Healthy Foods: A Cook's Guide to Lean Fishes
Enjoy this healthy food often!
It seems that people are becoming more and more health conscious, especially when it comes to adding healthy foods to their diet. As a result, fish has become an extremely popular dish, and many families try to consume at least a serving or two every week. Fish is high in protein, selenium, and vitamin B12, and many species also have anti-inflammatory properties. Besides the health benefits, fish is versatile, tasty, and some species are very inexpensive. Fish can be an extremely healthy food.
Why fish is a healthy food
Fish generally fall into one of two categories – fatty fish and lean fish - and both types are healthy foods. As the name implies, fatty fish are higher in fats, but the fats are the healthy omega-3 fats. Fatty fish species include Atlantic salmon, tuna, rainbow trout, mackerel, and sardines.
Unfortunately, many don’t like the taste of fatty or oily fish. These fish tend to have a much stronger “fishy” taste than lean fish have. Even though lean fishes lack the high levels of omega-3’s, they can still be part of a healthy diet – they supply high protein that’s much lower in saturated fats than other flesh like beef and pork.
Most lean fish can be cooked whole, filleted, or steaked. Cook by broiling, sautéing, frying, poaching, blackening, grilling, baking, or smoking.
Popular Species of Lean Fishes
Grouper is a family of fish with sweet, mild flesh with large flakes. The thick fillets are firm and hold moisture better than most lean fish, so it’s an excellent choice for grilling. In some upscale fish markets, groupers are sold live. Grouper in the wild can grow to enormous sizes.
Flounder is a saltwater fish, a flatfish that has a delicate white flesh that’s extremely mild in taste. The fillets are usually thin and dry out easily, so it’s best to fry them or cook them with some type of liquid. Fresh flounder are far superior to frozen and is readily available in warmer months..
Tilapia is mild, flaky, and tender. Strong seasonings will mask the delicate flavor. Tilapia are farmed and caught in the wild. This freshwater fish has a mostly vegetarian diet, so you won’t have to worry about mercury levels when consuming tilapia.
Cod, a saltwater fish, has a medium texture, mild flavor, and large white flakes. Smaller cod, called scrod, have a finer texture. Both cod and scrod have a moderate moisture content. This is the fish, along with haddock, that’s typically used for “fish and chips.”
Halibut is a saltwater fish that can grow to over 500 pounds, but you won’t find one that size in your local fish market. The flesh is sweet, very mild, firm, and dense. It has a clean, pleasant taste when fresh but dries out easily, so be careful not to overcook. It tends to lose its flavor in the freezer.
Haddock is firm yet flaky, with a mild flavor. It can be cooked in a variety of ways, including smoked. Fillets that are fresh will be firm and translucent, while older ones will fall apart easily and have a chalky appearance.
Red snapper, another saltwater fish, has a sweet, nutty flavor and tends to retain moisture, making it a good choice for grilling. If you leave the skin on the fish while grilling, the meat will hold together better. Other fish are often passed off to consumers as red snapper. Avoid this by buying only whole fish with bright red skin.
Monkfish has an incredibly sweet flavor, much like scallops or lobster. The fish has a huge, ugly, bony head, so only the tail section is consumed. In some areas, monkfish is actually more expensive than lobster. The firm meat is excellent for grilling. Be sure to remove the tough membrane covering the flesh before cooking.
Hake is similar in taste and texture to cod. It has few bones and firm, white flesh with a delicate flavor. Thicker fillets do well on the grill. Hake is very popular in Spanish cuisine.
Pollock has a very mild taste and is very popular in American restaurants. It’s often served batter-fried. Alaskan Pollock is superior in taste and texture than other types. Pollock from Alaska is used to make imitation crabmeat, or sirimi.
Redfish, a saltwater fish that's very popular in the Southeast, has a mild to moderate taste and a firm texture. Older, larger fish might have a stronger flavor, and individuals over 12-15 pounds will be tough instead of flaky. Fish under that weight are excellent grilled or blackened. For larger reds, fillet the fish and use a grilling marinade.
Sole, or Dover sole, is a flatfish that has a delicate flavor, and its flesh is firm yet finely grained. The taste is sweet and buttery. Sole’s texture is too fragile for grilling. Expect to pay a high price for real Dover sole.
Spadefish are often called “angelfish” because of their similar appearance. They’re a saltwater fish species, but their taste is similar to that of a freshwater bream caught from clean, clear water. The raw meat sometimes has a slightly greenish hue, but don’t let that put you off. Once it’s cooked, it will be white and flaky with a mild taste.
Turbot is a large flatfish that has a wonderful flavor and a firm texture. It’s a favorite with many chefs and is somewhat expensive. Older fish have a more pronounced flavor that “baby turbot.” The best quality fish are usually available in the summer months.
