Cooking Fish 101 (How To Cook Fish Perfectly)
Cooking Fish 101: How to Select, Season, and Cook Fish PERFECTLY every single time! Wondering what is the best way to cook fish? Let me show you the easiest method for frying, baking, and grilling fish.
How To Cook Fish
Over the last 15 years of teaching cooking classes, and then sharing recipes online here on A Spicy Perspective, I have found the most common cooking questions I get asked are about cooking fish.
Apparently preparing fish creates a lot of anxiety for the average cook.
I get it… Fish can be expensive; you don’t want to ruin it.
You worry about:
- Selecting fresh fish (How fresh is it really?)
- Cleaning fish properly
- What’s the best method for cooking fish?
The list of concerns goes on and on.
Well, these questions are exactly why I decided to put together this tutorial, our ultimate guide to cooking fish. My hope is that by the time you are done reading this post, you will feel like a fish prepping pro.
And even if you still feel insecure about cooking fish, bookmark this page for the next time you bring home a lovely wild-caught fillet. I guarantee it will help you feel successful!
What’s The Best Way To Cook Fish?
This is not an easy question to answer. There are so many variables to consider.
- Are you looking for the easiest method for cooking fish? The healthiest method? Or maybe the best method for producing crispy skin?
- Are you cooking whole fish or fish fillets?
- Is there skin on the fish or has it been removed?
- What type of fish are you working with? Does it have a light delicate texture or is it dense and meaty?
- What are you serving with the fish?
- What cooking tools do you have available to you… A stovetop, oven, grill, or smoker?
The truth is, there are a lot of “best ways” to cook fish.
However, the end goal should always be the same… Tender flaky fillets that are moist and well-seasoned.
These two elements make all the difference:
- Matching a perfect balance of flavorful seasoning with the type of fish you buy.
- And not overcooking it.
Overcooked vs Undercooked Fish
Most cooks lean on the side of overcooking fish.
They are concerned that if they misjudge the internal temperature, the fish might not be safe to eat. So instead, they cook their fish fillets too long and end up with a dry grassy texture. So unfortunate!
Fish is best when it’s just barely cooked through.
Let me restate that… Fully cooked, but just barely.
That way, you don’t have to worry about health risks, yet your fish fillets still flake into tender pieces with a soft silky bite.
PERFECTLY COOKED FISH SHOULD ALWAYS APPEAR OPAQUE, BUT MOIST AND GLOSSY.
There should be moisture or oils present. If it looks dry, it is dry.
What about undercooking? If you are going to lean one way or the other, it’s so much better to undercook fish than to overcook it.
Undercooked fish can be fixed! (Just put it back in the oven or on the grill for a few minutes.)
Therefore it’s important to remember to always check your fish early. Even if it’s slightly undercooked, it will continue to cook a little as it cools.
Whereas overcooked fish is a lost cause.
Selecting Fresh Fish
The first step to making an amazing fish recipe is to start with an amazing piece of fish.
When purchasing fresh fish, talk to your fishmonger. Ask what came in fresh that day.
It’s better to go with almost any fresh-catch than to stick to what you thought you wanted (that might be old and funky.)
If you have several options:
- Look for fish that smells like the sea, but doesn’t smell fishy.
- That looks moist.
- That does not appear to be discolored like it is oxidizing in the glass case.
- If selecting whole fish, check that the eyes still look glossy, not cloudy.
- The scales should be bright and glistening, not dull.
Fresh Fish vs Frozen Fish
If you can buy and eat fish on the same day it was caught, that is always best.
The flavor and texture of fish is never better than on the day the fish is pulled from the ocean.
However, in many cases, frozen fish is better than raw fish that is over 2-3 days old. This is because most fish packing companies freeze their fish the same day it is brought off the boat.
Therefore, buy ultra-fresh fish when you can. Then buy frozen fish from responsible companies when first-day fish is not available to you.
Just be sure to thaw and cook the fish on the same day. Do not ever thaw seafood and let it sit in the refrigerator for several days.
Whole Fish vs Fillets
Cooking and serving whole fish is a lot of fun! It’s such a treat to lay a gorgeous platter on the table with a whole roasted fish surrounded by herbs and vegetables.
Whole fish is also less likely to overcook, with the skin insulating it on all sides. However, whole fish can be harder to serve, and there are often small bones to contend with.
