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Fresh Fish - The Rules

General rules for cooking fresh fish and seafood

Often people complain that they enjoy eating fish and seafood, but that they do not know how to prepare it correctly. Many housewives cook really well, but "instinctively" – they prepare "hit and miss" meals – which are often a complete success and at other times, a total disaster – without knowing what when wrong when and where during the cooking process.

To take the guesswork out of the cooking and preparation of fresh fish and seafood – here are a few pointers:

Always make certain that the fish/ seafood is fresh. If it doesn't actually smell "off'" - how can one tell if fish is fresh?

a) when buying fresh whole fish – look out for the following:

  • eyes should be clear, bright and bulging – convex ( avoid fish that have dull, sunken, concave and cloudy eyes ).
  • skin and flesh should have a lustrous appearance and feel firm. If a fish can be bent so that its mouth can kiss its tail, it is definitely past its prime.
  • fish tails should be moist, pliable and not dried out.
  • fish scales should be firm and intact, should have good even coverage, and if the scales are patchy looking, are best avoided.
  • gills should be bright ( from bright red to dark red , depending on the species of the fish ).

b) filleted fish pieces and cutlets:

  • flesh should be moist and lustrous, with no signs of discolouration. The fillets or cutlets should not be sitting in a pool of liquid.
  • fish fillets should not be dried at the edges – it means that they have been cut some time ago.

Most cooking methods are basically the same, whether for meat, chicken or fish. Fish however, does not have as much connective tissue as meat, so it breaks down more quickly when heat is applied i.e during the cooking process. It therefore needs less heat & cooking time

Cooking fish/ seafood correctly:

Seafood should never be overcooked – or it will be dry, tough and rubbery. It should be removed from the heat as soon as it is "just done" – the internal heat will complete the cooking process.
How can we tell when the moment is right?

Most seafood is cooked when the flesh it loses its translucent appearance and turns opaque. In the case of shellfish, they can change colour e.g an uncooked white prawn will turn pink once cooked.

Fresh fish starts to flake and separate from the bones. Some seafood, like tuna and Atlantic salmon, are best served while still rare in the centre – just like a good steak.

Cooking fish fillets:

Generally speaking, most housewives and even restaurateurs, cook fish fillets (ready filleted fish pieces) because of their versatility. They should be cooked as soon as possible after being filleted, so that they don't have time to dry out.

The most popular method of preparing fish fillets it pay frying them. Dust the fish fillets with flour ( or corn flour if gluten intolerant ), and cook in a layer of hot oil ( canola, sunflower, olive oil of clarified butter or ghee – to prevent burning ). A combination of olive oil and ghee make for a flavorsome combination.

The flour forms a golden crust and the fish stays moist and does not stick to the pan. This method is suited to firm, white fleshed fish ( kob, Kingklip, gurnard), as well as skinned fillets of flat fish, e.g sole. It is also a suitable cooking method for medium shole fish, fish cutlets and steaks e.g tuna steak. Cook thicker fillets over a high heat until a golden crust forms on both sides, then lower the heat to a medium heat, so that the centre can now cook through.

Never overcook fish/ seafood – rather undercook it – once removed from the heat, the internal heat will continue to cook the fish/ seafood.