Cooking Tips · Techniques

Don't fear cooking seafood!

Cooking seafood often instills fear in people. I can understand why. Good seafood is not inexpensive and over-cooking it is all too common. I do enjoy a good seafood dish but I am unhappy when it is dry and overdone. In this Cooking Tip, I want to help you turn out that perfect plate of seafood. This Tip will not cover all seafood, just some of the most popular. Nor am I going to discuss the topics of sustainability, environmental concerns or mercury content. I will leave that for you to research and make your own decisions. I am merely going to talk about cooking seafood.

The fattiness or leanness of the fish species helps to determine proper cooking methods. Cooking methods are broken into moist cooking and dry cooking. Moist cooking methods include poaching, steaming, cooking en papillote and simmering. Dry cooking methods include baking, broiling, grilling and sautéing – either with or without cooking fat.

Fatty fish are especially well suited to cooking with dry heat. For example, baking or broiling are a good choice and these methods actually help to cut down on the oiliness of the fish. You can also use the dry heat method with the addition of fat. Just do not use so much that you cause the fish to be greasy. However, fatty fish can also be cooked with moist heat.

Lean fish are best cooked with moist heat as it helps to preserve the moistness of the fish. If you wish to use a dry cooking method, consider basting the fish in butter or oil. Or, the lean fish can be sautéed or fried with the use of oil.

If you are not sure about the fat content of the fish, ask at the fish counter. Briefly, fatty fish include salmon, mackerel and herring. Trout is considered to have a medium level of fat. Lean fish include orange roughy, bass, cod, flounder, haddock, Mahi-Mahi, grouper, snapper, tilapia and tuna.

The main problem I see with cooking fish is overcooking it. Most fish do not take very long to cook. An average recommended cooking time is 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remember that there is going to be some carry-over cooking and, therefore, you can remove it from the heat when it is just slightly underdone. You can gauge this by visual changes. It is easy to see the color change with salmon. It is more difficult with white fish. You may need to use a paring knife and look inside. If the flesh is still translucent, it is still underdone. Perfectly cooked fish should be opaque but still flaky and moist. Overcooked fish is dry and falls apart easily.

The FDA states that fish with fins should be cooked to 145° or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork. Shrimp, lobster, crab, and scallops should be cooked until the flesh is pearly or white, and opaque.

Thermoworks recommends the following:

  • Salmon – 125°
  • Halibut – 130°
  • Lobster – 140°
  • Scallops – 130°
  • Shrimp — 120°

Cook’s Illustrated recommends:

  • 120° for wild salmon
  • 125° for farmed salmon
  • 135° for whitefish

Let me discuss a few particular types of fish.

Salmon – I covered salmon in detail in a prior Cooking Tip. Refer to that article for more information.

Scallops – Scallops are wonderful, sweet and delicate but can easily be turned rubbery and unappetizing by improper cooking.

The experts will tell you to always choose “dry” scallops (vs. “wet” scallops) at the store. Wet scallops (aka treated scallops) have been soaked in a liquid solution containing phosphates that is supposed to prolong their freshness. However, the scallops also absorb the water, which you end up paying for since you buy them by the pound. This water evaporates as they cook, which can lead to the following problems. First, the water that is released causes them to steam and it makes it more difficult to get that nice caramelized crust. As the water evaporates, you end up with smaller and tougher scallops. The phosphate may impart a slightly soapy flavor to the scallops. It is generally easy to discern treated scallops as they will usually appear very white in color.

“Dry” is the seafood industry term for natural or untreated scallops. They look more tan in color. They are preferred because they are easier to sear and get the desired caramelization, they taste sweet & natural and you are not paying for added water. That said, I think it is very hard to find dry scallops in your supermarket. To obtain these, you probably need to visit a quality seafood market or order online.

Whatever scallops you purchase, they should be cooked quickly over high heat. Pat the scallops dry. To prevent more moisture from exuding from the scallop, hold off on salting until just before they go in the pan. Leave space between them so they do not steam and cook very quickly over high heat. A typical large scallop only needs about 90 seconds per side. Allow them to rest for a few minutes before serving.

Shrimp is another very popular type of seafood. If not done before you buy them, you need to peel and devein the shrimp before cooking. They can be broiled in as little as 2-3 minutes. Boiling is another common method of cooking shrimp. For a 1 pound of shrimp, bring 4 cups water along with 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Add shrimp and simmer, uncovered, 1 to 3 minutes or until shrimp turn opaque, stirring occasionally. Drain and rinse shrimp in a colander under cold running water.

You may also cook them on the stovetop by heating a skillet over medium-high. Add oil to hot skillet and then add the shrimp. Cook 3 to 6 minutes until shrimp are pink and opaque.

Seafood is something all of us should increase in our diet. It is also such a quick and easy ingredient to cook, making it perfect for a quick weeknight meal. Just watch it and don’t overcook it. If you do that, I am sure you will enjoy a seafood meal!