Fish fillets, that have been deboned and trimmed for you at the fish counter, are much easier to portion, cook, and serve.
However, they do tend to overcook much more often than whole fish.
There’s no wrong decision when deciding between a whole fish or fillets. Just knowing the challenges of cooking each is half the battle.
Should You Remove Fish Skin Before Cooking?
Personally, I feel that if you buy a fish fillet with skin on the underside, it’s better to cook the fish with the skin on, rather than trying to skin it.
Here’s why you should consider leaving the skin on:
- First, cooking fish with its skin on, allows a little bit of extra protection, if you are prone to overcooking fish.
- Having skin on one side of a fillet also allows you to pan-fry the skin to an extra crispy state, the way it’s often prepared in fine restaurants.
- If you try to remove the skin on thinner fillets, and you haven’t had plenty of practice, you will most likely waste a lot of good fish.
- And finally, once the fish is cooked, the meat pulls easily away from the skin with very little effort, so why bother with it beforehand?
However, if you are preparing a recipe with a certain method that required no skin, most good fishmongers with quickly remove the skin for you.
How To Remove Fish Skin and Bones
If you want to remove the skin (and possibly bones) yourself, here’s how to do it.
- Lay the fish fillet on a plastic cutting board. Pull out a long flexible narrow fillet knife.
- Starting at the narrow end of the fillet, insert the blade into the fish at an angle, pressing down until you hit the skin.
- Then saw in smooth motions back and forth against the skin, pulling the skin down and toward you, as the flat edge of the blade lifts the flesh up.
- Work all the way down to the end of the fillet, making sure the blade stays directly against the skin, so you don’t waste fish.
- To debone the fish, flip the fillet over so that you are looking at the side the skin was just cut off of. Run the blade of the knife down the spin, against the grain, to expose the tips of the pin bones. Then use your fingers (or tweezers) to pull out the bones.
Here’s the best video demo I found, if you need a better visual.
How To Season Fish
The best way to season fish is to try to complement the natural depth of flavor and texture of the fish.
Meaning, if you are seasoning a mild white fish with a fine flaky texture, use light seasonings like lemon, herbs, and delicate spices.
Do not put anything on a mild fish that will completely overpower the flavor of the fish.
However, if you are cooking fish with a heavy rich flavor, like salmon or tuna, you can use bolder seasonings like chili powder, soy sauce, or balsamic vinegar.
There are some exceptions… However, if you stick with the concept of light fish with light and bright seasoning, and dense fish with heavy or bold seasoning, you won’t ever be disappointed.
You can use marinades and dry rubs, or just go with a simple sprinkling of fresh herbs.
Yet whatever you do, don’t forget the salt and pepper!
Here Are Some Popular Seasoning Combinations For Fish
- Lemon zest, rosemary, thyme, and garlic
- Capers, olives, lemon, and garlic
- Breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, dried Italian herbs
- Orange zest, garlic, and thyme marinade
- Dijon mustard and garlic
- Soy sauce, dijon mustard, and chile flakes
- Brown sugar, soy sauce, and liquid smoke
- White wine, garlic, and butter
- Toasted sesame oil, garlic, and ginger
- Miso paste and honey
What’s The Healthiest Way To Cook Fish?
The healthiest way to cook fish would be:
- A method that uses little additional fat
- Allows the natural fats to drain off
- And retains most of the nutrients by not cooking it too long.
Therefore, grilling fish and baking fish are most likely the healthiest methods for cooking fish.
What’s The Easiest Way to Cook Fish?
The easiest option for cooking fish would be a method that allows you to season the fish, then step back from the process. Therefore, baking fish is again the first choice.
Bonus, when you bake fish you are also slightly less likely to overcook it, than when you pan-fry or grill fish.
What Method Of Cooking Fish Produces the Best Flavor?
You can season and add toppings to fish, so that no matter how you cook it, it will taste delicious.
However, if you are sticking with a very simple preparation of just salt, pepper, lemon, and a sprinkling of herbs, pan-frying in butter produces the very best flavor and texture.
More Ways To Cook Fish
Other popular methods of cooking fish include: smoking, poaching, braising, and deep frying with batter.
Yet, since this tutorial is meant for those who struggle with the basics of cooking fish, today we are sticking with the top three easy methods… Baking, grilling, and pan-frying.
