Whether you bake it, fry it, poach it or steam it, there are few things as satisfying as a perfectly-cooked, flaky filet of fish. Some people are a little nervous when it comes to cooking fish, and while it does involve a bit of precision, if you have the right tools, and know what you’re looking for, it can actually be pretty simple.
To find out how you can achieve those perfect, flaky filets in your own kitchen, take a look at our guide to everything you’ll ever need to know about fish cooking temperatures.
How fish cooking works
It is true that cooking fish requires a little more attention to detail than most meats. This is because fish has a lower collagen content than meat, with muscle fibres that are up to ten times shorter. Because of this, fish is far more sensitive to heat, and will rapidly start to lose moisture if cooked for too long.
Cooking fish is a balancing act between making sure the meat is cooked through, with any harmful bacteria destroyed, and preventing it from drying out. Unlike red meat, there is rarely any scope for different levels of doneness: the fish is either undercooked, cooked or overcooked.
There are ways to tell if your fish is cooked by sight or touch. It should feel barely firm to touch, and there are different colours to look out for depending on how you cook it. But by far the best way is using a food thermometer to check that the meat has reached the correct temperature in the middle.
The USDA recommends cooking fish in general to 145ºF/63ºC, to kill harmful bacteria, but some chefs recommend cooking certain types of seafood a little below this to keep it moist. If you do this, it is important to buy fresh fish from a good fishmonger, to minimise the risk of contamination. When buying, avoid anything with a fishy smell - the freshest fish should smell like an ocean breeze - and make sure you either use your fish within two days of purchase, or freeze it until you need it.
Different types of fish and their cooking temperature
Salmon has very little collagen content and will quickly lose moisture and become tough and unpleasant. Many chefs prefer cooking salmon to 125ºF/52ºC for a moister, flakier piece of fish.
Halibut is a firmer fish, and will stand up to a little more heat than salmon. It should be cooked to an internal temperature of between 130 and 135°F/ 54 and 57ºC, so the middle is just becoming opaque.
Lobster should be cooked to 140ºF/60ºC for succulent, tender meat. Too much heat will make it rubbery and dry, while too little leads to an unpleasant texture and underdeveloped flavours. For the most accurate temperature measurement, take your reading from the lobster tail.
Scallops should be cooked quickly on a high heat, to an internal temperature of 130ºF/54ºC. When cooked through, they should be milky white in appearance, or opaque and firm.
Shrimps will shrink and become tough when overcooked. Their ideal internal temperature is 120ºF/49ºC, just as the shrimps begin to turn a light pink colour.
Tuna loses moisture and flavour if cooked for too long, and is usually served rare or seared rare at 115ºF/46ºC. Raw tuna often contains a parasite, so if you’re serving your tuna raw, make sure you use sashimi grade tuna, which has been treated to kill parasites.
Different methods of cooking fish
There are so many different ways to cook a piece of fish, each adding a subtly different texture and flavour to the meat. We’re going to take a look at some of the more common methods, how they work, and which cooking methods are better suited to which types of fish.
Baking is one of the safest ways to ensure your fish is cooked all the way through, but because it uses dry heat, it can dry out the fish, especially if it is without its skin. This method works best for thicker-cut, oilier fish, and you can also use a marinade or baste to help seal in moisture. Arctic char, sablefish, halibut and clams all do well baked in the oven.
Baking in foil helps to seal in moisture and flavour, which makes it good for more delicate types of seafood. Pollack, tilapia, haddock and cod work well cooked in foil.
Barbecuing (known as grilling in the USA) adds a crispy texture to the outside of the fish, but like baking it can be drying, and is best suited to sturdy, oily fish. You can also protect the fish with marinades and bastes, or by wrapping in foil. Try swordfish, halibut or oysters on your barbecue.
Casseroling fish in liquid is a great way to retain moisture and bring out the delicate flavours of the fish.
Shallow frying works well with delicate, flaky fish, as the crispy, seared skin contrasts well with the tender meat. This method works well with sole, flounder, scallops and shrimp.
Deep frying in batter or breadcrumbs is a good choice for white fish with a neutral flavour, as darker-coloured fish are more oily and don’t fry well. Try deep frying cod, hake, halibut or oysters.
Broiling (known as grilling in non-US countries) gives a rich flavour, but works best with sturdy fish that won’t burn under the heat. Use a marinade or baste to prevent drying out, and if you’re cooking a whole fish, score the flesh to allow better heat penetration. Black cod and salmon both work well under the broiler.
Marinating is often used to add flavour, but some marinades can actually be used in place of the cooking process. If you use a marinade with a high proportion of lemon or lime juice, the acid will ‘cook’ the fish. Cut the fish into small pieces and leave to soak for 6 to 12 hours in the fridge, until the flesh becomes opaque and white all the way through.
Poaching is ideal for lighter fish, as it helps retain moisture and enhances the delicate flavours of the fish. Try poaching a piece of snapper, sole or some mussels.
Steaming is the traditional way of cooking shellfish, and works well with oysters, clams and mussels. It can also be used as a healthier way of cooking other types of fish.
If you want to try out different ways to cook a fish, why not start with these simple and delicious recipes from Fine Dining Lovers?
Grilled: these fish kebabs showcase grilled fish at its best, with charred, juicy tuna pieces in a lemon and ginger marinade.
Fried: for a taste of fried fish, try these pan-seared swordfish steaks with capers. Made with a simple lemon and oregano marinade, they’re easy to make and bursting with Mediterranean flavour.
Baked: our baked fish dish is Sicilian classic sarde a beccafico, made from sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, raisins, herbs, and orange.
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