The Skinny on... Fish

Here's all you need to know to get the best fish at the market and get it on your table tonight!
FishThe Skinny On
Arctic Char
Arctic char
With its light-pink or light-orange flesh, this mild-tasting fish comes from cold Atlantic waters — and like salmon or trout, it's found in fresh or salt water. You’ll mostly find fillets, usually with the skin on. Arctic char is delicious broiled, grilled, or sautéed. Use simple, straightforward preparations that don’t overpower its gentle flavor — a light citrus rub or olive oil with salt and pepper.
Bass
Bass
There are many varieties of bass, from the largemouth bass found in North American lakes to sea bass with its richer, almost oily taste and slightly more gelatinous texture. Members of the drum family, they are all related. They are also all bony — which is why fillets dominate the market. It’s just easier to cook and eat a bass that’s been deboned! The meat will stand up to big tastes: teriyaki sauce, barbecue sauce, Southwest rubs, curry, sweet-and-sour sauce, hot garlic sauce, you name it.
Catfish
Catfish
Most of the catfish at the supermarket counter has been farmed. And most of it is in fillets, partly because these whiskered, flat-headed fish are just too ugly! Since catfish also don’t have scales and have a tough, leathery skin, the fillets are mostly skinless. Catfish are the tofu of all fish: They’ll absorb other flavors like crazy. Add lots of herbs to that coating when you oven-fry catfish fillets — which are great in tacos, wraps, chowders and stews. Chilies and catfish are a match made in heaven!
Flounder
Flounder
This is a flat fish — it starts out looking like every other fish but because it lies on the ocean floor, its eyes migrate to one side of its head and then the fish flattens. While you can sometimes find flounder fillets at the supermarket, you’ll most likely run into whole fish. Don’t be dismayed: Because a flounder is so thin, the whole thing will cook in minutes. And because a flounder is so thin and tends to flake into shreds, it won’t do very well on a grill grate. It’s better under the broiler on a baking sheet or in a skillet over the heat. Because the meat is sweet, flounder goes well with a spike of sourness — and thus they’re traditionally cooked in butter, a slightly sour fat. But lemon juice does the trick too.
Halibut
Halibut
These are flat fish like flounder — except far bigger, as enormous as 11 feet long. In most cases, you’ll find halibut cut into steaks and chunks rather than fillets. Halibut is the consummate thick-fleshed white fish; it’s great for braising, stewing, grilling, poaching or baking — in other words, long-cooking preparations. (That is, long in the fish world, still a matter of minutes compared to beef or lamb.) The creamy, somewhat chewy meat holds up well to Asian glazes, Italian tomato sauces, East Indian curries and even spicy Mexican salsas.
Mackerel
Mackerel
These small fish from enormous schools come in two kinds: king and Spanish. Spanish is by far milder and less oily. The skin is tender and edible — which is a good thing because it’s very hard to skin these thin, narrow fish. They cook quickly — and flake like mad. That’s why it’s best to grill them whole but sauté or broil the fillets. Because mackerel has a strong taste, try it with vinegary rubs or sauces, even a little vinaigrette over the cooked fish.
Mahimahi
Mahimahi
Sometimes called “dorado,” mahimahi is a large, warm-water fish with a gorgeous, pink-striped flesh — which is firm, doesn’t flake and so is usually cut into steaks. The rich meat is made for the grill: a quick sear over high heat to offer a little char against the somewhat savory flavor. But don’t neglect poaching: Slowly cook mahimahi steaks in some wine or broth, then serve them with an easy gremolata, pesto or herbaceous sauce smeared on top.
Salmon
Salmon
Atlantic salmon is rich, fatty and even oily; Pacific salmon is lighter, leaner and even a little sweeter. In any case, salmon is one of the most versatile fish out there: It can be grilled as steaks, broiled as fillets, poached whole, smoked, barbecued or even braised. The one preparation that doesn’t seem to work is frying — which simply adds too much oil and takes away from the sweet, mild flavor of this perennial favorite.
Sardines
Sardines
Fresh sardines are a treat indeed. Unless you’re going to grill or broil them whole and pick the meat off the bones at the table, ask the fishmonger to fillet them for you because they’re difficult to handle at home. When filleted, sardines are often butterflied and left otherwise whole, even with the head on. The taste is so pronounced, so oily, that there’s no point in trying to cover it up. Think about condiments like soy sauce, lemon juice or rice vinegar, not complicated sauces.
Tilapia
Tilapia
No doubt, tilapia fillets have become the boneless, skinless chicken breasts of the ocean. And no wonder: You can use them as a substitute in almost any recipe that calls for white-fleshed fish fillets such as grouper, pompano, cod, flounder, haddock and hake. The meat is lean, high in protein and stands up well to oven-frying. It’s also not as sweet as some other fish, more savory, even a little musky. As such, it can handle lots of big, bold flavors: rosemary, chilies, smoked paprika, tomatoes and olives. Tilapia really comes into its own in Asian preparations.
Trout
Trout
While there are red sea trout, most of the trout we find at the supermarket is a freshwater fish from lakes and streams: brook trout, rainbow trout and speckled trout. Trout is one of the few fish commonly available whole but also boneless — so you can throw them on the grill and cook them up without the worries of filleting them at the table. Under no conditions can you skin trout before you cook it — the meat will shred and tear. Instead, remove the skin after cooking if so desired.
Tuna
Tuna
While tuna comes in almost as many varieties as salmon — yellowfin, bluefin, skipjack (sometimes called “bonito”) and albacore — the most common variety at the fish counter is yellowfin, most often sliced into steaks or ground into burgers. If you’re buying steaks, look for them to be firm and taut, the meat not falling apart along the curved lines where the various sections meet. There should be no rainbow sheen. A yellowfin tuna steak should be treated like a beef steak: either seared in a cast-iron skillet or cooked on the grill. If you like to eat tuna medium-rare or red in the middle, pay the extra for sushi-quality fish, an added insurance.

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