Top Secret Tips for the Perfect Fish

Fish can be a fast and healthy meal. Here are our chefs’ top secret tips for teasing the best flavor out of this delicious source of protein.

Secret to moist fish
Mayonnaise is not just for tuna salad anymore! Blended with a bit of Dijon mustard and then brushed onto fish, it not only adds a wallop of flavor but it literally seals the flesh, keeping it deliciously moist and succulent. Try this secret on absolutely any fish.

Cooking fish fast
Here’s an old French trick that’ll be sure to make you smile when you’re in a rush and need to use premade sauce with fish: Heat an ovenproof plate or serving platter at 300°F. When the plate is hot, carefully remove it from the oven; grease it lightly with a drop of oil or butter; add delicate fish like tilapia or sole; drizzle with prepared sauce; and let it stand for 5 minutes. Flip the fish carefully, and let it stand for another 5 minutes.

Keep the skin on
Many salmon recipes instruct you to remove the fish skin before cooking to keep things looking neat. Wrong! Roasting fish with the skin on serves two purposes: It actually holds the fish together while you’re cooking it, and it helps keep the fish moist. If you must remove the skin, wait until after it comes out of the oven!

Use fresh clams
If you can get fresh clams with ease, use 1 ½ pounds of them, shucked, with their juices reserved, in place of a can of clams. To ensure that you get every drop of the tasty liquor into your chowder, you can also cook the clams in the chowder. Scrub them well, discard any open ones, and drop them into the boiling soup. After 3 to 4 minutes, the clams will open (discard any that don’t). Either lift out the shells, scraping the clams into the soup, or ladle the whole clam shells with soup into the serving bowls.

Canned clams are fine but if you have access to fresh clams, by all means, use them. How to open them? Here’s a trick: Place the whole clams in their shells in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes. The intense cold relaxes the muscles of the clams so you can slide a knife in and open them with much less force.

Simple scallop tips
There is a very fine line between cooked and raw with scallops, and they can be very challenging to not cook to the consistency of rubber. Here’s a simple trick: If the scallops are very big, slice them width-wise, straight through the middle, which will give you two, equal-size halves. When you sear the scallops, place them in a hot pan, and don’t move them around until they start to become opaque.

The best scallops are sold “dry,” which means they haven’t been soaked in a bath of phosphate to keep them fresh. This soak not only adds a faint chemical taste to your finished dish, but it loads the scallops up with moisture. “Dry” scallops will sizzle and fry when they hit a hot pan of melted butter. Phosphate scallops will release a lot of milky liquid and end up steaming rather than searing.

For fast food don’t forget mussels and shrimp
Mussels, like clams, do not need to be boiled to be cooked; all they need is a quick blast of heat of any kind — grill, sauté pan, wok, or steamer — and they’ll open right up. Any mussels that don’t open should be fed to the compost pile; they’re dead.

Individually frozen shrimp are excellent to keep in the freezer, not only for a quick dinner but also to add to fried rice or to stir into tomato soup spiced with bit of cumin and lime.

Lemon laws
Fish and lemon go hand-in-hand, right? Wrong. Lemon (and any citrus fruit) can actually “cook” seafood, so unless you’re making seviche (cold seafood salad made by marinating fish and shrimp in citrus), add lemon at the end of the cooking process. Fish and shrimp “cook” in citrus in 20 minutes, so if you cook them additionally, they’ll be very, very tough.

To get more juice out of a lemon, try these tricks. Store them in a sealed jar of water in the refrigerator to keep them plump and prevent the essential oils from evaporating. Or, microwave the lemon for 15 seconds before juicing. Thirdly, roll the uncut lemon hard on the countertop under your palm, pressing down with your weight to break the pulp and release all the juice.

Saving money on crab
Jumbo lump crab meat is the meat that comes from the crab’s hind legs, the largest chunks of meat. Lump crab is the smaller bits and pieces picked from the rest of the crab, so you won’t get the big succulent chunks as in jumbo, but it will cost significantly less. Crab meat is also available, less expensively, in a pasteurized version, but the high-heat processing does impair the flavor; you just don’t get that fresh briny sweetness that tastes so good in salad. If you’re making a heated crab dish or soup, though, go for pasteurized.

Fake it to save money
If you want to replace the crab in a dish with imitation crab, you have no reason for concern: Imitation crab is in fact not a fake food — it’s processed and shaped pollock. The Japanese invented surimi, and it appears frequently in their cooking. It is increasingly available in U.S. supermarkets, because it’s inexpensive and tasty fish protein that really does taste crablike.

The perfect tuna
There is a fine line between raw and overcooked when it comes to seafood, and fresh tuna is no exception. How do you get that lovely perfect layer of pink when preparing this persnickety fish? Simple: Cook it for a longer time on the first side, and a much shorter time — 50% shorter — on the second. When you remove it from the heat, let it stand for about 2 additional minutes; it will continue to cook, but it will also retain its lovely rosy color — and its tenderness.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest