Choosing fish like a pro
- Always start off by looking at the day’s catch
- Most fish can be replaced with others
- Ask your fishmonger – they know their stuff
- Vary your cooking method, sauces, accompaniments, garnish
- Fresh smell, clear eyes and red gills
Chefs that Professional Secrets have talked to reckon fish is an easier category than meat. Not because fish protein is easier to handle, but because when it comes to creating a perfect fish dish, there are fewer things you have to get right and getting them right is easier. This is how they put it:
Fish starts with the catch of the day
For meat there’s a whole world of seasons, cuts, tenderizing processes, degrees of tenderness, cooking methods and suitable spices to steer your choice. But for fish, according to the professionals, there’s only one basic rule: Start with the day’s catch.
Go to your fishmonger with an idea of the type of fish dish you want to cook instead of a predetermined opinion on which fish you want to buy. The fish shown in your recipe can almost always be replaced with another, similar but different. Focusing on the catch of the day means you get the freshest ingredients and the best results.
“Fresh is step one.”
– Mac Donald Lundgren, Tranan, Wedholms fFisk, and more
An expert fishmonger
Behind the fish counter, there’s more expertise, inspiration and advice than anyone could ever fit on a website of professional tips like this one. Tell your fishmonger what you want to cook, find out what ingredients are in season and take it from there. It will work. (Under the heading “Choosing”, we could really have just written one sentence – “Ask your expert fishmonger...”)
In the absence of a fishmonger
If you don’t have an expert available, you need to judge the freshness and quality of the fish by the:
• Smell: Fresh fish have a fresh smell of the sea. Trust your nose.
• Eyes: Eyes are one of the first things to dry out. They should be clear and transparent.
• Gills: Should be a bright red color, e.g. on cod. Fresh blood is a sign of fresh fish.
Practice makes perfect
Be brave and risk wrecking the fish protein. Take your courage in both hands and leave the fishmongers with something other than salmon in your shopping bag. If you practice the techniques, it will be easy to succeed with the catch of the day every time. Once you have practiced and got the hang of it, you’ll be able to put together fish dishes by picking and choosing from among these variables:
1. Variations on fish – cooking
There are a lot of little tricks that mean you get a perfect result with your fish whether you choose to poach it, fry it, cure it, etc. You can learn them (see Cooking). It takes practice.
2. Variations on fish – sauces
A spectrum of exciting sauces gives you great freedom to easily adapt and vary the flavor experiences on the plate. You can feel proud of yourself when you can produce Chablis sauce (white wine sauce), lobster sauce, hollandaise, blue mussel sauce, mushroom sauce, Pernod sauce, Mediterranean sauces and a few cold sauces too. And once you’ve done that, it’s time to look to Asia, South America, etc.
3. Variations on fish – garnishes
This variable is an important one (and that’s why we also look at it in the section on Serving) to make sure you don’t get stuck in a never-ending loop of “fish, sauce and potatoes” on the plate. Some very useful additions are: lemon, browned butter, parsley, chives, dill, eggs, prawns, other shellfish, anchovies, asparagus, horseradish, spinach, mushrooms, bacon, air-dried ham, capers, beetroot, tomato, garlic, tapenade, etc. And you can always experiment with others.
4. Variations on fish – accompaniments
No-one is forcing you to serve boiled potatoes every time. There’s pasta, rice, bulgur, polenta, root vegetables, kale, peas and beans, mousses, salads and even other ways of cooking potatoes.
Try fish you haven’t tried before
Trust your fishmonger’s advice, even if you haven’t seen a kind of fish before. One type of flatfish can often replace another. Cod, game fish and other fish families can also be swapped. Choose the freshest there is and risk being pleasantly surprised.
Choose a whole side of salmon
Go for a whole side of salmon rather than portions. That way you get better quality fresh fish, and the price is better too. Make the most of all the goodness by – for example – cooking and eating the narrowest part of the side of salmon the same day, cutting fillets for freezing where the side is most even and curing the rest. Salmon is easy to handle in all these ways and it freezes well.
“It couldn’t be easier. And hell, it’s so much better.”
