Go fish (and always win!) once you have these tips and tricks to guide you through how to cook fish the right way at home.

By Karla Walsh
April 29, 2021
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During the pandemic, canned beans, toilet paper, and disinfecting wipes weren't the only things flying off supermarket shelves.

Fascinatingly, fish was too, our friends at Food & Wine reported. Previously reserved for restaurant dining more than home cooking (Americans spent twice as much on seafood from restaurants than retail sources in 2017), fresh seafood sales jumped 25 percent and frozen seafood sales increased 26 percent during December 2020 — prime holiday celebration season. (ICYMI, here's why buying frozen fish is actually a pretty brilliant idea for most of us.)

So what took us so long? The seafood cooking-averse cite a variety of reasons, from avoiding the smell and simply not having practice to living somewhere land-locked and honestly feeling intimidated. One 2019 survey by The Food Marketing Institute found that only about one in four American adults felt confident about how to prep seafood at home.

Whether you're a beginner or an experienced cook, the seafood success strategies ahead will help you make the most of your ingredient investment — and score a restaurant-quality meal at home.

7 Common Fish-Cooking Mistakes (and How To Avoid Committing Fish Faux Pas)

1. Starting With Sub-Par Seafood.

Fish cooking solution: To cook great fish you need to start with quality fish. Before you buy, study up on the latest Seafood Watch "best choices" to ensure you're getting an option that's sustainable. Beyond that, reel in seafood that's firm; and if the fish has eyes, they should be bright (not cloudy). It should smell mild and fresh like the ocean — not uber-fishy — and have firm flesh when you press into it. The FDA has more food safety guidance about how to select and store seafood here.

2. The Surface is Soggy.

Fish cooking solution: For the ultimate sear and all-around best results, begin with a dry surface on your fish. Using a clean kitchen towel or paper towel, pat the fish dry, then allow it to sit uncovered on a plate for about 30 minutes prior to cooking. This will allow it to dry out even more for a crispy exterior and so that seasonings can penetrate better.

3. Seasoning Too Soon.

Fish cooking solution: Speaking of seasoning, salt pulls moisture away from the seafood itself. For best flavor and texture, wait until it's about 80 percent of the way cooked then season with salt.

4. Your Heat is Too Low.

Fish cooking solution: If you're using a skillet or grill (and not, say, roasting or baking), it's vital to mind your temp even before you add the seafood to your pan. Aim for medium-high to high heat; searing hot yet not smoking. Then preheat the pan and a tablespoon or two of oil for about 3 to 5 minutes before adding the fish. Not only will this lead to a better sear, but this will also make it easier to flip without leaving any bites behind when you flip. Stuck seafood is often the result of a too-cool pan or too-water-logged flesh.

5. Cooking Skin-Side Up.

Fish cooking solution: Side A cooks longer than side B. It's best to start cooking fish skin-side down because the thick skin protects the more delicate flesh, plus it will help the skin get delightfully crisp. (Don't love eating the skin? Simply peel it away after cooking but before diving in to your meal.)

6. Flipping it Multiple Times.

Fish cooking solution: Unless you're making something like a shrimp stir-fry, your best bet is to cook the seafood on one side and flip only once — and only when the fish readily releases on the cooked side. Trying to flip too often may lead to a tougher texture, and you might lose some pieces along the way. The less you mess with it the better! If the pan is hot enough and the fish is dry enough, it should easily and fully release from the pan when you're ready to flip it a single time.

7. Cooking Too Long.

Fish cooking solution: Perhaps the most common seafood mistake? Overcooking it. This produces dry, less flavorful, and tough fish. As a general rule, you'll be golden with 10 minutes of cook time per inch of thickness (flipping at about the halfway point). When you remove the fish from the heat, it should be firm and opaque on the edges yet still a little translucent in the center. Feeling unsure or prefer a definitive answer to, "when is my fish done?" An instant-read thermometer will be your BFF. White fish is done at about 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), serve medium-rare salmon at 125 degrees F (50 degrees C), and if seared yet rare tuna is your jam, watch for 110 degrees F (43 degrees C).

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