The Fit Guy's Guide to Fish

Features

The smartest and most affordable ways to incorporate the world’s greatest lean protein into your daily diet.


By Nils Bernstein
Photos by Travis Rathbone
DAPPER SNAPPER Baking fish is by far one of the healthiest cooking methods. (Here: a red snapper with brussels sprouts.) It also keeps fish moist and cuts down on any fishy smell in the kitchen.

FACT NO. 1: You need to eat fish. It’s high in protein, low in calories, and contains a lot less fat than meat (and it’s often the best type of fat: heart-healthy, muscle-building omega3s). But you already know that—which, unfortunately, doesn’t change Fact No. 2: You rarely eat fish.

 Maybe you’re lazily committed to being a Bobby Flay–level master of the cheap post-workout chicken cutlet. Maybe you find that cooking tilapia or cod or hake is just too expensive, too involved, too temperamental. (Back to chicken!) Or maybe you’ve confined your fish eating to restaurants, where you’re likely consuming it the wrong way. (We’ll show you the right way.)

But don’t worry, dudes, we got you.

Bearing in mind today’s mindboggling array of “farmed” and “wild” fish, we’ve reached out to some of America’s top fishmongers, chefs, and ichthyologists (fish scientists) to seek out the dead-easiest ways for you to incorporate more fish into your daily diet. These include the best ways to prep fish quickly and simply at home, how to pick a luxury chef-approved can of tuna that isn’t bone dry, and which questions to ply your waiter with to guarantee he brings you the freshest, healthiest-cooked catch.

Because there’s no way to get around Fact No. 3: Eating more fish will add not only muscle to your body but also years to your life.

Three Fish You’re Not Allowed To Buy, Ever

For the sake of your central nervous system. (And also for the safety of the planet.)

BLUEFIN TUNA

Known as “hon-maguro” at the sushi bar, these fish are being perilously overfished due to Japanese demand. (The Atlantic bluefin is hurting as well.) Bottom line: They’re tasty as hell, but if you eat them you’re probably going to hell.

ORANGE ROUGHY

The endangered orange roughy, whose mild flavor is easily matched by any number of sustainable options, is a bottom dweller caught by trawls—huge nets that disturb important parts of the ocean floor and catch large amounts of by-catch.

SHARK

These top-chain predators crucial to the marine ecosystem are preyed on by trawlers, fishers hunting them for shark-fin soup, and individual assholes. Also, shark meat is high in mercury—which can damage the central nervous system and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children.

Always smell fish before you buy it,” says Chef Eric Ripert. “The pros do this.”

The Five Fish to Buy at Your Supermarket

No one should ever spend $30/pound on halibut

The fish sold in your local market can be broken down into two basic categories: Flat fish, like flounder, sole, and halibut, which have lean, white flesh and a delicate flavor, and are ideal for fish novices; and round fish, which are broken down by their relative richness. There’s oily fish— dinner-party staples like salmon, trout, and mackerel, which have sharper tastes that fish connoisseurs love—and leaner white fish, like sea bass, cod, snapper, haddock, and tilapia, which are milder and more versatile.

Taking into consideration taste, health benefits, and price, which fish lend themselves to the most idiot-proof cooking? “As delicious as expensive fish like tuna, swordfish, and halibut can be, there are always other species available that are equally delicious and oftentimes a fraction of the price,” says Ian MacGregor, CEO of New York City’s The Lobster Place.

If you like your fish mild and sweet, go for hake (typically about $10/pound), a sweet, flaky fish that can hold its own against the more-popular cod; or skate (also roughly $10/pound), a stingless ray whose meat comes from its “wings.” “Folks tend to stay away from skate due to its stringy appearance,” says MacGregor, “but flavor-wise it stacks up against any sole or flounder and is always at a far better price than 95% of the fish in the case.”

If you prefer your fish darker and oilier—and, if you’re a lifter, you should, since they come jammed with more omega-3s—then MacGregor recommends Spanish mackerel ($12–$20/pound), a mild-tasting fish that’s high in omega-3s and vitamin D, and is more elegant than beefy tuna steaks. “It’s one of our favorites,” he says. “It’s consistently available and versatile: You can bake, broil, poach, or grill it; it stands up to almost any sauce; and it’s delicious just sprinkled with sea salt and lemon.” He also likes Arctic char, a cold-water relative to salmon and lake trout. “It’s one of those fish that’s in perfect balance, with a unique fatty texture and a sweet, mild flavor,” he explains. “And to top things off, it has a delicious skin that becomes perfectly crisp when pan-seared or grilled.”

