t take much longer. If however your poaching a really thick piece of cod for example, than cover the dish with some buttered greaseproof to prevent evaporation and to keep the fish submerged and continue to cook it for about 5 minutes. If you’re poaching a whole fish than its best to start it off in a cold liquid.

Poaching is quick, simple, and a flexible method of fish cookery as well as being one of the healthiest. There’s no oil or fat used….unless of course you decide to serve it with a beautiful hollandaise.

Making Fish Stews And Soups

You can’t make a fish stew in the same way you would one that contains meat. Obviously the fish would be cooked to oblivion by the time the cooking liquid absorbed any flavour from it.

To get around this problem you always prepare the base for the fish soup or stew first. The actual fish goes in right at the end of cooking for just the final 5 minutes. If you’ve ever made a classic bouillabaisse you’ll know that the French have found a novel way to make a really flavoursome fish stew. Unfortunately it takes a little bit of time, just like cooking a meat stew would, but if you have a couple of hours to kill it’s well worth the effort.

To make bouillabaisse you start off with a good fish stock to which tomatoes, olive oil, herbs, aromatics, and some cheaper varieties of fish like grouper, ricasse, and weaver are added. This is boiled together for about 45 minutes before being blitzed in a food processor and strained. Make sure you pound it through the strainer to extract every last drop of flavour. This base is than reduced down till it starts to thicken and it’s only than that you add the actual fish for your stew.

You can put whatever fish you like in at this stage, but remember to put the chunky / thick pieces in first followed by the more delicate fillets. Don’t boil it either to avoid fish break up, a gentle simmer does the job. Fish will only need about 5 minutes in a hot soup or stew to cook, if even that, and to minimise the chance of overcooking cut it up nice and chunky.

If I happen to be cooking a fish stew I like to use a three or four different types of fish and shellfish that will give it some contrasting textures and lot’s of character. it’s also a nice nod to the bounty of the sea.

Any time you’re making a fish soup or stew use any method you can think of to get as much flavour into your base as possible, just like a bouillabaisse recipe.

How To Braise Fish

Long and slow. Lamb shanks, daubs of beef, and chicken casseroles. Braising just isn’t associated with fish cookery, it’s normally meaty comfort food for the winter months.

Braising fish is very much like stewing. There’s a massive danger of it being overcooked by the time it gets any flavour from the vegetables and liquid your cooking with. To combat this cook your fish slowly, use a fragrant stock with plenty of aromatics and vegetables, and use larger fillets.

If I’m doing a bit of fish braising I’ll normally look for some fish that’s on the bone like a big darn of salmon or a hefty truncheon of turbot. I’ll cut any vegetables I’m using up nice and fine and even give them a quick saute first before I add some fish stock or a slug of wine. Not too much though you don’t want to poach the fish, you just need enough to moisten the pan and create a bit of steam. Than it’s just a matter adding the fish, popping a lid on, and cooking it slowly on the stove top or in a moderate oven.

Check it after about 10 minutes and it should be nearly there. You don’t have to worry too much about the fish drying out as long as you’ve cooked it slowly and with a lid to keep all the moisture and flavour in.

Braising fish is a nice and quick way to feed a bunch of people. A one pot dish that you can take straight from the oven to the table and let everyone to tuck in.

How To Steam Fish

Poor old steamed fish. It suffers from a bit of an image problem. It’s a dish that’s associated with nursing homes and hospitals and it seems it’s only served to the old, infirm, and people with no teeth because of its reputation for being easy to eat, soft,  very digestible, and a little bland.

It doesn’t have to be bland though. Steaming fish is a great way to show off the unadulterated flavour of the freshest fish to great effect. So if you can get your hand on some really fresh fish than steaming is the way to go.

It produces a very moist result and the fish loses none of its flavour but you will definitely need some sauce to go with it. There’s no need to get to too complicated. Just team it up with a simple well made hollandaise or a classic beurre blanc and you’ll have a very tasty fish supper.

The big question when it comes to steaming is does adding aromatics like herbs or garlic to the water do anything for the flavour of the food? Opinion is divided on this, but for me its a wast of time. It does nothing for the flavour of the fish though it does make your kitchen smell quite nice. Fish just cooks too quickly to absorb much in the way of flavour from the steam.

To steam fish you really need a purpose made steamer. I’ve got one of those chinese bamboo ones that I use in conjunction with a wok. If you’re really stuck you could make a makeshift one with a pot, a sieve, and a piece of tinfoil.

The key to a perfectly steamed piece of fish is to make sure the steam can circulate freely and has easy access to every part of the fishes surface for even cooking.

It’s best to use thin fillets for steaming. Fish like haddock, sole and whiting work well as you can get them into a uniform shape for even cooking by tucking the tail  under the thicker part of the fillet. Sometimes I like to steam fish on a bed of aromatics or vegetables that I can serve along with it. Think finely shredded leeks or fennel, samphire, or dill. And once you clamp on a tightly fitting lid it will all be cooked in about 2 minutes

Bigger pieces of fish are a bit more difficult to steam evenly because the outside can overcook while the centers still raw. If you’ve got some big fillets that you really want to steam than its best to do it just below the boil at temperatures of about 80c / 180f. To steam at such low temperatures leave the lid of the steamer ajar or off altogether and turn the gas down a bit.

