Monday, October 10, 2005

Fish Personalities

Before you roll up your sleeves and fire up the stove, let’s talk about what makes each fish special. If you’ve ever tasted salmon and tuna, you’ll agree that they are completely different beasts. Salmon is seductively lush and tuna is bold and confident. Our goal as cooks is to respect their personalities and to bring out the best in them. Don’t worry; understanding fish personalities does not take a Ph.D. in psychology. It’s actually quite simple. A personality of a fish is a combination of its thickness, texture, fat content, and flavor. Understanding these 4 elements will help you choose the right cooking methods, and find appropriate substitutes when a particular fish is not available. It will also make you more comfortable when faced with unfamiliar fish. If fish shopping feels like a cocktail party where you stick with the only two people you know (salmon and cod, anyone?), it's time for fish psychology 101.


Commonly available fish fillets range from 1/3” thick (sole, flounder) to 1.5” thick (salmon, cod). Fish with huge fillets, like tuna and swordfish, are usually sold in steaks (a cross-section cut). Fish with tiny fillets, like sardines and smelts, are sold whole.

Thickness of the steaks does not depend on the type of fish since it’s a cross-section cut. It can be made as thick or thin as the person butchering the fish desires, but traditionally, steaks are around 1” thick.

Whole fish:
Whole fish come in all shapes and sizes. They can be as small as anchovies (1/4 inch thick) or as huge as swordfish (almost 2 feet thick). Fish that are over 4" thick or over 8 pounds are rarely cooked whole.

There is a whole spectrum of fish textures from fragile to dense. Here are some examples.

FragileDelicateSlightly firmFirmDense
Red snapper
Striped bass

To determine the texture of a fish, bend its fillet or steak and get a feel for its flexibility. If it feels stiff when you bend it and as firm as meat, it is dense. Try that on a piece of swordfish or tuna to get a sense for what a dense fish feels like. If it’s flexible and drapes like fabric, it is fragile. Fillets of fragile fish, like sole or flounder, are so flexible that you can roll them up from head to tail. The other fish textures are somewhere between these two extremes.

Delicate and slightly firm fish lend themselves nicely to any cooking method, so don’t worry if you can’t tell the difference between their textures. The fish at the extremes of the texture spectrum are not as versatile. It's not a good idea to grill fragile fish, such as sole and flounder. They are likely to fall through the grill rack, and there goes your dinner. The dense and firm fish-- like tuna, swordfish, and mahi-mahi don't lend themselves well to poaching and steaming. Their texture resembles that of meat, and they are cooked as such. Can you imagine a poached lamb or pork chop? Neither can I. Firm and dense fish are best cooked with dry, intense heat methods: grilling, broiling, and searing.

Texture is also the deciding factor in whether or not to marinade a fish. Many dense fish tend to dry out during cooking, and can benefit from sitting in an oily marinade for 30 minutes to couple of hours. That’s the secret to juicy swordfish. The only dense fish that can be just as good without a marinade is tuna when cooked very rare. Fish that are not dense do not need a marinade.

Fat Content
Fish fat is the carrier of flavor and all those wonderful omega-3 fatty acids, so it’s nothing to shy away from. The easiest way to evaluate the fat content of a fish is to broil it. If there is a lot of fat left in your broiler dish, it’s a fatty fish. As a general rule of thumb, white fleshed fish are lean, orange and dark fleshed fish are fatty, and cream fleshed fish can be lean, medium, or fatty. The fattier fish have a more succulent moist texture than lean fish and they are easier to cook since they don't tend to dry out.

The flavor of different fish varies from mild to very intense, and it often goes hand in hand with fat content. Most white fleshed fish are mild, cream fleshed fish are moderately flavorful, and dark fleshed fish are intensely flavorful. The fish with orange flesh all belong to the salmon family and they have a very particular, somewhat sweet flavor.

When following fish recipes, it is always possible to use the fish of similar texture, fat content, and flavor intensity. Thickness of the fish rarely makes a difference in substitution. Even the same species can have a huge variation in thickness. But remember that you have to adjust the cooking time, allowing around 8 minutes per inch of thickness. For example, a 1/2 inch thick arctic char fillet cooks twice as fast as a 1 inch thick salmon fillet.


mzn said...

Nice blog you have here.

Ever try brining fish or just salting ahead of time? I have done the latter occasionally, usually not quite on purpose, and I liked the results.

Helen said...

Hey there mzn,

Thanks for leaving me my very first comment :) It's so fun when people come to visit. I've only tried brining fish before hot-smoking. It gives it a great flavor, so I don't see any reason not to do it for other cooking methods. I'll have to try that. When you say "salting", do you mean just seasoning ahead of time, or really salting like for gravlax?

mzn said...

