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On The Hook With Fish

Cooked to perfection, fish is moist, tender, and has a delicate flavor. Cooking fish is not difficult if you know some basics. It is important to remember that fish will continue to cook even after it is removed from the heat, so you want to be careful not to over-cook it. Marinating can add flavor and moisture, but fish should only be marinated for about an hour and not with an acidic tenderizer, making the fish mushy.

Fish can be divided into three flavor profiles: mild, medium, and full.

  • Mild – Branzino, catfish, cod, flounder, haddock, hake, halibut, monkfish, orange roughy, perch, pollock, skate, sole, tilapia, walleye
  • Medium – Artic char, coho salmon, striped bass, yellowtail, red snapper, swordfish, grouper, trout
  • Full – Bluefish, mackerel, mahi mahi, salmon, sea bass, tuna

How much fish should you serve? Generally, half a pound to three-quarters of a pound per person is a good serving size for fish.

When purchasing fish, it is important to recognize signs of freshness. If they are fresh, whole fish will appear as they were just pulled from the water; the flesh will be firm and the eyes will be bright. When buying fresh fish fillets or steaks, they should be firm and bright looking, with no brown spots, discoloration, or dryness. Pre-packaged steaks and fillets need to be wrapped tightly with no liquid and little or no air in the packages. When purchasing frozen fish, avoid packages with signs of frost or ice crystals since the seafood may have thawed and been refrozen.

Fresh fish should have a mild aroma. Any fishy or strong flavors mean the fish is past its prime; do not buy it! And certainly do not buy it if it smells like ammonia.

Fresh fish should be used within two days of purchase; it’s very perishable. If you can’t use it within that timeframe, you can cook the fish so it will keep for another two days. If you will not cook the fish within two days, wrap the fish well in freezer paper and freeze it. In our area, most fish that you buy will be sold frozen. Keep it frozen until you’re ready to cook it.

Defrost fish gradually, so cells are disturbed less and fewer juices leak out. Thawing fish overnight in the refrigerator is your best option. If you need to thaw fish quickly, here are safe options: seal the fish in plastic and allow it to soak in cold water for approximately one hour, or if you are in a hurry, you can microwave fish on the defrost setting. Be sure to only defrost to the point that the fish is still icy but pliable. Cook fish it as soon as it’s partially thawed! Never refreeze fish.

Here is a great trick – thaw frozen fish in milk! Cover fish with fresh milk and place in refrigerator overnight. The fish will have an excellent fresh-caught taste. Discard the milk after the fish thaws.

Fish must be pulled from the fridge a minimum of 20 minutes prior to cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Cooking fish directly from the cold will result in a dry outer flake, as cooking time will be prolonged in order to get the cold middle cooked. Do you want your fish to have a crisp, golden crust? If the surface of the fillet is wet, it’ll steam, rather than sear, in the pan. So pat fillets dry with paper towels before you cook them. The secret to cooking all fish is using high heat for as short a time as possible. Start with the fish at slightly cooler than room temperature and a pre-heated very hot pan or grill.

To prevent overcooking, try these tips. Determine the thickness of your fish at its thickest point and then cook for about 10 minutes per inch, flipping it halfway through the cooking time. Pieces less than ½ inch thick do not have to be turned over. The flesh of properly cooked fish should feel firm and turn from translucent to opaque or white, yet still be slightly translucent in the middle. If deep-frying or cooking in the microwave, the 10-minute rule does not apply! When cooking fish in foil or in a sauce, you need to increase the total cooking time by 5 minutes. If cooking frozen fish that has not been defrosted, you will need to double the cooking time to 20 minutes per inch of thickness.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests cooking fish to an internal temperature of 145ºF. Buy a good instant-read food thermometer and use it! To cook fish that is slightly translucent in the center, remove the fish from the heat when its internal temperature reaches 138°F to 140°F. The fish will continue cooking with the retained heat if left to stand a few minutes prior to serving.

Another doneness test is to check the fish for flakiness. Insert the tip of a knife gently into the thickest part of the fish and twist. The flesh should begin to separate along the natural lines. Properly cooked fish appears opaque, but is still moist. Fish that flake easily may be overcooked. If the fish you are cooking has not been deboned, the meat should slightly resist removal from the bones instead of simply dropping off.

So…let’s get cooking!


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halibut fillet laying on a cutting board

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Extension Educator:
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University of Wyoming Extension

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Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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