Everything I Know About Cooking Fish

Apr 26, 2019 | Cooking Tips, Fish and Seafood

For the vast majority of my life, I have lived less than a ten-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean. That great blue expanse, teeming with more life than I can imagine. Despite the abundance and proximity of the ocean, it was more common to see pork chops or ground beef on the dinner table than fish. It wasn’t that often that I would see my mom cooking fish. When we did eat fish, it was limited to salmon or haddock.

My family is not unique in our limited exposure to fish. Even in restaurants in Nova Scotia, it is much easier to sell salmon or haddock than any other type of fish. Halibut would be up there too. And with cod becoming more and more available that is also being sold more. But nothing sells better than salmon and haddock.

The truth is, I know more people who grew up on the ocean who don’t like fish, than ones that do. How is that possible?

Why, when the ocean is right there, do we limit ourselves to such a small selection? And how is it possible that so many people don’t even like fish? I’m sure that there is a complicated socio-economic explanation that can be traced back generations, but there is also a simple answer.

Whenever I ask someone why they don’t like fish, the answer is almost always the same. Their mother always overcooked it, and it turned them off of it forever. I’m serious. That is the answer I get time and time again.

As to why we limit ourselves mostly to salmon and haddock, I honestly don’t know. It could be familiarity. It’s all we know. It could be the price. I remember my mother buying the whole salmon for four or five dollars. It could be availability. Our grocery stores aren’t exactly stocked to the gills with varieties of fish. Who knows?

Whatever the reason, the only solution is knowledge. When you know how to better cook fish, you are more likely to eat it. When you know what you are looking for, you are more likely to buy. And, when you are confident in your ability to purchase and cook familiar fish, you are more likely to branch out and try something new.

And so today, in hopes that we all expand our horizons a bit, I present to you …

Everything I Know About Cooking Fish

Buying Fish

Buying Pieces of fish

Today, it is most common to buy fish in pieces. It could be whole fillets or individual portions, and it could be fresh or frozen. No matter how you purchase it, there are some things to keep in mind.

Where to buy fish?

First of all, I highly suggest that if you have access to a store or market that specializes in selling fish that you buy it there rather than at the supermarket. In all honesty, where I’m from, it is common to buy fish right from the fisherman from the back of their truck in a hardware store parking lot. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.

I have found that anytime I have had problems with the freshness or quality of fish, it has come from the grocery store. Having said that, there is a convenience element to buying your fish where you purchase all of your other groceries. I get it, and I still do it too.

Buying pieces of fresh fish.

When buying pieces of fish, there are three main things to look for: the smell, the colour, and the texture. Fresh fish doesn’t smell bad. It doesn’t smell like much at all. Maybe mildly like the ocean. That’s it. If it smells, don’t buy it. The colour should be bright and crisp. Salmon, trout, and arctic char should be bright pink or red. Whitefish should be white, not grey. Finally, the fish should not be slimy except for arctic char that still has the skin on it. It is perfectly normal for the char skin to be slimy.

It is perfectly acceptable for you to step up to the fish counter, point to a piece of fish and ask for a closer look. They likely won’t let you hold it, but you should be able to get close enough to tell if it smells or to see if it looks odd in any way.

Also, when buying fresh fish, it is always best to eat it that day or at the latest the next day. You don’t want it sitting around for longer than that. And always ask if it has been previously frozen or not. If it has been, it’s shelf life is limited, and you really shouldn’t freeze it again.

I hope this goes without saying, but when buying fish, stay away from the discount bin. It isn’t worth the few dollars you are going to save.

Buying pieces of frozen fish.

Modern fishing trawlers are very advanced. It is not uncommon for fish these days to be processed and flash-frozen right on board the trawler within hours of it being hauled in. So, buying frozen fish isn’t too much of a worry, with a few exceptions.

I always look for where the fish is from. I typically stay away from farmed fish from Asia like tilapia as their health standards and regulations are a lot different than ours.

I also generally don’t buy fish that was frozen in-store. You know it when you see it. It is packaged on those blue Styrofoam boards. That is typically fish that was nearing the end of its life in the fresh display and so got frozen to be sold another day.

Buying Whole Fish

When buying whole fish, the same principles apply as with pieces of fish. It shouldn’t smell, and it shouldn’t look slimy. You also want to look at the eyes of the fish. They should not be cloudy. The clearer they are, the fresher the fish.

