5 Common Mistakes People Make with Fish – and How to Avoid Them

"Cream sauce with fish is just wrong." 

Photo: REDA&CO/Getty Images

"Isn't it beautiful?" asks chef Roberto Bellitti, nodding to the emerald lagoon. If I hadn't looked up from my menu, I wouldn't have realized we were on an island—let alone one as remote as Bawah Reserve. The previously uninhabited archipelago of six private islands sits 160 nautical miles northeast of Singapore and requires three modes of transportation to reach. "When I got here, I was like, 'Wow, what is this place?'" Bellitti says.

The Parma-bred chef cut his teeth at some of the leading restaurants in London, Singapore, and Thailand, strengthening his skills doing stages at Michelin-starred spots like Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and Locanda Locatelli before making his way to Indonesia's super-secluded Bawah Reserve in the Anambas archipelago. Here, he has made his mark on the menu adding a gastronomic (yet simple) spin to the fish caught right off-shore this private island paradise.

The rainforest-encased Treetops restaurant, constructed entirely out of recycled bamboo, serves as Bellitti's test kitchen of sorts, where he experiments with some of the more whimsical techniques he's picked up over his many years of cooking with chefs around the globe. To give you an idea, for his cooking test (read: interview), he grilled fish that he paired with potatoes he'd carved and stuffed with prawns and aioli sauce. The finishing touch? A coat of squid ink paint to mimic the look of the island's black volcanic rock.

When he first arrived at Bawah, Bellitti says "it was like stepping back in time." In London, the chef would call a supplier for sea bass, and in two hours, a freshly filleted fish would arrive at his kitchen door. Here, one of three rotating fishermen arrive by boat and throw a 50-pound whole fish right on the jetty. While some ingredients take weeks to arrive from the bustling port of Indonesian island Batam, a 45-minute ferry ride from Singapore, fishermen arrive every two to three days to Bawah with their most recent catches. Bellitti may get creative with his plating, but when it comes to recipes, he keeps it simple. No butter (except for the freshly baked pastries), no sauce, and no cream. "I try to keep the products as clean as possible, so they offer their own flavor," he explains.

Fish is one of the most common dishes people tend to overcomplicate, says Bellitti; it's easy to screw up a beautiful fish filet by going heavy on spice or slathering on sauce, masking the main ingredient. One of the easiest fixes? Just drizzle olive oil, add a splash of lime, and voilà—you're done.

Here, Bellitti shares five other quick fixes that will have you cooking fish like a pro in no time.

Mistake #1: Fiddling with the fish.

"Fish is very delicate; the more you move it in the pan, the more juice it loses, causing the meat to break," Bellitti says. "The less you touch the fish, the better." If you're pan-frying, keep cooking time in mind and ensure the pan isn't too hot. Let the fish cook for 3 to 4 minutes and then flip. If you're baking fish, baste with a little olive oil and follow the 10-minute rule, cooking a 1-inch filet for five minutes on each side.

Mistake #2: Prioritizing quantity over quality.

Since the fish in the lagoons around Bawah Reserve have bigger bones, the chef asks fishermen to bring catches that measure between 3 and 5 kilograms (about 6.5 to 11 pounds), since smaller fish will have less meat and larger fish will be too tough and muscular. While size is one factor, quality is another. At the shop, the chef recommends looking for fish that are firm.

"If it's too soft, that means it's been there too long and has maybe been frozen," he says. Smell is not an indicator; instead, look at the eyes. "The eyes need to be alive," he says. And when you open the gills, they should be bright red and not slimy.

Courtesy of Bawah Reserve

Mistake #3: Not freezing properly.

When you're freezing fish, be sure to properly dry filets before you vacuum-seal or cover with Cling Wrap in order to avoid freezer burn. While fish can stay frozen for three to five months, the sweet spot is between 10 to 15 days.

Mistake #4: Seasoning at the wrong moment.

Salt draws out moisture, so skip seasoning while you're cooking to avoid drying out the fish. When your filet is about 80 percent cooked through (still translucent in the center) remove it from the pan and then season. "Salmon, for example, needs to be pink in the center, otherwise it loses all the fat and juices—all the good qualities," Bellitti says.

Mistake #5: Cream.

"Cream sauce with fish is just wrong," the chef says with a laugh. "The types of sauces that work best with fish are citrus, so lime, lemon, or orange." To help bring out the natural sweetness of the fish, you want slightly sour or salty sauces that aren't overpowering. Go light with the soy sauce and skip the cream, "unless you happen to be in Iceland on a cold day," Bellitti jokes.

While cuisines like Chinese or French are methodic and based more on sauces and stocks, "it can sometimes be difficult to know whether you're eating chicken or fish because the sauces are so strong," the chef says. "Sauces taste good, but at the end of the day, you want to know what you're eating."

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