It is my honor to be first, Helen.

Oh no, I didn't mean like for gravlax. I meant something like: at 6:30 I salt a few filets of fish intending to put them on the grill around 6:45. But then dinner gets postponed for whatever reason, and the fish doesn't get cooked until 7:30.

Helen said...

If I am just putting salt and pepper on fish, I do it immediately before cooking. But when I marinate (I usually only go through the trouble for dense fish), I do add salt to the marinade, along with healthy amount of oil and let the fish sit 1-2 hours. I'll have to try just the salting ahead of tiem without the marinade next time.

Melissa CookingDiva said...

Helen! the guidelines look great---thanks! :)

aritchin said...

Salting fish before cooking is a time-honored Japanese technique; it draws out extra water and concentrates flavor. Use coarse/kosher salt, heavily, and leave for 30-60 minutes. Wash thoroughly.

This works well for dense, fatty fish, especially salmon; not so well with light, fragile fish.

Helen said...

Hi aritchin,

I heard about this Japanese method, but haven't tried it yet. Thanks for reminding me about a new fun thing to try with fish.


Djoma said...

Pardon my asking such a basic question, but how different are the methods of cooking: grilling, broiling and searing? How is the fire/heat manage in terms of intensity and source (bottom/side/top).

I just stumbled into your website tonite and am getting a good education on fishmongering and seafood cooking. Thank you for your generous sharing of personal and stock knowledge.

Helen said...

Hi Djoma,

Welcome to Beyond Salmon. Grilling, broiling and searing are all direct/high heat methods. In most cases they can be used interchangeably. There are however some differences in the actual mechanics of how these methods work. Searing in a non-stick or cast iron pan (fish will stick in a regular pan) will give you the most crispy skin. Grilling will give you that unique smoky flavor. Broiling will give you decent browning without the splatter of searing. You can sear and broil any fish. Grilling is a bit trickier -- avoid it for really fragile, skinless fillets (sole, flounder, cod). They'll fall right through the grill rack.


Carolyn said...

I just absolutely can't stand the taste of fish. My husband loves it. He normally grills it and I have a steak. Recently I have decided to lose weight and change my eating habits to include healthy meals and of course fish. I need to understand what kinds of seasoning and marinades and cooking methods I can use to make fish less fishy tasting and still healthy (low calories). MY husband would love it if I could enjoy fish with him. I enjoy scallops and lobster and crab and shrimp but fish is something I need help enjoying..

Helen said...

Hi Carolyn,

If you are not a big fish eater, start with ones that are low in fat and mild, like halibut or sole. And try gentle cooking techniques like poaching, rather than grilling and searing. I don't believe in marinades for fish (except for the really dense ones). Cooking fish is all about catching the moment it's done and letting its natural personality shine through. Here are some dishes you might like:

Poached Halibut with Cilantro Cream

Sole with Crab and Spinach stuffing


Anonymous said...

i'll vouch for the pre-cooking salting method by the Orientals. my mum always rubs salt on the skin then rinses it off before applying a fresh layer for marinating. Apparently it gets rid of the fishiness without removing the flavour. :)

Il Coniglio Assetato said...


Thank you, thank you, thank you! After much time searching for a comprehensive answer to my question, "what does each fish taste like?", I came across your entry, and it was JUST what the doctor ordered. Besides, being a DC transplant form Boston, I knew I could trust your info. I'll be adding your link to my food blog (My Splendid Table), that others may bask in the opulence of your knowledge.

Anonymous said...


My sister eats a lot of fish, she doesn't know how to cook, so I cook for her. I don't rea;;y fish, so when cooking for her, I often call her to kitchen to taste it. She doesn't really like it when the fish has its "Fish taste" how do I get rid off the fish taste in fish?? Do I sound kind of crazy? Is this even possible? Please help.

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous,

The fishy taste in fish is usually a result of overcooking. If you follow this guide on doneness and avoid really strong tasting fish (sardines, bluefish, swordfish, etc), you shouldn't have a problem.


Anonymous said...

i was put into the hot seat once when i went to my girlfriend's dorm and tried to prepare something good to eat. i salted the 1 1/2" thick fish fillet with a liberal amount of sea salt, while i had rings of capsicum and chillies in a big n deep pyrex container along with tequila (college dorms), lemon juice, olive oil. left the two separate for about an hour or so.. then plopped the fish into the big pyrex container (the oil should go about halfway of the fish) and popped it in the microwave (ahh dorms) uncovered for about 12 mins then another 3 mins covered to steam. and voila! of course, boiling would be best.

Gene B. said...