I would also typically ask the fishmonger to scale the fish if it isn’t already done, as you don’t want to do that. You can even ask them to fillet it for you if you would like. I will say that in grocery stores, the person working behind the fish counter likely knows less about fish than you do. Go to a fishmonger.

Wild Fish vs. Farmed Fish

There is a lot of talk about farmed fish these days, and so I thought it was important to talk about it a little. Fish farming is an ancient practice that dates back at least as far as ancient Rome. It was common for the wealthy to have tilapia ponds so they could always have fresh fish.

Today, fish farming is becoming increasingly more important. Our demand for fish continues to grow, and we are fishing the oceans dry. Before too long, farmed fish will likely be more common than wild-caught. It’s an inevitability. Having said that, there have been issues with farmed fish. But the technology is improving, and it is becoming more friendly to the environment and the fish. I would suggest doing a little research on the topic.

Cooking Fish

The key to cooking fish is not to overcook it. I know, I know, that is the most obvious statement in the world, but it’s true. Fish is not chicken. It doesn’t need to have the crap cooked out of it to be safe. For the record, neither does chicken. When fish is prepared correctly, it should tender and moist. It should not leave your mouth feeling dry.

Let’s take a look at some common fish and how to cook them.

Cooking Haddock Fillets

Let’s say you want to bake some haddock. You lay it on a baking sheet and season it with a little lemon, salt and pepper, and fresh herbs. Sounds delicious. You turn the oven on to 400°F, how long does it take to cook that fish through? 45 minutes? 30 minutes? No. Probably 10-12 minutes depending on the size of the fillets. Big fillets may take 15 minutes.

Haddock, should easily flake when cooked, but not fall apart. It should be firm to the touch but not springy. It shouldn’t feel rubbery. When you do cut into it, the flakes should look shiny. Not translucent, that’s undercooked. Not dry, that’s overcooked.

Cooking Salmon Fillets

The exact same principles apply to cooking salmon, whether it is portions or whole fillets that apply to haddock. There are only really two differences, A salmon fillet, so half a salmon will take longer to cook than haddock. Likely, 18-22 minutes. A portion of salmon will take about 10-12 minutes. Less if you sear it in a pan first.

Just like with the haddock, it should flake easily but not fall apart. It should be firm but not springy. When you cut into it, it should look shiny, not dull. It shouldn’t look dry. And it shouldn’t look translucent.

Basic principles for cooking fish

These basic principles for cooking fish are pretty much universal. There are, of course, exceptions, like with tuna. You want a tuna steak to be rare in the middle. Honestly, if your salmon or haddock is slightly undercooked, it isn’t going to hurt you. You’ve probably had salmon sushi before. The key is really, really just don’t overcook it.

Cooking times are based on the thickness of the fish, just like with anything else. But what I can say is that typically, the cooking time is much less than you think it is. It’s okay to check the fish and then keep cooking it if it isn’t ready yet. So, aim to undercook it a little and then pop it back in.

Cooking Fish In A Pan

The key to cooking fish in a pan is to start with a hot pan, don’t overcrowd it, use a bit of oil and butter, and again, don’t overcook it.

Fish that you cook in a pan is generally going to be thin fillets which cook quickly. Typically, 3-5 minutes per side is more than enough. Obviously, the thicker the fish, the longer it will need to cook.

Start with the presentation side down. That’s just the more attractive side of the fish. Leave it alone for 3-4 minutes, flip it and leave it alone again. Only flip it the one time. Check it for doneness (again, firm but not springy) and either take it out of the pan or keep cooking it.

For pan-frying fish that still has the skin on, you want to get the pan nice and hot. Add some oil and butter and place the fish skin side up. Only cook it for 2 minutes or so. Flip and cook it the rest of the way. You want to cook it 60-70% of the way through the skin side down. This should give you a nice crisp skin as long as the pan stays hot.



When cooking fish, use mild flavours. There is no point in burying the taste of the fish. A little seasoning, a few fresh herbs, and a little acid like lemon or wine will go a long way.


I hope that this had helped in some way guide you towards eating a bit more fish. I know that I have to. The key is just not to be afraid of it. If you have any questions about this post leave them in the comments. And, if you have any questions about cooking fish or anything else hit me up on social media Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

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