Sometimes in a cooking class, a student will sidle up to me and say, “I’m so glad we’re making [insert fish dish here]—I’ve always been afraid of cooking fish.”
And I get it. Fish can be, well, fishy. It can cook up dry and flavorless. It can have annoyingly tiny bones. It can fall apart when you cook it. And then there’s just the fact that a lot of people grew up in non-fish-eating households, so it’s unfamiliar.
But fish can also be moanfully delicious—this Fillet of Sole with Lemon-Wine Pan Sauce, for example. And keeping it juicy and flavorful is nothing to fear.
1. Start with good fish.
What do I mean by good fish? Fish that’s of the highest quality and pristinely fresh.
Where do you find it? At a good fish counter—one with a lot of variety, a lot of turnover, and a knowledgeable staff. That’s probably not your local supermarket, but it might be your local natural foods supermarket. It also might be a seafood store. Ask around—the foodies in your life, as well as the chefs at good restaurants in your area, will know where to find good fish.
At the store, ask for a recommendation—take advantage of that knowledgeable staff. And if you have any doubt about quality, sniff. Good seafood should smell like a fresh ocean breeze—not stinky or fishy at all.
You also might ask if the fish you’re considering is sustainable—since choosing sustainable seafood will help ensure delicious fish for years to come.
2. Once home, maintain that good quality.
Store your fish in the coldest part of the refrigerator for up to 2 days—restaurants even put it on a bed of ice—and ideally, cook it within a day. If it’ll be more than 2 days, freeze your fish and, for best flavor and texture, use it within 3 months.
Take fish out of the refrigerator 30 to 45 minutes before you plan to start cooking, to bring it to room temperature. If you’re concerned about bones, now’s a good time to use a fish tweezers or needlenose pliers to remove them.
3. When you cook, don’t overdo it.
Like any protein that’s relatively low in fat, fish cooks quickly and, if overcooked, can become dry and flavorless, plus more likely to fall apart when you flip it. So go for fish that’s just cooked through—it should feel barely firm to the touch and definitely not rigid.
In fact, fish that’s slightly undercooked, with a bit of translucence at the center, is perfectly fine—especially since you started with quality fish from a quality source. Some might even prefer it that way.
4. Consider your cooking method.
A hot skillet, oven, or grill can help ensure a nice crust on the outside of your fish, but the window between when the inside is perfectly cooked and overcooked can be narrow.
On the other hand, a moist cooking method—like poaching or steaming—can be more forgiving. The moisture around your fish will help keep it tender and juicy even a bit after it’s perfectly cooked through.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use dry heat to cook fish—it just means to be more vigilant if you do.
And no matter what your cooking method, note that thicker cuts and fattier fishes—salmon, for example—will be more flavorful, less likely to dry out, and less likely to fall apart during cooking. Thinner cuts and more lean fishes—fillet of sole, for example—will be the opposite.
And that doesn’t mean leaner fishes can’t be juicy and flavorful—it just means, again, be a little more vigilant.
5. Practice, practice, practice.
We covered how to avoid fishiness, dryness, and falling apart-ness. We talked about how to avoid bones. That leaves the fact that you might simply be unfamiliar with fish.
The way to get familiar? Cook it, again and again.
P.S. Added 5/16/2016–For more tips on cooking fish, check out this awesome article in Fine Cooking.