– Per Renhed, former chef at F12, recommends a whole side of salmon
Choose a big salmon
There’s a boundary at about 9 kg. Salmon that are bigger than that have had time to amass flavors and fat and quite simply taste better. The size plays less of a roll for lean, white fish (but this is a rule that has many exceptions).
Don’t choose vacuum packed salmon
The vacuum-packed salmon fillets you see in the freezer cabinet are practical but the way they are processed makes them flavorless (compared with fresh salmon, as you’ll notice). In the worst case, they’ve also travelled from Norway to Asia – to be cut up, packed and frozen – and back to Europe again before reaching your plate. This makes them a poorer choice in terms of the environment. And the price per kilo is often high too.
Coldest best in the freezer
If you’re buying deep frozen, dig out your fish from the bottom of the freezer cabinet, where it’s coldest.
• Choose shellfish that are the same size – it’s easier to cook them if they are done at the same time.
• Turn over crabs to check their sex: A narrow abdomen means it’s a male. A wide abdomen means it’s a female.
There are tons of types of oyster with different characteristics. They differ in size, taste, saltiness and how hard they are to open. Tell your fishmonger what you like and they’ll find you your perfect oyster. Gourmets say oysters from cold water taste better but oysters are eaten all around the world and come from every sea. Ask your fishmonger to help you find your own favorites.
In the past, autumn used to be oyster season. Today, thanks to modern farming methods, you can eat oysters all year round, no problem. In the warmest months of the year, some types may be milky and less appetizing, however. Ask your fishmonger for advice.
Choosing fish for soup
Practically everything works well in a full-flavored fish soup (that’s kind of the point) but here are some exceptions:
• Tuna quickly goes dry when it’s boiled. If you do use it, treat it like a prawn and make it the last thing you put into the stew.
• Don’t choose thin, flat fillets. They quickly overcook and don’t produce nice fishy chunks. Larger flatfish are an exception, but, on the other hand, they deserve better treatment.
• Whatever the fish, it needs to go in at the end and just simmer.
• If you’re putting mussels in your soup, make sure they have been boiled properly.
New names on the fish counter
New names often appear at the fish counter, sometimes because a particular fish has been protected due to overfishing and new species have been introduced to replace it, and sometimes to make an unpopular fish sound more appealing.
Quick fish check
• Cod, haddock, saithe, pollock and other fish in the cod family are lean and fall apart easily and are best fried (in breadcrumbs), poached or baked.
• Plaice, witch, turbot and other flatfish have moderately fatty flesh and a shape that makes them ideal for frying or rolling up and baking in the oven.
• Pike-perch and perch are moderately firm and moderately fatty and can be grilled and fried.
• Salmon, sea trout, char and other fatty game fish are good for frying, grilling, baking, smoking, curing and for soups and stews.
• Herring and mackerel are fatty and firm and good for most things apart from soups and stews.
• Tuna, swordfish and marlin are similar to meat and can be grilled and fried, with a pink center.
• Atlantic wolffish, halibut, monkfish and other salt-water fish with firm flesh are good for practically everything, including kebabs.
Portions per person:
• Whole round fish 275–325g
• Whole flatfish 250–300g
• Sliced round fish 180–200g
• Whole herring 225–275g
• Herring fillets 200–225g
• Fish fillets 125–150g
• Salted and cured salmon 125–150g
This section is about Choosing, but the simple and basic message is that there’s only one correct choice – the catch of the day. Start out from the freshest fish of the day and then create variation with your cooking methods, sauce, garnish and accompaniments. That’s how the pros do it.
“The main courses are always the day’s catch!”
– Stefan Eckert, on the menu at Lisa Elmqvist.
Choose sustainable fish
It’s hard to be a fish consumer with a conscience. The lists of fish you should avoid – so that one day we might not have to think about these lists and ecolabels – are long and change all the time.
WWF lists fish on a scale of green, yellow or red. It sounds simple but the list also contains almost forty variables in terms of geographical origin and fishing method. A type of fish can be green listed in one place with one fishing method but red listed in another.
The best you can do is be clear with your fishmonger, given that you assume they are behaving responsibly too. And look for MSC labelling. The Marine Stewardship Council is an attempt to take a holistic approach to make global fishing sustainable. The system is far from perfect but it’s at least a constructive start.