Fish Cooking Times (The 10 Minute Rule)
Because fish come in all different sizes, and fish fillets can be cut in different lengths and widths, it’s tricky to know how long to cook fish, so that it’s moist and flaky.
There’s an old method of determining fish cooking times, called the 10 Minute Rule, that works as a fantastic guide, no matter how you want to cook your fish!
The rule states, if you cook fish between 400-450 degrees F, it takes approximately 10 minutes per 1-inch of fish to cook to perfection.
You can bake, grill, pan-fry, deep fry, sauté, or poach the fish and the 10 Minute Rule works like a charm, as long as you measure the thickest part of the fish and time it accordingly.
Thin 1/2-inch fillets of flounder will cook for approximately 5 minutes total.
Thick 2-inch salmon fillets with cook for around 20 minutes.
If you are cooking fish in a pan (or on a grill) and want to flip it over, cook for 5 minutes per side for every 1-inch of fish.
Baking fish is an easy, healthy, low-stress option for people that tend to overcook fish.
You will almost always want to stick with the base temperature of approximately 400 degrees F, so the fish cooks quickly, yet retains its moisture.
It’s important to remember that the thickness of the fish fillet will determine the cooking time. Thin fillets like trout might cook in just 6-8 minutes, while thicker swordfish steaks might take 15-25 minutes.
How To Bake Fish
- Pat the fish fillet(s) dry then season on both sides. (Unless one side is covered by skin. There’s no need to season skin.)
- Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Then lay the fish directly on the baking sheet, or on a rack over the baking sheet.
- Place in the oven and bake until just cooked through. The fish should feel slightly firm, but not hard, and should be able to flake off easily.
- Remove and rest 3-5 minutes before serving.
Baked Fish Recipes
- Baked White Fish With Everything Bagel Crust
- Green Curry Coconut Crusted Salmon
- Potato Chip Crusted Sea Bass
- Garlic Lime Oven Baked Salmon
- Baked Halibut with Basil Butter
- Smoky Oven Baked Salmon with Horseradish Sauce
- Whole Roasted Snapper with Anchovy Butter
Grilling fish is arguably the healthiest method of cooking fish because you are less likely to add heavy crusts, and the excess fats drip off the fish as it cooks.
However, it can be tricky to flip if you set delicate fish fillets directly over hot grates.
How To Grill Fish
- Preheat the grill to medium-high, roughly 400-450 degrees F.
- Pat the fish dry. Season the fish on both sides.
- Pour high-heat cooking oil on a folded paper towel. Then use tongs to hold the paper towel as you rub the grates with the towel, so they are coated with oil. (You can also use non-stick “grill spray.”)
- Carefully set the fish fillets on the hot grill and cook until just cooked through. Use the 10 Minute Rule to determine cooking time.
- For thin fillets, do not flip. For thicker fillets, flip halfway through the cooking time.
Pro Tip: If the fish has skin on one side, grill it skin-side-down. If you plan to cook it on both sides, grill the top first, then flip the fillet and finish skin-side-down.
Grilled Fish Recipes
- Grilled Sweet and Sour Salmon with Pineapple Salsa
- Hawaiian Tuna Burgers
- Grilled Tuna and Avocado Salad
Pan-frying fish is another easy cooking method, that takes little time and effort.
It works best when working with thin individually portioned fish fillets, that will cook quickly at medium to medium-high heat.
You can sauté naked seasoned fish fillets in butter, or bread and fry them for a crispy exterior.
The key to making amazing pan-fried fish it to season the fish well, then use half butter and half high-heat cooking oil to fry the fish. That way, you get the buttery flavor, but the oil stops the butter from burning before the fish is cooked through.
How to Fry Fish In A Skillet
- Heat a skillet to medium-high heat.
- Pat the fish dry with paper towels, then season (or bread) on both sides. *If frying fish with skin, only season the skin-free side.
- Add 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons oil to the pan. Once hot, place the fish in the skillet and fry for 2-3 minutes per side. *If frying fish with skin, start skin-side-down.
- Remove the fish fillets and place them on a plate. If you did not bread the fish, pour the butter over the top.
Our Favorite Fried Fish Recipes
- Corn Crusted Fish Tacos with Jalapeno Lime Sauce
- Brown Butter Halibut with Orzo and Mushroom Broth
- Low Carb White Fish Pomodoro
How Do You Like To Cook Fish? Let Me In The Comments Below!