Seafood is as versatile as chicken, with a sumptuous range of flavors and melt-in-the-mouth textures. And a variety of cooking methods can highlight nuances of each variety...

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Seafood is as versatile as chicken, with a sumptuous range of flavors and melt-in-the-mouth textures. And a variety of cooking methods can highlight nuances of each variety, from a subtly steamed ling cod to the smoky edge of grilled salmon.

One of our readers, Sally Hopkins, who by her own admission is a novice at cooking fish, e-mailed us with her concerns. “With increased media attention on the hazards of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, I think there may be an increased interest in cooking and eating fish. But many people like me shy away from it because they don’t know how to properly cook fish,” she told us.

Yes, cooking seafood can be intimidating. A few minutes too long in the oven and it can become dry and flavorless. Or use a cooking method that doesn’t match up well to the texture of the fish, and you’ll end up with a dish that’s watery and flavorless.

It all begins with quality fish.


Have you approached a fish market in a grocery store and been assaulted by an odor that can only be described as “oddly fishy?” This may be the time to cut bait and run, because there’s a good chance that the fish will taste the same.

Here’s what to look for when buying your fish:

What do you want to know?

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Cut fish: Fillets or steak should have a moist sheen without any film or slime. They should appear slightly translucent, with no rainbow opalescence, which may be a clue that the fish has been handled poorly. The flesh should be dense without any separation or visible spaces between flakes. Avoid cuts with brown or yellow discoloration, dull flesh, dry areas or blood spots. Steaks should be cut to an even thickness. Prepackaged fish should be tightly wrapped with no liquid in packaging.

Whole fish: The term “bright eyes” is often mentioned as a sign of freshness, but this can be confusing for the novice. The eyes should be clear with no milky film, and they should be protruding slightly. The flesh should be firm and springy to the touch, and the skin should have most of its scales intact. If the head has been removed, the cut edges should not be brown.

Frozen fish


Most species freeze well, with the exception of halibut. Although you’ll find it throughout the year, frozen halibut will give up a lot of moisture when cooked, becoming dry and tasteless. To appreciate one of the world’s finest fish, it should be eaten fresh when in season, much like a perfect Washington strawberry.

Ask the fishmonger behind the counter how the fish was treated. If you are buying a frozen product, the best frozen fish will have been flash-frozen on the ship. (And remember, parasites will not be destroyed in freezing. Only cooking will do that.)

Defrost fish in the refrigerator. Place the package on a plate large enough to catch liquid that may be released. Don’t defrost fish in the microwave, because its edges will begin to cook, ruining the texture and quality.

Portion size

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Although most nutritionists will recommend 4 to 5 ounces per main-dish serving of fillet or steak, hearty eaters may find those portions skimpy. Six to 8 ounces will be closer to satisfying hungry diners. Figure about twice those amounts for a whole, bone-in fish.

Caring for fish

Make the fish purchase the last on your way home, refrigerate immediately and eat within the recommended time on the package, although the fish will taste fresher if cooked within 24 hours. (If you must make stops after purchasing fish, be sure to hold the fish in a ice chest that has plenty of ice.) Keep fish in the refrigerator until just before you’re ready to cook it.

Fish should be marinated in the refrigerator, preferably not longer than 2 hours to keep the texture from becoming too mushy. Leftovers are best if eaten within 24 hours.

Sources: “The Great American Seafood Cookbook” by Susan Herrmann Loomis; “Pike Place Public Market Seafood Cookbook” by Braiden Rex-Johnson; “Fish & Shellfish” by James Peterson.