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Tips for Cooking Fish

These are just some basic guidelines for making the most of your catch in the kitchen. This is largely based on my own experience and opinions, yours may differ (especially if you're not a big seafood fan in the first place). If you have a favorite tip, please e-mail it to, and we'll be sure to include it here.

You've just gotten home and opened your cooler, filled to the brim with fillet, and realized just how much fish you caught. What are you going to do with it all?

Obviously, it's going in the freezer, but there are many different ideas on how to properly pack the fish so that it will keep. Just wrapping it in plastic won't cut it, unless you plan to eat the fish within a week of freezing. Most packing methods aim to keep air away from the fish, which is a good idea since oxidation and drying are what degrade the flavor. Methods I've heard include dunking a zip-lock bag under water to force the air out before sealing, or even filling the bag with water and freezing the fish in an ice block (note: if you do this, add a pinch of salt to the water first).

In my experience, vacuum packing is the way to go. Your fish will remain fresh-tasting for months (or even years). The East Cape Smokehouse in Los Barriles offers vacuum packing service for a reasonable price. They don't clean the fish, though, so you need it filleted before you take it to them. They will, however, trim up your fillets, remove any bloodline, and wash it before packing. Also, there are several vacuum sealers on the market. I have one (the FoodSaver), and think it's worth its weight in gold. Definitely a worthwhile investment if you do a lot of fishing.

The other option for long-term storage is to smoke your fish. Of course, this alters the flavor (in a good way!) and somewhat limits the culinary possibilities, but it will keep a long time. Smoking is also a good way to prepare fish that isn't so great to eat in the first place, like striped marlin.

Also, before storage you should remove any darker colored flesh (the bloodline). If you leave this on, it will pollute the rest of your fish with its strong flavor.


  • Fillets should be thoroughly thawed before cooking, otherwise the fish won't cook evenly. If your fish is sealed, a quick thaw can be accomplished by immersing the package in COLD water. Note that using hot water instead sounds like a good idea, and will make the fish thaw faster, it also promotes bacterial growth and is a good way to wind up in the hospital. Thawing in water like this generally works in an hour or less, depending on how much fish is involved. I don't recommend defrosting in the microwave - this just tends to spot-cook the fish.
  • Rinse your fillets and pat dry before cooking. For best results, do not use fresh water, but prepare a gallon of water mixed with a tablespoon each of uniodized salt and baking soda. It also doesn't hurt to let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator for a bit to evaporate excess water.
  • Fish that hasn't been properly stored will smell "fishy" (good fresh fish should have very little odor). If it doesn't smell too much, you might be able to salvage it by soaking in milk for a couple of hours. If your fish smells strongly, or has an ammonia-like odor, throw it out.
  • You may wish to marinate your fish before cooking, especially if it is strongly flavored. You can whip up a marinade out of just about anything that appeals to you (see our Recipes for some examples), but as a general rule your marinade needs to contain some oil, otherwise it may not infuse the fish. If unsure about how much oil, shoot for about equal parts oil to other liquids. Bottled Italian dressing works great as a quick and easy marinade.


  • If cooking directly on a pan or grill, ALWAYS use oil to avoid sticking and burning. Olive oil or vegetable oil works well, as do nonstick sprays (which are just oil anyway). If you don't have a spray, you can brush the oil onto your grill (do this BEFORE placing the grill over the coals).
  • Most fish should be cooked thoroughly (making your own sashimi is a good way to wind up with stomach parasites, unless you know what you're doing). White or light-fleshed fish should be opaque throughout when done. Darker-fleshed fish like tuna should be pinkish-brown. Most fish flakes easily with a fork when cooked through. Note that fish cooks faster than most other meats. Also, fish is rather intolerant to being overcooked, so you need to pay attention. Lighter-fleshed fishes aren't too bad overcooked, but fish like tuna and marlin are absolutely inedible.
  • The main exception to the "cook thoroughly" tip is tuna. Tuna is EXCELLENT rare - personally, I think it's preferable that way. Given that overcooking tuna is a disaster, it is better to err on the side of it being a little pink. It is currently fashionable to sear tuna steaks over high heat, so the outside is browned while the inside is raw. This is very tasty. Note that as open water fish that are constantly on the move, tuna aren't very susceptible to internal parasites (this is more a problem for sedentary bottom fish). I've personally never heard of anybody getting parasites eating raw tuna, and it is widely served in restaurants, but just remember that you do so at your own risk. If you want to eat raw or seared tuna, I recommend that you thinly slice it (1/4" or less) ACROSS the grain of the flesh - this will generally kill anything that might be lurking. Also, slicing thinly will make parasites (generally roundworms) easily visible, if any are there.
  • Another way of cutting fishy smell or taste is to cook the fish wrapped in bacon.

