“Oh dear God, not fish again”
How many times have you thought that when staring at a plate of fish? We know fish is good for us. Almost without exception, we should be eating more fish. The American Heart Association recommends at least two times per week. The problem is that most people don’t know how to cook fish so that it is appetizing. Let’s change that.
Don’t over cook!
My mother was not the world’s best cook. As a child, I sat down to dinner facing a piece of salmon that had been fried until there was no juice left. (In my mother’s defense, we were very poor, she could never afford good grades of meat or fish, and nobody really taught her how to cook.) Overcooking is the number one crime committed against cooked fish.
Yes, I know the FDA recommends cooking most fish to 145F, but if you want really nice moist, tender, and flaky fish then cook it to 135F.
This was the second problem with eating fish my mother cooked. She didn’t know about removing the pin bones. Pin bones are those tiny little needle-like bones found in almost every thick fillet of fish, particularly salmon. Perhaps she left them in there as a way to get me to chew my food more slowly. Fortunately, they are easy to remove prior to cooking.
I keep a small pair of needle-nose pliers in the kitchen drawer for this task. with the fillet lying on the counter skin side down, gently run your fingertips up and down the length of the fillet, pressing lightly. You can feel it when you encounter a pin bone. Pin bones are in rows so when you find one you will usually find a whole row of them. Use the needle-nose pliers to grasp the end of the pin bone and pull it out.
Skin Side vs Bone Side
In the photo above, the filet on the left is skin side up, meaning it is the side of the filet that the skin was removed from. The filet on the right is bone side up, meaning it is the side that was next to the bone. The bone side is generally the smoother and much better-looking side, and so most fish fillets are served bone side up. Therefore we only need to worry about how the bone side looks on the plate.
Temperature and Cooking Technique
Most people try to cook a thick piece of fish (like salmon) in a pan on the stovetop. This is an instant recipe for failure. When the outside looks very nicely browned the inside is still raw. If you cook it until the inside is done then the surface is overcooked, dry, and probably a little burnt. The secret is a two-step process known as sear-roasting:
- Use the frying pan on the stovetop to get a nicely browned surface.
- Use the oven (set at about 350F) to get the inside of the fillet properly cooked.
Opinions vary as to which step to do first, but I normally do it in the above order. Don’t forget to preheat the oven.
Dry the fillet using paper towels. (If you don’t then when the wet fillet hits the frying pan it will steam instead of brown.) Lightly salt and pepper it.
Most people fry their fish at too low a temperature. Use a high smoke point oil like canola or safflower oil and high heat. You want the oil almost smoking before adding the fillet.
Lightly flour the bone side of the fillet and place it in the pan bone side down. Keep a sharp eye on it because it will take only about a minute for the surface to brown and release from the pan. Flip the fillet over (So it is now bone – and presentation – side up) and let it cook for just a minute. Take the fillet out of the skillet and place it on the something that can go into the oven. (I have a second pan ready). Put it in the preheated oven and monitor it closely. It’s only going to take 1-3 minutes for the interior of the fillet to cook. My target temperature is 135F. I use an instant-read thermometer like this thermapen to check the internal temperature before the fillet goes into the oven, and about a minute later.
Then when the fillet is done, take it out of the oven, plate it up and serve. There it’s that simple.
What About Skin-On Fish?
You can easily remove the skin with a filet knife prior to cooking but here is an easy trick:
Place the fillet in the hot pan skin side down first, and let it cook for about 3 minutes. Flip the filet over, and while the bone side of the fillet is browning, you can quickly and easily pop the skin off with a fork.
What If All My Fillets Are Not The Same Thickness?
Pull the thin fillets out of the oven when they are done and tent them with foil. Leave the thick fillets to cook for another minute or two.
Sous Vide For Fish
Sous vide machines have come way down in price. I have the Anova shown here. They are currently priced at $179. The beauty of the sous vide is that you set the temperature at 135F, drop the bagged fillets in the water and go away. It may take a few hours to cook, but the fillet’s internal temperature is not going to get any higher than the water temperature, and there is almost no danger of cooking to long (unless you let it cook for days, I suppose).
When the fillet is cooked, remove it from the water bath and take it out of the bag. Dry it, and do the browning step last (remember you really only have to brown the presentation side)
There is probably no more fool-proof way to cook fish than sous vide.