How to Select and Prepare Fish

Use this cheat sheet the next time you’re picking the right fish for the job.

By: Elizabeth Stark

Because there is such a wide array of fish available, it can be intimidating to cook it at home. Recipes that work beautifully for one fish might leave you scraping a crumbling fillet from your grill for another. It's enough to make you want to stick to cans of tuna.

But fish can be delicious when prepared properly, so it's worth taking the time to acquaint yourself with some common varieties. Here’s an in-depth look at five popular varieties: salmon, swordfish, tilapia, tuna and mahi mahi.

1. Swordfish
Swordfish is a large game fish found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. It derives its name from its long, sharp bill.

How to Select Swordfish

  • Swordfish is almost always sold as steaks. Its firm flesh has a mild flavor that goes really well with a variety of marinades.
  • Fresh swordfish is generally available from the late spring until early fall. Out of season, it can be purchased frozen.
  • Look for steaks that smell of the sea, have a bright color, and have firm, tightly swirled flesh.

How to Prepare Swordfish
Swordfish is ideal for cooks without much fish experience, because it doesn’t stick to the grill or fall apart easily. Because it’s so hardy, it can handle heavy cooking like grilling, baking and pan-searing.

Because of the high mercury content, consult with your doctor to make sure swordfish is acceptable in your diet.

2. Tuna
Long familiar to Americans mainly as a canned fish, tuna steaks have become increasingly common. There are several species of tuna, but Bluefin and Yellowfin are the varieties you’ll find most often at the fish counter.

is more expensive, fattier, more flavorful and readily identifiable by its deep red color.

is more of a bargain, but still quite flavorful and has a lovely dark pink color.

How to Select Tuna
Tuna is in season during the warmer months, but it freezes incredibly well, so you should feel free to buy it frozen or thawed in the colder months.

  • Avoid tuna with uneven coloration, brown spots or a bad smell.
  • Mercury levels in tuna vary widely but can be quite high.

How to Prepare Tuna
Most cooks grill or sauté tuna steaks, but fillets can be baked, broiled or fried, as well.

3. Mahi mahi
Mahi mahi has an excellent, firm texture, but its mild taste means that it’s not a fish that can be served with just a little lemon juice. Look for recipes that will bring a lot of flavor to the fish, such as those with flavorful marinades or plenty of spice.

How to Select Mahi mahi
Mahi mahi is most often sold as steaks or fillets, though you'll occasionally see a whole fish for sale. As with other fish, you’ll want to reject any cut that's discolored or has a fishy smell.

How to Prepare Mahi mahi
Whether your purchased it as a fillet or whole, Mahi mahi is best grilled or broiled.

4. Salmon
Salmon refers to several species of fish from the coastal regions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It has firm flesh that's generally orange or pink and is high in oil, which gives it a distinct richness.

Atlantic salmon, which is fatty and has a mild flavor, is an endangered species, and because of this, nearly all commercially available Atlantic salmon is farm-raised. Most Pacific salmon, on the other hand, are wild-caught.

There are five species of Pacific salmon and they vary in texture, flavor and price:

King: Also known as Chinook, is fatty and soft-textured, and is generally considered to be the best.

Coho: Is also fatty but firmer, and is prized as well.

Sockeye: Less valued and less fatty, but flavorful.

Chum: Relatively lean and has a mild flavor, and is often an excellent value.

Pink: Mostly ends up as canned salmon and is rarely available at the fish counter.

How to Select
Salmon is typically sold as fillets or steaks. Have your fishmonger cut your fillet or steak from a whole fish. This not only allows you to have it cut to your desired thickness, but it also gives you a better look at the fish.

  • Check for eyes that are bright and full and don’t appear sunken, as well as shiny skin with firm, springy flesh.
  • If you don’t have the option of having it cut to order, look for steaks or fillets that don’t have any discoloration or sliminess.
  • As with almost any seafood, you want it to smell of the sea. If it smells bad, don’t buy it.
  • Once you get it home, keep the salmon refrigerated until you’re ready to prepare it.

How to Prepare Salmon
As with most fish, salmon cooks relatively quickly. High heat methods of cooking are usually best.

  • Steaks are excellent for grilling or sautéing.
  • Fillets are perfect for baking, grilling, broiling, pan-searing and poaching.
  • Do not deep-fry salmon.

Tip: If you love fish, you’ll love seafood! Learn to select and prepare six common types of shellfish with our guide.

5. Tilapia
Tilapia is a freshwater fish native to Africa and the Middle East that, until recently, was rare in the U.S. Since it's a relatively easy fish to farm, availability has increased and nearly all tilapia you’ll come across in stores or restaurants is farm-raised.

How to Select Tilapia
Tilapia is almost exclusively sold as fillets. Available year-round, look for fillets that are uniformly white or just slightly tinged with pink, and that have a faintly sweet smell.

How to Prepare Tilapia
Its pale flesh has a mild sweet flavor and a delicate texture. Tilapia is best suited for baking, broiling or steaming.

Elizabeth Stark, along with her husband Brian Campbell, writes the blog
Brooklyn Supper — the story of a family eating with the seasons in Virginia and Brooklyn. They believe strongly that good, local food and wholesome meals should be for everyone.



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