Don’t Fear the Fish: A Quick Guide to Choosing and Cooking the Right Fish for You

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cooking Fish
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Fresh Fish

Photo Modified: Flickr/ Michele Ursino/ CCBY-SA4.0

Fresh fish have glassy eyes, not cloudy or opaque.

As a chef, I get asked frequently for recipes or ideas on how to shake up the day-to-day doldrums of weeknight dinner. Often times I'll oblige and share a great tasting fish recipe, and that's where it starts: The whines and excuses are deafening. So, in my best Arnold voice from Kindergarten Cop, "Stop whining!"  Here are some excuses I hear the most about cooking with fish, and why I'm not buying it.

"But I don't know anything about cooking fish. I'm afraid! Hold me."

Here's how the famous FDR quote didn't go: "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself... Oh, and cooking with fish."

Toughen up, Sally, it's time to put on your big boy or girl pants (I won't judge) and start cooking with fish. Why is cooking with fish scary to the vast majority of home cooks out there? If I were to bet my next paycheck, I'd bet it on the simple fact that people either feel like or just plain don't know what they're doing.

Well, if that's the case then it's time to get your fish learn on, courtesy of me, a true a-fish-ionado (and a crack whiz with horrible puns).

Right off the bat, the first thing you need to know, and a rule that applies to all cooking that I want you to remember forever, is that quality meals start with quality ingredients. Simple, right? Well, it's one of the easiest and most quickly bypassed tenets, usually in favor of convenience. And as a side note, quality doesn't have to mean expensive. Healthy or quality eating should not be a synonym for an empty bank account. Picking out a quality fish market is obviously the best way to go, but I get that making an extra stop at a fish market or butcher may not be easy. Whole Foods and the like do a decent job as well, just stay away from the pre-packaged frozen stuff, which is different than fresh fish that has been packed in ice.  The fresh stuff will be in the fresh meat area, the pre-packaged bad guys will be in your grocer's freezer.

"But I don't know how to pick the right one. I don't want to get sick!"

Stop it. The same rules for bad meat apply to chicken, pork, and beef.  You're just used to buying those things and you have a high level of familiarity with the process. You just need to get comfortable picking out good fish. Here are a few tips that should help you along the way.

1. Start by doing a nice visual inspection of the fish. How does it look in general? Does it look fresh? The gills should be red, not brown or grey.

2. If you're buying a whole fish, the eyes are a good tell. You're looking for bright and clear eyes, like glass. Stay away from cloudy or opaque eyes.

3. Check and make sure the skin looks shiny and metallic.

4. Next, pick up the fish. Fish are going to potentially be a bit slippery, but they shouldn't be slimy (like old ham). Feel for firmness just like you would a tomato or avocado.

5. Lastly, give it a good smell. It should smell fresh and briny, like the sea. It shouldn't smell too "fishy."

Overall, don't let the process of picking out fresh fish be a deterrent. When you buy bananas are you "grossed out" by the fact that there are some bananas not worthy of your basket? Does this cause you to stop eating bananas entirely?  No, of course not. Get out of your own head.

Also, I recommend that you avoid determining the type of fish that you get before you get to the market. Go with what's freshest and then build around your choice. Sometimes it just wasn't the right day for wild caught salmon.  That just means its trout time!

"Fish are scary!"

Ha! This one is a classic. Fish are no more scary than Donald Trump or that awful Geico commercial where the two dudes call each other "bro" twenty times. It's dead, it's not going to bite. You bite it, and it tastes amazing. Promise.

That said, if you're worried about bones and scales or cutting off the head, that's fine. Don't buy a whole fish.  We live in a world where the vast majority of that work will have already been done for you. Just know you're leaving some tasty fish on the table by only eating filets and flanks. But if you need to work your way up to the whole fish, that's understandable, just think about it as a gradual process of your culinary education.

"But I don't know how to cook fish!"

Ok, now that you have your fish, what are you going to do with it? Prep it, of course.  Although, special bonus points if your answer was “take a picture of it and post it on Instagram” to brag about how much of a better cook you are than your friends.

Like a quality cut of beef or poultry, you can cook it without prepping it.  But why?  Cook with intent. Be purposeful with your actions.

Herbs, spices, butter, citrus, these are all fabulous ways to pretreat and prepare your carefully selected fish friend. Pick your favorite flavor palate and build from there, or find a recipe online like you've done a million times before.

From there the world is at your finger tips.  You can start by breading and frying the fish. That may be the fish cooking equivalent of training wheels, but I'm not here to judge people who are willing to try new things. Start slow and work your way up.

Grilling, baking, smoking, or poaching are all great methods, and work best with different cuts and kinds of fish. Do your best to try new things and see what works best for you.

As for the “skin on or skin off” debate, it's really just a matter of personal preference. If you're going to pan fry a skin-on filet, I recommend taking a knife and scoring the skin (cut a handful of long slices down the skin) to help prevent the fish from curling up on you in the pan.

The one thing I can't stress enough? Don't overcook your fish. If you want to know why the fish at the restaurant tastes better than the fish you cook at home, chances are you're overcooking your fish. If you don't like cooking fish because it makes your house smell like fish, chances are you're overcooking your fish. If you don't like eating fish because it falls apart on you or tastes like a hockey puck, it's definitely because you're overcooking your fish.

So, to recap, when your mom asks what you learned today, here's what you can tell her: Cook more fish... and cook it less. That's today's lesson. Oh, and stop whining... or Detective John Kimble will not be happy. 

Ben Vaughn is an award-winning chef, and best-selling author, restaurateur and television personality. You can find more of Ben's writings as a weekly columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, a weekly contributor to the Daily Meal, and on his website bvate.com

Ben's newest book Southern Routes was released in 2015. Ben is also the host of the digital series The Breakfast Show on the Small Screen Network 

Follow him on Twitter @benvaughn 

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