The Art of Cooking Fish

So you’ve surprised yourself by bagging a nice load of fish. What now? Well, once you have them cleaned, which you can learn about in THIS blog, you must now decide how you might cook them. Well have no fear - we're here to help.

One of the first things to consider when cooking fish is what TYPE of fish am I cooking? Fish are basically broken down into two categories - Oily and Lean. If you’re unsure, a good rule of thumb is that white-flesh is usually lean, and dark or pink-fleshed fish tends to be oily. Catfish fall into their own category, but can be considered a fairly lean fish.

For our purposes, we are focusing on freshwater fish. Cooking saltwater fish is often a similar process, but you may want to check for any discrepancies. NOTE: for sushi, please disregard all of the following;)

Oily fish are pretty much dominated by salmon and trout.

Lean fish include walleye, panfish, northern pike, muskie and bass varieties.

Cooking methods will differ some as oily fish are best cooked with little or no cooking oil. The best cooking methods allow the oil to drain away from the fish. Whereas lean fish are best basted in order to keep them moist. The lean fish will have fewer calories, but that can be offset by the cooking oil or butter that is used. So it goes - it’s all good!

PANFRYING

Smaller trout, bluegills and perch are actually excellent when panfried whole. Otherwise everything 1 ½” thick and over should be filleted

Start by adding ⅛“ to ¼” vegetable oil to a large, heavy skillet. Non-stick skillets will require less. Add oil as necessary between batches of fish. Do not crowd the pan as it cools the oil and makes the fish soggy. You want them crisp and brown on the outside and flaky inside. 

Whole fish should be dusted with seasoned flour and cooked 3 to 5 minutes on the first side, and 2 to 5 minutes on the second side. Insert a fork into the backbone and twist. If the fish is done, the flesh will separate easily from the bone.

Fillets can be dipped in milk, buttermilk or an egg wash. Coatings can be pre-packaged seasonings or flour, corn meal, bread crumbs or even pancake mix. The flesh should flake easily at the thickest part.

Cooking time:   1st Side            2nd Side

¼” Thick -         3 minutes          1 to 2 minutes

½” Thick -         3 minutes          1 to 3 minutes

¾” Thick -         5 minutes          1 ½ to 3 ½ minutes

1”  Thick -         5 minutes          2 to 4 minutes

Whole -             3 to 5 min.         2 to 5 minutes

You'll want to let the fish cool on paper towels, and if needed keep them warm in a 175 degree oven.

 

DEEP FRYING

The secret to successful deep frying is proper oil temperature. 375 degrees is recommended. The oil should have a high burning point - corn, peanut or safflower are popular as they don’t change the fish flavor. Another key is getting the pieces as uniform in size as possible to cook evenly.

Coating:

Egg wash 

1 egg and 1 tablespoon milk 

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

Dip in egg mixture, then flour mixture.


Beer Batter 

1 cup flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon paprika

1 cup beer

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Mix dry ingredients and blend in beer and oil and dip

You can begin by test-frying a single piece. If the batter is too thin, it may fall off the fish and you can add flour. You will want to fry the pieces for 2 to 3 minutes, depending on thickness, then turn and cook 1 to 2 minutes more until golden brown.

If you’re doing multiple batches, allow the oil to return to 375 degrees and add more oil if needed. It is best if the fish and batter are cold as the coating will seal immediately. Drain the fish on paper towels and keep them warm in a 175 degree oven if necessary.

BAKING

Baking is ideal for stuffed whole fish or thick fillets or steaks. Basting will help prevent them from drying out. To brown them before serving, baste and then broil them for a minute or more. Stuffing can range from rice, vegetable or bread stuffing. 

Wipe the fish dry and place in a greased pan, and brush with a mixture of 1 tablespoon lemon juice and ½ cup melted butter. Cover the pan with a lid or foil, and baste two more times during cooking in a 375 degree oven. 

Cooking times:

Whole Fish - cook for 10 minutes + 9 to 12 minutes per pound.

Fillets - cook for 10 minutes + 10 to 15 minutes per pound

Steaks - cook for 10 minutes + 10 to 15 minutes per pound

Test for doneness with a fork at the thickest part. It should flake easily. Save the juices for sauces or chowder. 


OVEN FRYING

This type of frying will crisp and brown the fish without using much oil, and reduces frying odors. For best results, use lean fish over oily ones, and fillets as opposed to steaks or whole fish. Use a baking pan large enough for a single layer of fish without crowding.

Heat oven to 450 degrees and use ⅛’ of oil in the pan. Heat the pan for five minutes before adding the fillets. An egg wash and seasoned flour makes a perfect coating if you decide to bread them. 

Cooking times:

¼” Thick - 9 to 10 minutes

½” Thick - 10 to 11 minutes

¾” Thick - 11 to 12 minutes

 


BROILING

Broiled fish has a nice flavor, but be aware that the high heat dries the fish out faster. You will want to select an oily fish - trout or salmon varieties are excellent choices. If you choose a lean fish variety, marinade it with butter and lemon juice and baste often with the same mixture.

One secret for serving up moist fish is to poach or steam them until almost done, and then baste and broil them quickly to brown them up. You can also add ¼” to ½” of boiling fish or vegetable stock, beer or wine to the broiling pan to ensure moistness.