One last tip for steaming fish is to lay a cloth over the top of the steaming basket to collect any condensation that would otherwise drop down and leave your dinner sitting in a pool of warm water.

How To Cook Fish In The Microwave

I have to be honest and say that I never cook fish in the microwave. It’s often just as quick to get a pan out and give it a quick saute. That doesn’t mean you can’t though. if you’re really busy and in a hurry than the microwave isn’t a bad tool for cooking fish, though not as good as the manual that comes with it would have you believe.

The best fish for the microwave are small thin fillets which have been cut into uniform size for even cooking. Cover the thin parts with foil so they don’t overcook or fold them under the thicker part of the fillet to get a uniform shape.

Always cover the fish either with cling film or a plate so that your fish actually steam’s and doesn’t dry out or get tough.

A top tip for cooking fish in the microwave is to let it cool down a little once cooked while it’s still covered. That way there’s less moisture loss and less chance of you getting a nasty steam burn.

Stove top Smoking

Smoking is of course associated with salmon and my favourite oily fish mackerel. When you buy smoked salmon down at the fishmongers it’s been through a long commercial process that involves curing with salt and then what’s known as cold smoking.

With cold smoking the fish is held in a separate chamber to the heat source and the resulting smoke travels through a chamber to the fish. Cold smoking takes place at a low temperature for about 8 to 10 hours.

There’s a really simple way to add a little smoky flavour to your fish at home though. You can easily do a little hot smoking in your back garden on the bbq or right in your kitchen on the stove top.

All you have to do is line a pan with some foil and add some wood chips. Oak or hickory are popular but you can also use sugar, spices, or tea leaves. Season your fish and place it on a rack over the wood chips. Than just put the pan on the heat and wait for some smoke to appear. Than clamp on a tight-fitting lid and smoke away till the fish is cooked.

Once you have this method down you can use it for a lot more than fish. I even bought one of these little purpose made hot smokers. I’ve used it to smoke my own garlic, chicken, lamb, venison, tomatoes, orange, and lemon.

One last thing…be careful taking the lid off your smoker indoors, either that or take the batteries out of your smoke alarm first.

Wrapping up

I always try to practice the K.I.S.S method of fish cookery – keep it simple stupid. As a chef I’ve been guilty of messing around with fish far too much. I’ve stuffed it with mousse, wrapped it in all sorts of things, and served it with every sauce imaginable.

When people go out for dinner they expect a little more than something they could cook at home. If I could get away with serving a simple piece of pan-fried fish with a wedge of lemon, then I would.

I’m a firm believer that the less you do with fish the better it tastes

– Nigel Slater

Over the last couple of years a lot of restaurants have sprang up serving plain, well made, simple, and tasty food. The strength of these restaurants comes from where they source their ingredients, staying seasonal when possible, and using as many local artisan producers as they can. I for one hope it’s a trend that continues and one I’d urge you to follow in your cooking, especially when it comes to fish.

how to cook fish

If you’re cooking fish at home always buy the freshest you can find and team it up with 2 or 3 local or seasonal ingredients and maybe a well made sauce or dressing. Fish is one of the most versatile, quick, and easiest of ingredients to use.

Every body should be comfortable cooking fish, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Sure, fish might have a few bones but only if it’s not prepared properly. You might think it smells, but that’s only if it’s not fresh. You could also say it’s expensive, but there’s plenty of cheaper varieties available. Give cod a break and try mackerel, herring, or hake for a change.

Just remember don’t overcook it.

5 thoughts on “How To Cook Fish – The Ultimate Guide”

  1. mind blown. that was like a gnarly roller coaster ride for all things fish. am i right in thinking the only techniques not fully deconstructed and explained are sashimi/sushi (although you did mention the often-used quick salt cure to bring about a better texture), pickling/canning/drying, and salt crust cookery? many chefs can cook well, but not many chefs can explain at this level. when you talked about rigor, when you explained the actual meaning of “baking”, when you… i could go on and on and on. my “preach, brother” head shaking agreement was full throttle on this end. world class post.

    ok. i just re-read all of my rambling and i sound like a psych ward reject, yeah? rather than editing to sound sane and cool, let’s just say you are witnessing the degree of my passion sent as a thank you note. chef colm, you should cookbook your way into our home libraries. standing ovation sent.

    • Thanks for pointing out some glaring omissions in this post. When I sat down and thought about it there’s a couple of other more modern cooking methods I missed too, like fermentation and sous vide. Looks like I’ll have to write a part two.

      • i did not see those as omissions, but saw them as things to be reached for once one becomes comfortable with fish. i could not believe how you so precisely covered all things needed to reach that moment. in my head, i was having a conversation with you so i forgot you could not see my body language and pick up on my vibe. my wording sucked. my bad. i hope you accept my apology for sounding like such an ass.

        (i made your farles today. i ate so many i skipped dinner)


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