Although there are many types of fish, breaking them down into five general categories is the easiest way to choose the best kinds for specific recipes. This also helps make sensible substitutes when a recipe calls for a kind of fish you can’t find at your local market. Substitutions may not perfectly mirror each other in taste, but most come close enough to taste as good as the type suggested in the recipe.
Dark, meaty, and rich in oil. The most popular fish in this category is salmon. Wild and king salmon have the richest flavors but farmed salmon is an excellent substitute. If salmon isn’t available, you can substitute fresh bluefin or skipjack tuna, any type of mackerel, grey mullet, anchovies, herring, or sardines. The latter three are generally smaller than the other varieties, so adjust cooking times accordingly.
Oil rich and medium color. These kinds of fish are lighter in color and slightly less oily than the dark and meaty varieties. Coho and sockeye salmon are typically available either fresh or flash-frozen but you can also use yellowfin tuna, mahi-mahi, pompano, Hawaiian kampachi, Arctic char, amberjack or wahoo in recipes that require this type of fish.
White, rich in oil, and firm. Fish in this category are often among the top seafood selections at upscale restaurants and prized for their subtle flavors and meatiness. The list includes Chilean sea bass, California white sea bass, albacore tuna, white sturgeon, Atlantic shad, cobia, lake whitefish, lake trout, Pacific sablefish, and Pacific escolar.
Firm, lean white fish. This type of fish is favored by many diners because of its delicate flavor and meaty texture. Favored types include Pacific cod, Pacific halibut, Pacific rockfish, Pacific sand dabs, and Pacific sole as well as swordfish, catfish, Alaskan pollock, haddock, and wild and hybrid striped bass.
White, flaky fish. This category of fish has a fragile consistency and succumbs easily to the tines of a fork, so take great care in handling it during cooking. Popular varieties include tilapia, rainbow trout, flounder, red snapper, black sea bass, whiting, Atlantic croaker, branzino, rainbow smelt, and weakfish, also known as sea trout.
It’s fairly easy to tell if frozen fish is in good shape. The packaging should be free of tears or holes, and the fish free of dark spots, blemishes, or freezer burn. The fish should have a natural color and show no signs of being thawed and refrozen, such as ice crystals inside the package.
Fresh fish should not smell fishy but rather have an aroma of fresh lake or sea water. If the head is intact, look for eyes as clear as they were when the fish was still alive and shiny, moist skin. Check for rosy gills; brown gills indicate old fish. Flaky scales are also a sign the fish is not fresh. When you gently press on the flesh of fresh fish, it should bounce back. Old fish will show indentations from your fingers.
One of the best aspects of fish is it can be cooked so many ways. You can cook it on a gas, charcoal or wood-fired grill, on top of the stove, or in a conventional or microwave oven. It can be prepared with the skin left intact, which helps it retain its moisture, or with the skin removed for marinating or breading
Grilling is best for sturdy fish that won’t fall apart and escape through the grid into the fire. Be sure to thoroughly clean the grill surface beforehand with a wire brush and generously oil the grate along with the surface of the fish to prevent sticking.
Stovetop methods include steaming, poaching, sauteing, pan-frying, and deep-frying. You can use water or wine to steam fish or create a poaching liquid from wine, water, and a pinch of tarragon and cook it uncovered, very slowly, in just enough liquid to cover it. Use minimal oil in a non-stick skillet to saute or pan fry fish, either with or without coating. Deep-fried fish is conventionally coated or battered before cooking. Good coatings include seasoned all-purpose flour or corn meal, crushed crackers, dry or fresh breadcrumbs, or ground nuts such as pecans, pine nuts, or walnuts. Good batters include dark beer mixed with flour or soda water combined with all-purpose baking mix such as Bisquick. Keep the batter at a consistency similar to thick pancake batter. Dry the fish with paper towels before dipping it in the batter and gently shake off the excess before cooking.
In a regular oven, fish is healthily prepared by baking, roasting, or broiling. Tasty fish seasonings for oven cooking include salt, pepper, lemon pepper, dill, and tarragon. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice right after cooking brings out the natural flavors of the fish. Fish prepared en papillote (enclosed in parchment paper) can be baked, microwaved or cooked on an indoor or outdoor grill and benefits from the same flavor enhancers as oven-cooked fish.
Many cooks shy away from cooking fish based on its delicate texture, which makes it susceptible to falling apart when turned or moved on a grill or in a pan. Following a few simple guidelines will keep your fish intact and keep it moist and succulent.
Use a good, non-stick pan. Whether the pan is has a factory-applied non-stick finish or is well-seasoned cast iron, a slick finish is key to cooking fish without it falling apart.
Step away from the fish. Once you place the fish in pan or on a grill, leave it alone for 2 to 4 minutes before attempting to turn it. This gives the exterior a chance to brown and as the flesh cooks, it becomes denser and easier to handle.
Don’t overcook it. It’s best to err on the side of undercooking because you can always return fish to the pan for a few minutes longer but there is no remedy for dry, overcooked fish. A good rule of thumb for fish is to cook it 10 minutes per inch. For instance, if a fillet is an inch thick, cook it 5 minutes on one side, turn it, and cook it 5 minutes more. Remember that it keeps cooking for a minute or so after removing it from the heat. When it easily flakes with a soft touch of a salad fork, it’s perfect for serving.
The natural flavor of fish is what makes it such a spectacular food. Unlike poultry and many cuts of beef and pork, fish benefits from minimal seasonings and flavorings. When marinating fish, use light herbs and spices and keep the marinating time to a minimum or the fish will start to disintegrate. A sprinkling of fresh, chopped dill or chives is a nice garnish but don’t overdo it. Sauces are best served on the side to let diners experience the innate taste of the fish before determining if it needs flavor enhancements.