Dolphin, a saltwater fish that's usually caught offshore, is also called mahi-mahi, and this is the fish, not the mammal. It has a sweet, moderately strong flavor, with fairly firm flesh. For a milder taste, cut away the dark lines of flesh and remove the skin. Dolphin is a moderate mercury risk, so don’t eat more than six servings a month.
Catfish has a mild flavor and dense meat that’s not as flaky as many other fish species. Farm-raised catfish generally have a sweeter taste than those caught in the wild. Fish over 10 pounds are often somewhat tough. Most people agree that the freshwater channel catfish has the best flavor.
Barramundi from saltwater has a sweet, mild taste and a delicate texture when young. Older, larger fish often have a “muddy” taste, and almost all of the freshwater barramundi are inferior table fare. Barramundi are now being raised on fish farms around the world, including in the U.S.
Spotted sea trout is a firm white saltwater fish with a mild flavor. A close and almost identical relative is the weakfish, which is also excellent table fare. If you’ve eaten “speckled trout” in a Florida restaurant, you were eating spotted sea trout. Larger trout, often called "gator trout," can be filleted before cooking.
Shark is firm and white, with a mild flavor similar to chicken. The shark meat should be handled quickly and tenderized before cooking. From my experience, sharks from 3-4 feet in length have the best flavor. The one in the above photo is a good size, and I can attest to the fact that this particular shark was very tasty! Sharks have a cartilaginous skeleton, so you won’t have to worry about bones. Remove skin before eating - it's like sandpaper.
Black drum has a somewhat coarse flesh and a mild flavor. Remove the skin before cooking, but save the throat – it’s the best part of the fish. Black drum weighing over five pounds are generally not good to eat. The one above is a good-eating size, and it was delicious!
Sheepshead is a saltwater fish that has white meat that many compare to crabmeat in flavor. Skin the fish or fillet before cooking. These meaty fish are excellent on the grill. The fish are usually more abundant, and therefore cheaper, during the winter months. Click for a great sheepshead recipe.
Pompano is small in size but big in taste. Their succulent flesh is dense and white, and it’s often considered a delicacy. Because of the high demand for the fish, it’s now being farm raised. Expect to pay top dollar for fresh pompano.
Cobia is a saltwater fish that can grow to hefty weights. Often called "ling" in the Gulf of Mexico, cobia has a unique flavor. The flesh is firm and tasty. The demand for cobia has risen so much that they're now being raised in aquaculture farms. This fish is great in a number of cobia fish recipes!
How to Select Fresh Fish
Unless you’re an angler, you probably buy your fish at a grocery store or fish market. Freshness is an integral factor with fish because it deteriorates quickly. You have no way of knowing how long the fish have been out of the water.
It’s easy to disguise a fish’s lack of freshness when it’s in fillet form, so purchase whole fish and have them cleaned or filleted. Follow the guidelines below to ensure that the fish you’re buying are fresh. A fresh fish has:
- bright red gills
- glossy eyes that are prominent
- skin that’s free of blemishes
- a sweet – not ammonia – smell
- firm flesh
- shiny skin
Watch below for a video tutorial about choosing fresh fish.
How to Store Fish
Get your fish home as soon as you can. Rinse the fish or fish fillets and pat them dry. Place them in a bag of ice, making sure the ice surrounds both sides of the fish. Lean fish can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week after it’s caught. The ones in stores were most likely already 2-4 days old, so plan to cook your fish within 2-3 days.
Fish can be stored for longer periods by freezing. The best way we’ve found to this is to cover them with water. We use either gallon milk jugs with the top cut off, or zipper-seal freezer bags. If we use the bags, we double bag the fish.
Sure, the water takes up a lot more room in the freezer, but we’ve found that it’s definitely worth it! Lean fish frozen in this manner will keep its texture and flavor for over six months.
For great fish recipes, click the links below.
To learn to catch your own fish, read the articles below.
Tips for cooking and eating fish:
- Southern Traditions: The Fish Fry
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- Fishing Tips: How to Catch, Prepare, and Cook Bluefish
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- Southern Culinary Arts: How to Prepare and Cook Shark Meat
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- Southern Cuisine: Blackened Redfish
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- Southern Culinary Arts: Buttermilk Fried Fish
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Tips for catching fish:
- Saltwater fishing in the South
- Saltwater Fishing Tips: Spotted Seatrout, with Fishing Videos
Spotted seatrout, also known as speckled trout, speckled seatrout, and specs, are beautiful saltwater fish that are fun to catch and are excellent on the table. The flesh is mild, white, and flaky and is...
- Saltwater Fishing: Sheepshead with Video
I finally learned how to catch sheepshead. I've tried catching these convicts for years, but until recently, I succeeded only in feeding them my bait. Many times when the water was clear, I could see these...
- Fishing Tips: Flounder + Fishing Video
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- Fishing Tips: How to Catch Sharks, with Big Shark Video
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