All I've Got are Red Snapper Recipes

So you caught a big mess of cabrilla or sierra, but can't find any recipes for those species. Not to worry - fish species can often be interchanged in many recipes; see our Recipes section for examples. The distinctions of flavor and texture amongst different types of fish are often fairly subtle, and most recipes don't rely them (though some do).

The table below gives some broad categories of fish that are more or less interchangeable, based on my own experience. Again, this is a matter of opinion, and there are no hard and fast rules: in reality fish covers a broad spectrum of flavors and textures. But this should at least provide a starting point for experimentation. The table is followed by some comments and tips regarding various species. If you're concerned about texture as well, you might check out this Edibility Chart.

Red Snapper
Yellowtail Snapper
Dog Snapper
Yellowfin Tuna
Striped Marlin
Blue Marlin
Fish species within each column should be more or less interchangeable in many recipes.

From a culinary standpoint, I personally think dorado is king. You'll note that it appears in two columns above. Dorado is very flexible: it's flavor is mild and texture light enough that it can be used as a "white-fleshed" fish, yet has enough durability and character to stand up to recipes intended for "heavier" fish like tuna. I actually think dorado is so tasty that cooking it with a sauce or marinade is almost a waste. My favorite method of preparation is to simply wrap the fillets in foil with a little lemon juice and butter, and bake at about 350 Fahrenheit. Dorado also makes excellent ceviché.

Yellowfin Tuna
Yellowfin tuna is more like steak than fish, with it's dark red meat, dense texture, and meaty flavor. Again, tuna is one of the few fish that works well when cooked less than well-done, even rare (it's arguably better this way). Tuna is also excellent on the grill, with very little preparation. Just brush the steaks with a little olive oil, sprinkle with some kosher salt, and grill to desired doneness.

The rap on marlin is that it's basically inedible, but I think this is a misconception spread by some combination of unscrupulous skippers and overzealous catch-and-release advocates. The flesh is quite dense, perhaps closer in texture to beef (even more so than tuna), and some people are put off by this. But in flavor, blue marlin is very much like swordfish, with similar light-colored dense meat. Striped marlin has darker flesh and stronger flavor, but can still be quite tasty when marinated, or especially in soup. Striped marlin is also EXCELLENT smoked - I think it's one of the tastiest smoked fish. Marlin is VERY intolerant to overcooking, becoming extremely tough and dry. On the other hand, I've never heard of anyone cooking it rare like tuna, so you really need to pay attention and serve it when it's just done.

That said, I certainly don't advocate slaughtering marlin to fill your freezer - it ain't exactly the chicken of the sea. So please practice catch-and-release whenever possible, especially if you're not a big seafood fan (in which case you probably won't like marlin). However, marlin do often die during the fight, especially if it is a large fish and/or caught on light tackle. If this happens, rather than send it to the bottom for crab food, you might consider taking some home in your cooler. One thing to bear in mind is that marlin are generally BIG, which among other things means that it isn't going in the fish box on the boat. Instead, they usually lash it to the swim platform, and as a result your fish is likely to spend a few hours cooking in the sun, which does nothing for its edibility. If you're really intent on taking some marlin fillet home, be sure to keep the fish cool by pouring water over it often.

Triggerfish are a rather odd looking inshore species (see the Fish ID page for a picture). They are ferocious little buggers, too, nicknamed "Baja Piranha", pretty easy to catch and lots of fun on light tackle. Triggerfish are EXCELLENT eating, with firm white flesh that is almost sweet in flavor - closer to crab than fish. In fact, you can probably substitute it for crab in many recipes. Trigger is also my personal favorite for ceviché. So if you get a chance, I highly recommend spending some time inshore and getting some triggerfish for the cooler.

People tend to be really put off by the idea of eating squid -after all, they look totally alien. Even the name is icky. Generally, if you catch squid at the East Cape they will be giant squid (calimar grande, technically Humboldt squid), Squid are very aggressive animals, and extraordinarily easy to catch. They're also nasty, and will happily cover you in ink and squid crap and do their best to take a chunk out of you (they've got a beak like a parrot and their suckers have claws). If you get into squid, be sure to let the boat crew handle them.

Now, if you're like most people, the only reason you'd consider catching squid is for bait. But they are really good eating as well. The giant squid give nice thick steaks, and the tentacles are tasty, too. The texture is rather different, more like shellfish (squid is a mollusk, after all), but the flavor is very mild and excellent.

The knock on squid is that it is tough and chewy, but again this is mostly the result of overcooking. Overcooked squid is a disaster - seriously, you could retread truck tires with the stuff. Properly cooked, it is quite edible, though some people may find it a bit firm. If you're worried about this, there are a couple of ways to tenderize squid steaks, which you can do individually or in combination. The first is beat it with a hammer - I'm serious. Wrap the squid steak in plastic, and pound it with a meat tenderizer, wooden mallet, or even just a beer bottle. The other thing is to use a marinade containing something acidic, like lemon juice or vinegar.

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