Ask a Chef: Picking Out The Right Fresh Fish

 Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images

I used to think that cooking red meat was the most intimidating thing. My reasoning was that if I mess up pasta, well, it's just pasta, but if I mess up a steak that's a lot of money in the trash. However, fish has usurped that top spot for ingredients I only bring into the kitchen on special occasions. It's delicate, it can get overcooked in a second, and how on earth are you supposed to tell if it smells "too fishy" if the entire market smells like fish? Plus, I'm not sure if you noticed, but there are a lot of types of fish. Almost too many to keep straight. Sure, you can tell salmon meat from cod, but please, go pick a haddock filet from a pollock. I'll wait.


Chef Paul Shoemaker heads up the kitchen at Firefly in Los Angeles, and their seafood heavy, seasonal menu means he knows his stuff. And his first tip is to lay off the tilapia. "It's one of those farm fish that I feel is unsafe, and I don’t trust most farmers' fish unless I know the farmer personally," he says. "It’s one of those fish I'd never want to feed myself, my family, or any of my restaurant guests." So if your recipe calls for tilapia, swap it out for another white, flaky fish like snapper, grouper or branzino. 

This could be getting ahead of things. Your recipe might just call for a "flaky, white fish," or maybe you had your heart set on swordfish but your fishmonger is fresh out. This is when it's beneficial to have a fishmonger who knows their stuff. Shoemaker says a good relationship with your fishmonger is key to both getting the best products and to learn more about what you're cooking. 

Of course, you have to make sure you’re going to a quality fishmonger first, so go ahead and ask them where they get their fish. "If they are quick to answer, and have a lot of detail, you can tell that they really know which farms they are working with, and are proud to sell the product," he says. You can also consult various resources about which fish are sustainable, and which are seasonal in your region (like this chart for Northern California). Even if you trust your fishmonger, check the fish yourself to make sure it's good quality. You should "make sure the muscles are tight, the head is up, the flesh is intact and not ripping apart."

Speaking of seasonality, it's still cold out, meaning it's not exactly the time for those citrusy ceviches or steamed salmon with a light dill butter (unless you live in a warmer place). Winter should be full of food that sticks to your insides and warms you up, and it often looks like a lot of meat and potatoes. However, Shoemaker says it's easy to incorporate fish into more of a winter palate. "Right now, black bass and John Dory are in season, and I think all winter vegetables can pair well with these," he says. For instance, they're currently serving black bass with leeks and potatoes. You could also go with "a nice American-style Bouillabaisse, with carrots, potatoes, Cipollini onions, any rock fish or white fish (like halibut) shrimp, scallops, shellfish, clams, and mussels," and then you can impress your friends by spelling "bouillabaisse" correctly. Win-win.