And finally: If you’re going crazy and price is no option, according to Jacob Willner of Chicago’s famed Isaacson & Stein fish company, Alaska black cod (also called “sable” or “sablefish”) is the way to go. Fillets can cost $25 to $35, but they’re well worth it, he says. “It has a rich flavor and a fantastic buttery texture, it can be cooked many different ways, and it’s very plentiful in fatty acids.”

LOOKS MATTER When shopping, pick fish with shiny skin; no bruises; firm, taut flesh; bright red gills; and clear eyes.

How to Order Fish in a Restaurant

Ask these four questions to learn if your snapper is actually tilapia and why you don’t want it “braised.”

1
What country is the fish from?

The answer says a lot about quality and flavor. If you’re told it’s from the U.S. or Canada—or fish-friendly places like Iceland or Norway—move on to the next question. If it’s from Asia, think twice: There’s a higher risk of fecal matter and drug residue in its farmed kind; and for catching wild fish, deplorable tactics are often used.

2
How was it caught?

Though it’s a myth that all fish farms are bad, wild-caught fish are almost guaranteed to be healthier, to have been harvested in season, and to have caused less environmental damage. (Btw, Atlantic salmon is never wild caught and is always farmed, no matter what a pushy server might claim.) Great buzzwords to hear: “Hook and line,” “hand line,” “pole,” “troll,” “jig,” or “spear gun.”

3
Is this fish really [_]?

Fish fraud is real. In the conservation group Oceana’s DNA studies on restaurant fish, for instance, 67% of 82 “wild” salmon samples were actually farmed. For the sake of your wallet, know that red snapper may really be catfish, mahi mahi could be yellowtail, and cod could be whiting.

4
How’s it prepared?

Pan fried and braised fish will be swimming in too much oil, and too much butter’s a lock for fish cooked in a pan or served with sauce. Best bets: Grilled, baked, or oven-roasted, with sauce on the side.

CHEF TIP! If you’re grilling, “don’t worry about fancy sauces. Lemon, olive oil, and hot sauce are all you really need,” says Ben Pollinger, executive chef of New York eatery Oceana. “Though the sweet, sour, and herbal notes of fresh salsa also really complement the charred flavor of fish.”

Become a Master Fish Chef with Just Three Essential Cooking Techniques

Technique 1

The Bake

Baking is simple, foolproof, and mess-free. It’s also easy to do a large quantity at once, it doesn’t stink up the kitchen, and it’s healthy because little extra fat is needed (in fact, you can get away with using no oil at all). Plus, pretty much any fish can be baked (just adjust the time based on thickness). To start, try the instructions below to bake a) salmon with lemon and dill; b) branzino with lime and basil; or c) rainbow trout with orange and oregano.

Instructions

Gently toss a pound of fish fillets with two tbsp each olive oil, any fresh citrus juice, and any minced herb. Salt and pepper to taste. (For even more flavor, add some minced garlic, sliced onion, grated ginger, or chopped black olives.) Wrap fillets in parchment paper (folding edges so it doesn’t leak), or place in a tightly covered baking dish. Bake in a 400˚F oven 12-15 minutes (denser fish and thicker fillets will take longer), or until it breaks apart easily with a fork. Don’t stress about overcooking—sealing in the juices like this keeps it moist.

Technique 2

The Poach

Poaching is one of the healthiest ways to cook fish, and also keeps it from drying out or stinking up the kitchen. Poached fish can be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. Best fish for poaching: salmon, Arctic char, halibut, trout, cod, hake, and snapper.

Instructions

Place fillets in a wide saucepan with just enough vegetable or chicken stock to cover them (or you can make a quick poaching liquid by boiling water with some carrot, celery, onion, herbs, salt, and a splash of white wine, then straining). Remove the fish to a plate, and heat the liquid over low heat until it’s steaming but not bubbling (you’re ideally just trying to keep it below a boil). Return the fish to the pan in a single layer and cook until it flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes. Poaching is very forgiving, so don’t stress.

Technique 3

The Grill

Using only a light brushing of oil to prevent sticking, grilling is super-healthy and results in a concentrated fish flavor. It’s ideal for whole fish or skin-on fillets and steaks; firmer fish, like tuna, striped bass, salmon, mahi mahi, and snapper work best—just be sure all are of the same thickness, for even cooking.

Instructions

Make sure the grill grates are clean, well-oiled, and blazing hot. Pat fish dry, then lightly oil both the skin and the grill. Gently place the fish on the grill and let sit—don’t nudge, or it’ll stick—for about 3 minutes (check after 2 minutes to see if it releases easily), then flip and cook, with the grill covered, another 3 minutes. If you’re worried about it sticking, use a grill screen or grill fish basket, or even a sheet of foil.

