The Foolproof Fish Trick

“There’s a trick to cooking fish that few people see to know about.  Maybe that is why fish isn’t as popular in this country as it deserves to be – it is usually so badly cooked”.  – James Beard

This tip for cooking fish comes from the “Dean of American Cooking”, James Beard, one of the most influential chefs this country has ever seen.

What I am providing here, courtesy of James Beard, is a simple tip for determining the precise amount of time to cook a fillet of fish in order to prevent overcooking.  Overcooking is, by far, the most common crime against fish because it happens so easily.  And it is such a tragedy when a beautiful fresh piece of fish is converted into a dry hard chunk that fights its way down your throat.

Not that I am completely innocent of this crime.  I have overcooked more fish than I care to admit.  I only really started cooking fish when I began dating a fisherman (now my husband) and it took me years before I realized just how quickly fish cooks.  After one too many fish was forgotten in the oven until it was a barely edible mass, I overcompensated by hovering over the oven, checking the flesh with a fork every couple of minutes to test if it flaked apart yet.  If only I had known about this trick years ago, I would have saved myself from countless dried out fish and hours of my time.

The trick is: measure the thickness of your fish and cook it at 450°F for ten minutes for every inch of thickness.

That’s it!  This rule works for any type of fish, any size, whether it is filleted, whole, stuffed, or breaded.

  • Preheat your oven to 450° F
  • Line a baking sheet with foil or butter a baking dish and lay down your room temperature fish
  • Measure the thickness of the fish at its thickest section
  • Season your fish however you like (salt, pepper, lemon, and butter work for any fish)
  • Pop your fish in the oven and set your timer for 10 minutes for every inch of thickness

Something you might want to consider: if your fish is significantly thicker in one section than another, make a compromise and use a measurement halfway between the thickest and thinnest sections.  For example, if the thickest part of the fish is two inches and the thinnest part is one inch, use the measurement of 1.5 inches and cook it for 15 minutes.  Also, you can cook your fish from a frozen state, just cook it for twenty minutes for every inch of thickness instead of ten minutes.  And if you want to seal your fish in a foil “envelope”, just add 5 minutes to the total cooking time.  

my fillet of sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay

I tested this out myself with a fillet of sockeye salmon that I pulled out of my freezer the other night.  I thawed out the salmon, laid it on a foil lined baking sheet and measured its thickness.

Why does my hand look so wrinkly?

I drizzled it with lemon juice and generously salted and peppered it before placing a few pats of butter on top.  After my ridiculously old oven took forever getting up to 450° I placed my baking sheet on the middle rack and set my timer.  Because my salmon measured just a tad over one inch, I set the timer for 11 minutes.  I backed away from the oven and resisted the urge to open the oven door and poke it with a fork.  I wanted to make sure I was doing an accurate test of this fish formula so I didn’t open the oven door until my timer rang at 11 minutes.  I immediately pulled the salmon out and let it cool on the counter for about 10 minutes before cutting into it.

Success!  I am happy to report that the salmon was perfectly done – barely cooked all the way through, and still moist and soft.

Testimony to my success. If only you could taste it too.

As you can see from the photo above, the flesh flakes apart but is still semi-transparent and deep pink in color.  When salmon is overcooked the color of the flesh changes to an opaque, light pink.

In case you can’t tell, I’m really excited about my discovery here!  I’m excited that I won’t have to guess and worry over baking fish anymore, and I’m excited to share this tip with my readers.  As a fisherman’s wife, I get asked all the time for advice on cooking fish.  It seems that many people in my part of the country feel uncertain about it and I really do believe that most people would buy fish more often if they felt confident in their ability to prepare it.

Hopefully this post will encourage a few people to pick up a fish from their market and test out the “ten minute per inch tip” themselves (or maybe you already know this trick?).  Any readers that try it, please report back to me on your results!  I would love to hear how different types of fish turn out in different ovens.  Just remember, 10 minutes at 450° for every inch of thickness.  Happy cooking!

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5 thoughts on “The Foolproof Fish Trick

  1. So many people have the misconception that cooking fish at a low temperature will make it tender and not dry out. High temperature sears it and keeps the juices in. One thing that I have taken to doing lately is pre-heating the oven to 450 degrees and then turning it down to 425 as soon as I put the fish in.
    The thickness guide is a good rule of thumb that I will start using.
    Thanks

    • Mel,
      I think it’s tragic that there are so many misconceptions about seafood out there. I really think its important to simplify the buying and cooking process so people won’t be so intimidated by it all. That’s why it’s nice to have an easy tip like this to throw out to people. Definitely try it. It works!
      -Robin

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