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 grates. Poaching is a good alternative for delicate fish.
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