Three Really Great Canned Fish That Are Also Great for You

(That aren't sardines)

We know you dig sardines, that canned fish staple. Sadly, though, it turns out most reliable seafood-watch groups strongly advise against buying them. They’re overfished, which is threatening not only sardine populations but also Mediterranean food chains. (Low stocks have even forced Pacific sardine fisheries to close until the end of June.) Here, a few terrific eat-anytime alternatives.

Matiz Gallego Pulpo (Octopus) in Olive Oil
This octopus has a firm texture and very mild flavor. It’s a crazy good source of both lean protein and B12, which is essential for metabolism. To prep, drain well, quickly sauté with a little extra- virgin olive oil and smoked paprika, and spear with toothpicks. (4 oz two-pack, $16, amazon.com; 4.2 oz can, $11, spanishtable.com)

Redhead Wild Sockeye Salmon From Alaska
Wild Alaskan salmon is both your tastiest and most sustainable option, and Redhead’s is processed just hours after being caught. Sockeye has more vitamin D than any other fish with flavor. (12 pack, $64, amazon.com or purealaskasalmon.com)

Jose Gourmet Chub Mackerel Fillets in Olive Oil
Mackerel, with its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, is in the same family as tuna, but these rich, sweet fillets have none of the chalkiness of most canned tuna. Pile them on bread with a squeeze of lemon and some sea salt. (For more info, wixtermarket.com)

Open a can…For the most succulent, least-dry canned tuna, make sure it’s labeled “oil-packed.”

The Only Way To Eat Canned Tuna

Whether it’s headed for a salad or a sandwich, here’s the best can of tuna on the market—and the right (mayo-free!) way of prepping it

Every bodybuilder knows there’s nothing drier than tuna out of can. And there’s gotta be a better way of prepping it than drenching it with mayonnaise. Good news: There is! First, buy Wild Planet Wild Albacore Tuna ($23 for six 5 oz cans), which is pole-caught and has a beautiful, silky texture. (Oil-packed canned fish have better texture and flavor.) Here’s the ultimate recipe for any tuna sandwich or salad. !

How to Prep Your Tuna

Mix together:
  • 1 (5 oz) can oil-packed tuna, well drained
  • 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp fresh basil, chopped (can also use parsley or tarragon)
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 2 tsp black olives (niçoise or kalamata), rinsed, pitted, and roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp capers, rinsed and roughly chopped
  • 2 tsp lemon juice, to taste, and/or salt, to taste

Directions

Lather tuna on whole-grain bread or dollop on greens.

How To Buy Fish Without Getting Filleted

Straight from two of New York City’s ultimate fish experts, here are the five things you should always do and say when you deal with your neighborhood fishmonger.

The Skin Test
Look for translucent flesh on every single filet—if the flesh is opaque, beige, or white, it’s been burned by contact with ice and water, so “it will have less flavor, juices, and texture,” says Michelin-starred chef Eric Ripert, whose new memoir, 32 Yolks: from My Mother’s Table to Working the Line, hits stores this month.

The Tag Check
For shellfish lovers: Always ask the fishmonger to show you the “harvest tag,” which is required by federal law to accompany each and every shipment of shellfish to show where it was sourced and when, says Milburn. The most recent will be the freshest and best. And if you’re told there’s no tag? Go somewhere else—fast.

The Extra Mile
Never feel guilty asking a fishmonger to remove the bones from a fish—it’s his job, says Ripert. And definitely do it for a couple of homecooked fillets. Sure, bones may add a little bit of flavor, but it’s not enough to warrant the effort. “And you have the benefit of not fighting with the bones in your mouth.”

The Smell Test
Always ask to smell the fish before buying. “The pros do this, so don’t be ashamed to do it, too—it will alert your fishmonger right away that you know fish,” says Ripert. “It should smell of a light breeze on the clean ocean in the early morning.” If it smells too fishy, it isn’t fresh caught, so bacteria has already gone to work on it.

The Inquisition
If you ask about a fish’s history, and the seller replies, “It’s $14.99 a pound,” walk out, says Vinny Milburn, co- owner of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. “A fishmonger who gives a shit about his fish should know where and when it was caught, when it came in—everything about the chain of custody on the way to his shop.”

The Most Versatile Homemade Cocktail Sauce To Spice Up Shellfish or Poached Salmon

Mix Together
  • ½ cup ketchup
  • 1½ tbsp horseradish, to taste
  • 1 tsp Worcestershire
  • 1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¹/8 tsp Tabasco sauce