Dry heat Baking (oven roasting): Place smaller pieces of fish in a lightly oiled baking dish. Larger pieces or whole fish can be set into a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet...
Baking (oven roasting): Place smaller pieces of fish in a lightly oiled baking dish. Larger pieces or whole fish can be set into a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet that has been first lightly oiled, pan-sprayed or lined with aluminum foil. Moist fish such as halibut or fish with a higher fat content such as salmon can be baked on a broiling pan so the excess liquid or fat drains off.
Measure the thickness of the fish at its thickest point. Cook in a preheated 450-degree oven, about 12 minutes per inch of thickness for fillets and steaks. Whole fish may take 14 to 15 minutes per inch of thickness. (These cooking times will serve as guidelines for cooking fish using most of the following techniques. Check for doneness before taking fish from cooking source.)
Sear/bake: To brown the top of a fillet or steak, first heat an oven-proof skillet on top of the stove until it’s very hot. Add a little oil and heat through. Place fish skin-side up into the hot pan and when browned, turn over and place skillet in the oven. Bake as above.
Baking en papillote: Wrap individual servings of fillet or steaks with herbs and julienned vegetables in parchment paper or foil. A drizzle of olive oil, butter or wine can be added. Then wrap into a tightly sealed package, crimping the edges. Place packets on a baking sheet and bake as above. The juices from the fish and vegetables blend to make their own savory sauce.
Broiling: “Broiling is the simple indoor alternative to grilling the words broiling and grilling are in fact often used interchangeably. Broiling is actually grilling upside down; a broiler simply grills from above instead of below,” says James Peterson in “Fish & Shellfish.”
Line the bottom of a broiler pan with aluminum foil. Preheat broiler 5 minutes before using. Lightly oil fish to keep it from drying out and place on the top of the pan. For fillets about ½-inch thick, place the rack about 2 inches from the heating element; for 1-inch-thick fish, place 4 inches from broiler. Turn over halfway through cooking time.
Grilling: Fillets and steaks should be at least ½-inch thick. To prevent sticking, fish that’s been marinated should be drained and dried with paper towels. The grill should be very clean, lightly oiled and very hot before setting the fish on it. Leave the skin intact, which stabilizes the fish and keeps juices sealed in. Tuna, halibut and salmon are all great choices for grilling.
Whole fish can be difficult to turn because its heaviness often causes the fish to stick to the grill. Peterson suggests using a grilling basket for whole fish, or wrapping it in bottled grape leaves that have been first rinsed and patted dry. The fish also can be placed on a large sheet of oiled aluminum foil with a few holes punched into it for drainage.
Small whole fish such as sardines, mackerel and herring can either be put into a grilling basket or threaded onto metal skewers, or wooden skewers that have first been soaked in water for 30 minutes.
Grill pans are a good option for those without an outdoor cooking area. Heat the pan over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes and turn on exhaust fan. Lightly oil fish before putting in the pan. Lower heat slightly if the outside of the fish is browning too quickly. Fish cooked in a hot grill pan will have a subtle smoky flavor and slightly charred outer surface.
Pan-fry and sauté: Well-seasoned cast-iron or nonstick pans are best for these methods, as fish will most likely stick to both stainless and aluminum surfaces. Consider the size of the pan. The pieces of fish should not overlap. There should be a little space between them, but too large a pan will cause the juices and fat to burn.
Pan-fry and sauté are terms that are often used interchangeably, but a sauté generally will use less fat. For either, use a light olive oil or clarified butter, which have a higher heat tolerance than plain butter.
Once fish is cooked through, remove from pan and keep warm. The pan can then be deglazed with wine or broth for a quick pan sauce.
Turn the fish halfway through the cooking time for broiling, grilling and pan-fry cooking methods.
Because of the direct heat of both grill pan and pan-frying techniques, the minutes per inch of thickness may be reduced to 8 to 10 minutes.
Braising: Set fish on top of braising liquid there should be a thin base under the fish to keep it from sticking to the pan. Then spoon some of the sauce on top. Cook, covered, at a gentle simmer.
Poaching: Unless you are going to be poaching large, whole fish often, a specialized fish poacher may be an extravagance. Use a skillet or roasting pan that fits fish as closely as possible, with sides that are high enough to cover fish with liquid.
A fish poacher comes with a rack that lifts out. But you can improvise by setting a round cake rack in a deep skillet or Dutch oven. Attach handles of string or cheesecloth in two places to lift the rack. Or wrap the fish in cheesecloth, leaving long ends to pull fish from simmering liquid. Smaller pieces can just be placed in the liquid and removed using a wide spatula, sliding it lengthwise under the fish.
The poaching liquid should cover the fish completely. It can be as simple as plain, lightly salted water. Or if time allows, add aromatics such as sliced shallot, bay leaf or sprigs of fresh herbs. White wine, lemon slices, garlic cloves and slices of fresh ginger impart their own elusive flavor notes. To meld the flavors, gently simmer the poaching liquid 10 minutes before adding the fish.
Steaming: The subtle, natural flavors of fish dominate with this cooking method. Poaching and steaming liquids are basically the same. The level of steaming liquid should be below the rack, and the heat should be on high. Make sure that the liquid doesn’t completely evaporate during cooking. The steamer must also be tightly covered.
There are many steamers on the market, but the best, such as Chinese bamboo steamers, have domed lids that let the condensation drip down towards the edge of the lid instead of onto the food.
You can also invert a small, heatproof bowl on the bottom of the pot and set a plate on top. In fact, many Asian steaming methods use a plate to hold the fish’s natural juices along with sauce ingredients such as soy sauce, sake and sesame oil. Check fish at 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
Sources: “Fish & Shellfish” by James Peterson; “Pike Place Public Market Seafood Cookbook” by Braiden Rex-Johnson.