Place the skin side up first if applicable, and place the pan 4 inches from the broiler, (or 5 inches for thin fillets). 

Cooking time:     1st Side                  2nd Side

¼” Thick -            3 to 4 minutes              N/A

½” Thick -            3 minutes               1 to 3 minutes

¾” Thick -            3 minutes               2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes

Steaks -                5 minutes               2 to 4 minutes

Whole Fish -        5 minutes               4 to 8 minutes

If using an electric range, broil with the door slightly ajar to keep the heat constant. Save the drippings for sauces or chowder.

 


GRILLING

Cooking fish on the BBQ grill is fun and easy with very little cleanup. Outdoor cooking times vary considerably depending on air temp, wind, and distance from the coals or elements. Due to this you’ll want to test the fish often. Lean fish should be basted often, and can be marinated in Italian dressing beforehand. 

You’ll want to brush the grill with oil or spray with a non-stick coating. You should also oil the fillets or steaks as well, and place skin side down on a piece of aluminum foil cut to size. Whole fish can simply be brushed with oil or butter and grilled without foil.

Cooking time:     1st Side                 2nd Side

Fillets -               3 minutes              3 to 8 minutes

Steaks -              5 minutes              3 to 8 minutes

Whole Fish -      5 minutes              3 to 7 minutes

2 to 3 lb. Fish    10 minutes            8 to 12 minutes

 


OPEN FIRE COOKING

Here we have the shore lunch special! What’s better than a fish cooked over an open flame in the wilderness? One note of caution: keep the fire small to avoid overcooking. Using a grate is ideal, but if it’s a true shore lunch, make sure you have rocks that offer an even surface before making the fire. Backyard fire pits also work very well.

Extra equipment should include heavy-duty aluminum foil, a long-handled spatula, fireproof gloves, a grill basket and cast iron or heavy aluminum skillet. Cooking techniques vary widely so feel free to experiment!

Whole fish, for instance, can simply be roasted by impaling them on a sturdy, green, hardwood stick. You can even eat them in a corn-on-the-cob fashion. 

Steam fish by wrapping them in greased heavy-duty aluminum foil placed right in the hot coals. Turn them one or two times. Cooking time will be shorter so check often.

If using a grate, follow the same instructions as barbecuing and tent them with foil if needed to preserve heat and protect them from the elements. Cooking times will be very similar to grilling them, depending upon the size of your fire.

To panfry, use ⅛” oil in a heavy skillet and cook with a flour coating, (or nothing at all). Keep the fire as constant as possible under the skillet to ensure uniform heat. Cooking times will be similar to panfrying on a stove, but again be aware that they may be done sooner.

 

SMOKING

Home-smoked fish offers a distinctive flavor that reflects the many options one has. We probably all know someone who is proud to offer up samples of fish they’ve smoked in the portable smoker. Smokers have gained a huge following in recent years so your options are plentiful. 

Hot smoking is the type done typically at home, as the fish are heated to 180 degrees and will keep up to 2 weeks in a refrigerator. Cold Smoking is actually a curing process that heats them to 100 degrees and may take a week or more. Those fish can be kept for as long as 3 months.

Virtually any kind of fish can be smoked, but certainly oily fish are the best for this. They absorb the smoke better and are less likely to dry out. Try to keep fillets under 1” thick. 

Types - hot smokers come in virtually all shapes and sizes. Any type of enclosure works that can regulate the air flow. The heat source can be electric or gas, or just a pile of briquets. A pan of hardwood chips is the most common method of creating the smoke. Old ranges, garbage cans, refrigerators - you name it - with a little ingenuity they all work.

 

Certainly electric smokers are far and away the most popular, as they can be used for all manner of meat beyond just fish. They cook with a dry heat, though water smokers will keep the fish moist but not preserve them as well - eat those fish in a day or two.

Whatever method you use, you’ll want to soak your wood chips beforehand. Many electric smokers have pre-made briquets that are formed for those models, which are ready to go. 

Brining is also a technique you may want to try. Simply add 1 cup of pickling salt and a ¼ cup of sugar to 10 cups of water and heat until dissolved, then cool. Fillets or whole fish can be brined for 12 to 18 hours for best results. Use a non-metal container for the brine process.

Cooking time will average around 6 to 8 hours for dry heat, and water smoking will require 2 to 3 hours.

POACHING

Woah - (not THAT kind of poaching). The type we’re referring to is basically steaming the fish. Custom poachers are the best method to achieve this, though most steamers or double boilers will work as well. 

You will want to fill a steamer or poacher with 1” of water with a greased rack over it. Place the fish over boiling water, and add boiling water if needed for longer cooking. Cooking times are not as crucial for poaching or steaming as they won’t overcook as quickly. The fish can be served either hot or cold, usually with melted butter or lemon juice for dipping.

Cooking times:

½” Thick - 4 to 6 minutes

¾” Thick - 6 to 8 minutes

1” Thick -  9 to 11 minutes

Whole Fish - 9 to 11 minutes per inch

Steaks - 6 to 8 minutes (9 to 11 for 1” or thicker)

 


So whatever method you use, cooking fish is truly an art in and of itself. Feel free to experiment and explore the myriad of recipes out there for enhancing your catch and enjoying the bounty we enjoy from this pastime. After all, it’s all part of making memories, having fun and enjoying the water. Buon appetito!   

 -WR