Because white fish is lacking in fat, it is easily dried out during cooking. If you’re cooking fish by a ‘dry’ method such as grilling or barbecuing then it’s important to baste frequently with butter, oil or a marinade. For moist methods of cooking like poaching it’s vital to cook the fish gently; if the cooking liquid boils vigorously the fish will disintegrate during cooking.
Bear in mind that the subtle flavour is easily masked or cverpowered by strong flavours, so choose accompanying sauces carefully. Similarly, choose a cooking method that’s appropriate to the fish. Chunky steaks of firm or oily fish or sturdy whole fish can withstand fierce treatments which would ruin less robust fillets. Here are a few basic methods of cooking; refer to individual recipes for more detailed instructions.
Coat the prepared fish with seasoned flour, batter or egg and breadcrumbs. Half fill a deep saucepan or deep-fat fryer with vegetable oil and heat to 190°C (375°F). Fry the fish, a few pieces at a time, until golden brown. The cooking time will depend on the density and size of the fish. Obviously tiny whitebait will cook very quickly, while larger fish will take several minutes. The most accurate way to determine whether it is cooked is to cut a piece open and try it. Drain thoroughly on absorbent kitchen paper.
Coat the fish in seasoned flour or egg and breadcrumbs and fry in vegetable oil or a mixture of vegetable oil and butter. Test whether the fish is cooked as above. Drain as above.
Fillets or steaks, brushed with olive oil, will cook on a hot oiled griddle in a matter of minutes.
Before you start cooking, line the grill pan with foil to prevent lingering fish smells. If cooking whole fish or thick fillets with skin on, slash the skin so that the heat can penetrate. Brush generously with melted butter, oil or a marinade, season with salt and pepper and cook under a preheated hot grill until the flesh looks opaque. Turn large fillets or fish occasionally. Cut into the fish at the thickest point to check whether it’s cooked.
Barbecued fish is cooked in much the same way. Choose robust tuna, monkfish, mackerel, shark or sardines in preference to delicate fish like plaice and sole. To make turning easier and to help prevent the fish breaking up, put it in a fish rack or thread it onto skewers. Brush frequently with marinade or oil.
Put the fish in a shallow dish with a few herbs, seasoning and a splash of wine, fish stock or milk. Cover and bake at 180°C (350°F) mark 4. Alternatively, bake en papillote – wrapped in a foil or greaseproof paper parcel – at the same temperature. Whole fish will take about 30-40 minutes while fillets and steaks will take anything from 15-25 minutes depending on their size.
Season thoroughly before cooking and sprinkle with a few herbs, a squeeze of lemon juice or a knob of butter. Wrap in foil and steam over boiling water until the fish is opaque. This will take about 10 minutes but will depend on the thickness of the fillets. Delicate thin plaice and sole fillets will cook very quickly.
Heat a well flavoured court bouillon or fish stock or some dry white wine or milk flavoured with aromatics such as parsley, onion, bay, celery and a few peppercorns. Add the fish and simmer very gently until the fish is just opaque. Don’t let the liquid boil or the fish will break up.
Fillets of uniform thickness can also be cooked in the microwave, flavoured as above.