How To Cook Perfect Fish

Fresh fish with veg

Many people are nervous about cooking fish. Don’t be; it’s quick and easy. Once you’ve learned how to cook perfect fish you’ll wonder why you ever found it so scary.

Fish is actually very easy to cook. And very easy to prepare. In fact, now that you can buy fish that has been cleaned, scaled, de-boned and filleted, there is hardly any preparation involved at all. Fish is nutritious, and tasty. and it’s the ultimate fast food. Some fish can be cooked in as little as 7 or 8 minutes.

Different Kinds of Fish

If you’ve ever stood and stared at the fish counter in your local supermarket you could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. There are so many different kinds of fish; which type should you choose and how do you cook it? And what fish goes into which recipe? Let’s have a look at some of the different kinds of fish and learn how to cook them.

White Fish

First of all, there are the firm, white fish. These include turbot, halibut and monkfish. All have a firm, almost meaty texture and a good flavour. They don’t fall apart as easily so they can be cooked for longer if needed. You can poach them (immersing the fish in a liquid such as water or white wine and cooking over a low heat for just a few minutes.) Monkfish can be used in a fish stew, curry or baked in the oven. Its firm texture means that it won’t fall apart during cooking.

Also, these fish can be shallow fried. Dry the fish thoroughly on kitchen paper first then tip some plain flour onto a plate. Season the flour with salt and freshly ground pepper. Dip the fish into the seasoned flour, making sure the fish is thoroughly coated on all sides. This forms a protective coating to help hold the flesh together during cooking, and it also gives the cooked fish a nice crust.

Heat some oil or butter in a non-stick pan (it should cover the base of the pan to a depth of about 4mm) and when very hot, add the fish. If the oil is hot enough this will seal the outside of the fish and it won’t fall apart or taste greasy. Use tongs or a spoon and fork to turn the fish over to cook the other side. Again, this only takes a few minutes. Keep an eye on it, it can overcook in a matter of seconds.

Flaky White Fish

This includes cod, hake and haddock. The flesh is firm to the touch but, when cooked, it will break into flaky pieces when pressed with a fork. You would use this type of fish if you wanted to make a fish pie, fish cakes, or battered and deep fried fish. The texture is just right. Haddock also comes in a smoked variety. Try to buy the undyed version; this will be the natural white fillets as opposed to the bright yellow ones. The flavour is the same.

Delicate Fish

Plaice fillets

Next, there are the delicate-fleshed varieties of fish like skate, plaice and sole. These are the flat-looking fish you see alongside the more round-bodied varieties. They have soft flesh and a fine flavour. Try Dover sole or lemon sole. Both are very good. They are more expensive than fish like cod or haddock, but the taste and texture are worth the extra money.

The best way to cook these fish is to poach or shallow fry them. But remember – they take literally minutes to cook so keep an eye on them. Also, lemon sole and Dover sole are expensive so treat them with the respect they deserve.

Oily Fish

fresh salmon fillets

We should definitely be including more oily fish in our diet; there are many benefits to our health from the Omega-3 fatty acids in these fish. Oily fish include herring, trout, salmon, sprats, mackerel and whitebait. You will come across some small bones when preparing and eating these fish but the flavour and benefit to our health make this worthwhile.

These fish are firm and robust so can be shallow fried, grilled or baked. They can also be cooked on a barbecue. A whole mackerel cooked over hot coals is very special.

Smoked Fish

Smoked salmon

Smoked fish is a real favourite. I remember eating kippers with bread and butter as a child. I didn’t like the bones but I really enjoyed the strong, smoky flavour. The smoking process starts to cook the fish so that all you need to do is finish it off. Or in the case of smoked mackerel or smoked salmon, you can eat it straight from the packet. Great made into a fish pate too.


Plate of shellfish

Shellfish is also very popular. Peeling fresh prawns and dunking them in mayonnaise is one of life’s pleasures. Lobster and crab are luxurious and full of flavour. Again, if you are worried about how to cook and prepare them you can buy crab and lobster already cooked and dressed (in the case of crab) so hardly any preparation is needed. Just eat and enjoy.

Mussels are also good, steamed in white wine and garlic and served with crusty bread to mop up the delicious juices. Just make sure that you discard any that haven’t opened during cooking. They aren’t good to eat and could cause you to have an upset stomach.

Most of the prawns we buy are already cooked and peeled. Raw prawns just need to be pan-fried for a few minutes until their colour changes from dull grey to blushing pink. Be careful to stop cooking as soon as they change colour. Overcooked prawns are unpleasantly rubbery to eat. Prawns in their shells are delicious fried in some garlic butter and served with lemon wedges to squeeze over the prawns and good bread to mop up the buttery juices.

Tip – if the prawns still have the shells on they are much easier to remove once cooked. And prawns in their shells have more flavour than the ready-peeled variety.

Buying and Storing Fish

When you go to buy fish, check its appearance. It should be firm to the touch, eyes bright, and the scales shiny. It should also smell of the sea. If your fish smells ‘fishy’ then the chances are that it’s long past its best. If you’re lucky enough to have a fishmonger near you then get to know them. They can advise you on what fish to buy and how to cook it. Their knowledge and experience will go a long way.

If you’re really lucky, you will live on the coast and can take advantage of fish caught just a few hours before you want to cook it. Apart from catching it yourself, this is the freshest fish you will ever have.

If you can, buy the fish on the same day that you want to cook it. If you have to buy it the day before, wrap it well and store it in the fridge. Don’t leave it any longer than a day, though. If you’re not going to use the fish within 24 hours, then freeze it. Just be sure to thoroughly defrost the fish before cooking, by storing it in the fridge, not on the worktop.

I hope that this article has given you some confidence to try cooking fish yourself. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

For some ideas on how to cook fish see this post on quick easy fish recipes

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4 thoughts on “How To Cook Perfect Fish”

  1. Thank you very much for this valuable post about how to cook perfect fish. I like to cook. But I don’t really know how to cook fish. Everything is explained in detail in your post. I love to cook white fish. I will definitely try it. Be sure to check out posts like this one in the future. I will definitely share this.

    • Thanks Pasindu, I hope that you are encouraged to try some different recipes with white fish. It is so easy and quick to cook, and so many delicious dishes can be made with fish that there are whole recipe books devoted to this subject. Rick Stein is my favourite fish cookery author, he travels all over the world trying out new foods and his passion and enthusiasm shine out in his writing. He shared a recipe for a Thai green curry with monkfish and it was so good it blew me away!

  2. Quite an interesting article. I love fish no matter how it is prepared. Where I come from we also have different ways of cooking fish. Each fish has a unique method of preparation. We have point and kill. This type is called fish pepper soup after cooking. It’s spicy and leaves the tongue burning due to the pepper but everyone enjoys it a lot. We also bake or cook as bbq, also delicious.

    Thanks for sharing, I’ll try out these methods you shared.

    • Hi Bethel, good to hear from you. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for sharing recipes for fish from your country. Fish can take any flavouring on and spices go particularly well with it. I hope you enjoy your fish cooking!


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