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Overcome Your Fear of Cooking Fish

The world's oceans offer an endless variety of seafood that can be prepared in many delicious ways. Many people hesitate at the thought of cooking seafood, but you don’t have to be an expert to cook it. Many fish recipes can be used interchangeably; all you need is a basic understanding that fish are categorized into two types:

"Lean Fish" is a designation given to fish with a fat content ranging from 0.5 percent to no more than five percent. Because of their low oil content, these fish maintain quality during freezing for up to six months, and the very leanest can be held in the freezer up to one year. As a general rule of thumb, most lean fish are white-fleshed. Examples of lean fish include:

  • Flounder
  • Trout
  • Wild Striped Bass
  • Snapper
  • Black Drum
  • Tilapia
  • Cod
  • Red Drum
  • Perch
  • Grouper
  • Halibut
  • DoverSole
  • Haddock

"Fat Fish" Don’t let the name mislead you — “fat” fish are good for you! These fish generally have an oil content of more than five percent. Since the oil is distributed throughout the flesh of the fish, the flesh tends to be darker than that of leaner species. The exact percentage of oil in the fish flesh depends on such variables as species, season of the year and even the water depth from which the fish is taken. These fish do not freeze as well as lean fish and should be used within three months. Fat fish include:

  • Salmon
  • Chilean Sea Bass
  • Tuna
  • Pompano


Lean fish and fat fish may be used interchangeably in recipes. Just keep these general rules in mind:

  • Fat fish tend to have a stronger flavor than lean fish; therefore, the flavor of the fish may be masked if a lean fish is substituted in a recipe.
  • If lean fish is substituted for fat fish, frequent basting may be required to prevent drying during cooking.
  • Lean fish tend to have a firmer texture, thus making them the perfect choice for recipes such as soups, stews or chowders, which call for frequent handling. Fish such as grouper or cod will retain their shape and will have a more pleasing finished appearance.

Fish lends itself to versatility and creativity. Exchanging one species of fish for another in a recipe will produce delicious and rewarding results, particularly as you learn to identify fat fish from lean fish. Substituting one fish for another in a recipe is one of the joys of cooking this ocean delicacy. Learn to enjoy all fish; it's good for you!

How Much Fish To Buy

An average serving of fish is about six ounces. The following is an estimated purchasing guide.

  • Whole or round (eviscerated) fish: 1-1/2 pounds per person
  • Dressed or cleaned fish: 1 pound per person
  • Fillets and steaks: 1/3 pound per person (or six ounces)

Cooking Fish By The 10-Minute Rule

Timing is most important when it comes to cooking seafood. Perfectly cooked fish is moist and maintains a delicate flavor; overcooked fish is dry and less palatable. The "10-minute rule" is the best guide to cooking seafood by conventional methods.

  • Measure the fish at its thickest point. If the fish is stuffed or rolled, measure it after stuffing or rolling and then time it accordingly.
  • Cook fish 10 minutes per inch, turning it halfway through the cooking time. For example, a one-inch fish steak should be cooked 5 minutes on each side for a total of 10 minutes. Pieces of fish less than 1/2-inch thick do not need to be turned over.
  • Add 5 minutes to the total cooking time if you are cooking the fish in foil, or if the fish is cooked in a sauce.
  • Double the cooking time for frozen fish that has not been defrosted.

When Is Fish Cooked?

There is no secret about cooking fish properly: it is all in the timing. The most common mistake people make when cooking fish is overcooking it. Fish is done when the flesh begins to turn from translucent to opaque or white and feels firm but still moist — it should be just ready to flake. Cooking fish until it flakes easily risks turning it tough and dry. If you remove fish from the heating source before it becomes translucent all the way through, it will retain its moisture and remain tender. Take care not to overcook it.

Creative Uses for Leftover Fish

Cooked fish that is left over after a meal can be refrigerated and used within two days in a number of ways. Whole pieces of cooked fish may be used for cold fish sandwiches. You can also cut or flake the fish to make small pieces for tossing into mayonnaise-based salads or placed on top of salad greens with a few well chosen ingredients such as cheese, pears, avocado or artichokes. You are limited only by your imagination in the preparation of fish and seafood.