A Chef’s Secrets for Cooking Fish

Scottish chef Michael Smith shares an easy way to avoid overcooking fish ever again

It’s not often that you walk around Chelsea Market with a man wearing a skirt — especially one who is a celebrity. A Scottish celebrity chef that is. I recently had the pleasure of perusing the seafood selection at the Lobster Place with chef Michael Smith from The Three Chimneys on Scotland's Isle of Skye to learn about local cookery and how to avoid overcooking fish.

Chef Smith comes from a distant and seemingly magical land that has preserved nature’s beauty and takes advantage of it. For instance, chef eats the wild oysters growing outside of his house because there is little pollution in the water, and his cooks dive for wild scallops during their lunch break right outside the restaurant. He told us about a minor revolution in his kitchen — when one chef went diving in his wet suit, the rest quickly followed to buy their own suits and catch their share of wild scallops and sea urchin. All the chefs also have fishing rods for hauling in the local catch like mackerel, lythe, pollack (member of the cod family), salmon, brown trout, and rainbow trout.

Clearly, Smith knows a lot about fish and seafood with the plethora available to him. So while he was in New York to promote Scotland during Tartan Week, chef Smith toured Chelsea Market with us and shared some of his knowledge, along with the simple secret for perfectly cooking fish.  

Check out the tips and tricks that we learned from Chef Smith below — plus the curious way Scottish fishermen eat their scallops. 


How to Cook the Freshest Fish

Chef Smith says to make sure that the fish is at room temperature, not warm, but not straight from the refrigerator. You don’t want to overcook the fish, so if the center is cold, then it won’t cook evenly. With room-temperature fish, get a pan really hot, add a little butter/oil and salt and put the fish in it. Sear it quickly on one side so it gets a little crust then immediately remove from the heat, flip the fish over, leaving it in the pan. 

The heat from the pan will permeate through to cook the fish from the bottom up, while the side that was initially on the heat will also continue to cook the fish from the top down — this way you will never have to worry about overcooking it. With this method, you are not cooking the fish all the way through, but if you are using really fresh fish, then that's what you want to do (this also works with other seafood like scallops). About taking the fish off the heat and letting it sit, he says, “You let meat rest, so why not do the same with fish?”


How to Poach Fish

For poaching, he recommends bringing whatever the poaching liquid is to a simmer, then taking it off the heat, and putting the fish in. “This way you’ll get lovely moist meat.” But he notes that the fish should never be on the heat. “Heat is your enemy when cooking fish.”


The Power of Oysters

Oysters are natural energy boosters and are full of zinc. If you're feeling down, he recommends eating three, and says that you’ll be ready to go for the rest of the afternoon. The oysters that he uses are ensured to be the freshest quality because Scotland actually has a law that requires the water to be tested and free of contaminants for at least one month before the oysters can be harvested. (Luckily, there is very little pollution around the Isle of Skye.)

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brown trout & rainbow trout are fresh water fish ,don't belong in the samewater as mackerel , cod , etc.


Great article except for the statement "If you don’t use a single-malt, then it will be a blend and won’t be as pure". Almost all single malt I know is a blend - a blend of different casks (often made from difference wood). I do not think that by blending whisky's something is less 'pure', in fact one could argue that a scotch that only is made with malt (which by its nature is a relatively processed product), is less 'pure' than a blended whisky with a higher proportion of grain, which has not gone through the convoluted malting process. As any fan of the peaty, smokey malts of Islay will know, that taste is not coming from the grain, but from the smoke imparted to the grain during the malting process - very good, but hardly 'pure'.


what the hell is acetate?


plastic wrap


Great tips! I have cooked shrimp in my TomYam using the poaching method. I take my simmering broth with the herbs & mushrooms off the heat, add my shrimp (usually large white, already shelled and deveined), then cover. If I'm serving from a tureen or directly from the pot, I'll take it straight to the table to finish there. If I'm serving to bowls, I'll leave it about 3 minutes. They are perfect every time.

Can't wait to try the frying tip. Its always been a problem for me...often times my pan-fried fish is either raw in the middle or overcooked.


Anonymous should re-read the chefs recipe for cooking fish. It clearly states to sear the fish on one side, flip it over and immediately REMOVE from the heat.


I really like the idea of your whisky cured salmon and I'm looking forward to trying it out. Can I ask a couple of questions, please? Do you use a 50:50 sugar/salt blend or is it more of one than the other? Also, when you lay the salmon on acetate to add the single malt, is it sliced or is it still a whole side? Thanks for your help.

Yasmin Fahr's picture

Hi! Sorry for the delay, we had to get in touch with Chef about your questions and he doesn't have email :) Here are his answers below:

Gravad Lax: translates to ‘Buried Salmon’(and yes it is 2 words).
The ratio of sugar/salt blend is 1:1.5 i.e. 100 grams salt to 150 grams sugar (pure sea salt flakes, and unrefined sugar will give best results).
This is the basic cure, additional flavors can be added such as lemon zest, crushed juniper berries, fresh herbs (dill, fennel, chervil, thyme), and of course, whisky
Depending on the amount of salmon the (weight, thickness) marinade in whisky for 24hrs, then rub in the cure and leave for 48hrs approx…
The salmon is now ready to be served. For best results thinly slice the fish, lay on a clean flat surface (plate/tray) and drizzle or brush with desired malt 2 hrs before serving
We use sheets of acetate at the restaurant to enable single layers of sliced salmon to be gently stacked on top of each other for storage purposes.


It's really kind of you to leave such a detailed reply, thank you very much. I know what I'm doing this weekend!
Thanks again.


For cooking fresh fish it says this:
"...and put the fish in it. Sear it quickly on one side so it gets a little crust then immediately turn off the heat, leaving the fish in the pan."

I think a step is missing; are you supposed to FLIP OVER the fish? If not, you end up with a nice crust on the bottom and raw fish on the top. If you flip it, WHEN? (I'm guessing it's when you turn off the heat.)

I urge the author to make the clarification by editing the article, not just by adding a comment. (Otherwise the unclear version will live forever and be perpetuated.)

One other thing: turning off the heat on an electric stove will have a different effect than doing it on a gas stove. (Electric will take a LOT longer to cool down, unless you remove the pan from the element.)



If you read it again, it DOES state to fli[ it over. As for the gas vs. electric, are you that brain dead? Seriously, when it states "remove from heat" it means that, literally. Better yet, just stay out of the kitchen!


The idea of using something as strongly flavored as single-malt scotch doesn't seem like such a good idea for seafood that is fairly mild in flavor. I can see how it might work better with salmon. That said, I like Grants for a cheap, general purpose scotch--it is made by the same folks who distill Glenfiddich and other fine single-malts, so it's the real deal, though a blend. Much smoother, warmer flavored (maybe even a little peat still in there) than other similarly priced bargain blends, imho.

Shirley Spear's picture

I work with Chef Michael in our restaurant in the Isle of Skye and love this article. He seems to have taken NYC by storm in his kilt. A handsome Highlander a passionate cook. Great combination!

Mr. Avocado's picture

Three Cheers and Scottish Bagpipes for Whisky cured Salmon!

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