Basic Fish Cookery

Here are some easy tips for selecting fresh fish and cooking fish perfectly each time. According to our Chef in Residence, Andrew Cohen, when cooking fish there are two things to remember: (1) Fresh! and (2) “Eight minutes to the inch.”

How to Choose Fresh Fish

Always check fish for freshness. Smell the fish, look closely at it, and when buying whole fish, touch it. Fresh fish should smell of the sea, but never “fishy.” The flesh should be firm and the grain of the fish should be tight. If the flesh looks watery or desiccated, or if there is gapping in the grain, pass it by. Fish should be firm, not mushy. Fish are waterproof on the outside, not on the inside. Avoid fish that are ”top-iced” directly on the flesh. The ice can dent the flesh and the water will soak the fish and make it soggy. When looking at whole fish, the eyes should be firm, not shriveled. The gills should have a clean look to them, and when you gently touch the side of the fish it should spring back, not leave a dent.

Cooking Fish

When cooking fish, remember this mantra: “Eight minutes to the inch.” Whether cooking it on the stovetop, oven, poacher, or broiler, fish cooks up in eight minutes for each inch of thickness., roughly. Eight minutes for the first inch, then break it down from there.
The average store bought piece of salmon runs about 11⁄2 inches thick, top to skin. This fish takes 12 minutes to cook. Fillet of sole usually runs around 1/4 – 1⁄2 inch. It might take only 6 minutes, but it will probably be closer to 8. Keep in mind that the thinner pieces of fish are more delicate, so you don’t want to be cooking them over high heat anyway unless you want them to disintegrate in the pan.
Swordfish and tuna steaks are usually 1 inch thick, so cook for eight minutes. If you like your fish more well done, you may want to cook it a minute or two more. The eight-minute to the inch rule assumes oven temperature of 400°F or pans over medium-high heat. If poaching, liquid should be heated to a bare chuckle (barely rolling simmer).

Here’s an example:

Seared Salmon with Salsa Verde

2 pieces of salmon fillet, 6 oz. each, skinned

10 pan heated over medium high

Season the fish with salt and pepper, garlic powder if you wish (fresh garlic will burnso if you use fresh, plan ahead mince the garlic, rub it on the fish, then wipe off before cooking), and maybe a squeeze of lemon.

Lay the fish into the pan skin side up. Watch as the fish changes color where it is in contact with the pan. After 8 minutes, give the pan a gentle shake and nudge the fish with a thin bladed spatula. It should slide loose. Turn the fish over, give it 4 minutes more. The fish is now done. Plate and top with salsa verde.

You can also cook the fish for 4 minutes in the pan and then transfer the pan to the pre-heated 400°F for 8 minutes more without turning the fish. This is my preferred salmon method. It yields a crackling crisp top and the rest is tender. Still – 8 minutes to the inch. Give this method a try. Remember that this is guideline rather than a law. Be flexible; pay close attention the first few times, and then this technique will become second nature to you.

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