Great Blog, there is some great information in the body of your page. I manage a restaurant, and am responsible for all of the purchasing. We have the usual suspects on our menu Red Snapper, Lemon Sole and so on, what we have really made a name for ourselves with is having a weekly fish special which is tasty, rare, and somewhat out there. Things we have served are: Swordfish, Red & Black Grouper, Mako Shark, Halibut, Tilapia, Triple Tail, Bluefish, Seabass, Chilean Seabass, Rainbow Trout, Tuna... Any other suggestions ? Filet should be good sized. ps thanks for this blog :)

Helen said...

Hi Gene,

It's so great that your restaurant offers fish specials. Here are some other ideas for you:

black cod (sable)
branzino (best whole)
skate wing (best on the bone)

Anonymous said...

hi helen.. im newbie here.. just wanna ask a question on what the differents beteeen brine salting n dry salting fish in texture n taste? which one r best?

Helen said...

I don't have a good answer for you about brining vs. salting. The only time I brine fish is for smoking. And I don't normally pre-salt, marinade, etc. Right before cooking, I sprinkle it with salt and pepper and cook immediately. I wouldn't recommend brining for any method besides smoking, as it makes fish wet. even for smoking, you have to dry it out for several hours before proceeding with the recipe.

Susan said...

Hi Helen,

would you be so kind as to address the question of the use of preservatives on fresh fish. Perhaps in Boston this problem does not exist, but here in New York City where I work, and on Long Island where I live, buying fresh fish or ordering it in mid-price restaurants results in something that tastes as a combination of mild but distinct Clorox plus antibiotics. Really disgusting taste. I am sure it improves the "shelf life" of the fish... I cannot find any info on how to tell raw fish processed in this manner from the really fresh fish I crave.


Helen said...

Hi Susan,

Hmm, I haven't heard of fish being treated with chlorox, and I don't believe you can actually taste antibiotics. but I have heard of fish being soaked in what's essentially a salt solution to prolong its shelf life. to avoid all these problems, only buy fish from a reputable fishmonger. how do you know which ones are reputable? be nosy and ask questions. become a regular and see if you are happy with their product. if not, move on. there is no way to tell what fish has been treated with by looking at it.

Also, realize that excellent quality fish is expensive and unfortunately there is no way to get the best fish cheaply. that being said, fish prices vary. for example bluefish is around $8/LB and halibut is $20/Lb right now in Boston area. Both are of the highest quality, but due to supply and demand the blue is much cheaper.


Anonymous said...


Great blog here. I'd like to make chilean sea bass recipe but it's so expensive. Can you recommend a similar fish to replace it?

Helen said...

Sable is similar and depending on where you live, it might be cheaper. It's a west coast fish, so it will be significantly cheaper there. But even on the east coast, my guess is that it usually retails for $16-18, while Chilean sea bass is $25-28.


Ellie said...

HI Helen,
I'm making a fish curry that calls for a 'firm fleshed' fish. What fish would you reccommend (especially for a beginner fish cook) as well as something that is reletively easy to find/economical.

Ellie said...

HI Helen,
I'm making a fish curry that calls for a 'firm fleshed' fish. What fish would you reccommend (especially for a beginner fish cook) as well as something that is reletively easy to find/economical.

Helen said...

Hi Ellie,

Mahi-mahi would be my first choice. It's inexpensive (as far as fish goes), and has a nice firm texture. Swordfish is very widely available, but it's more firm and more expensive than mahi. Red snapper and tilapia are moderately firm and widely available.


Breanne said...

This was so helpful, Thank you.

Heathen Marquee said...


I haven't read through all of your entries yet--The School of Fish. I do believe you write quite a lot like me. I'm going to complete this school of fish, I think it's a precious little piece of the internet.

I've been interested in fish for a long time, but I have never had any interest in cooking. I lift weights, and my body craves protein, and I find nothing as satisfying as fish. I've an appetite for it, and a particular taste for it, and reading your blog has helped me understand what it is I want.

I'm not the aficionado you or Carl is, but I'm learning. I'm just a writer and a bodybuilder with a an uneducated taste for something--you've helped me define what. Many thanks!

Term Papers said...

You make it pretty easy, and yummy, and the cuttings are looking very beautiful and tasty.
And it is helpful that you share the tip of fish, You are really look like a professional cooker.

Term papers

Kat said...

I have some fish in my freezer - frozen basa fillets (a type of catfish) - how firm do you think this would be considered? Have you worked with basa before, and do you have any tips? Because to put it bluntly, I've never been able to make it taste any good.

Helen said...

Hi Kat,

I don't think there is a way to make your frozen fish taste good. The only previously frozen stuff that I've had that is worth eating is very high end flash frozen fish that was kept in a super freezer (not a regular home or supermarket freezer). So, stop trying and get yourself some fresh fish. If you are on a budget stick to cheap species like mackerel, bluefish, etc. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as cheap good fish.