James Beard Award-winning chef Galen Zamarra on some major fish mistakes you may be making.

Fish Cooking
Credit: Getty Images

First, the bad news: You’re probably overcooking your fish.

James Beard Award-winning chef Galen Zamarra, of Mas (Farmhouse) and North Fork’s soon-to-open The Halyard at Sound View, says that overcooking—which causes that white, protein-y ooze to emerge from the filet—is the most common fish-cooking mistake. The good news? There’s an easy way to avoid this, and you can use an item sitting on your desk right now.

“A trick that people can use for checking doneness is actually a cake tester, or even a paperclip,” says Zamarra, who sources fresh seafood and fish for his restaurants every day. “You open up the paperclip so it’s a nice straight line. When you stick the point into the fish, there should be no resistance. If it’s not done, you’ll start to push it in, and it’ll just stop. So, once you can go in and it comes out and there’s no resistance, the fish is done.”

Of course, there are several ways to mess up fish—even before you get it on the pan. Zamarra shares a few tips for feeling more empowered at the fishmonger, which can be intimidating, especially with all those glistening fish looking at you.

1. Opt for whole fish. You can ask your fishmonger to filet it for you.

If cooking a whole, scales-and-everything fish feels intimidating, ask your fishmonger to prep it and filet it for you. That way you can get the benefits of whole fish—freshness—while cooking it in a way you’re comfortable with.

2. Make eye contact with the fish before buying it. Seriously.

“If you’re buying a whole fish, always look at its eyes,” says Zamarra. “They should not be white or glossy. They should be nice and bright.” Peek at the gills, too—they should be bright red.

Another good barometer of freshness, of course, is smell. “Fish should smell like the ocean, but not fishy. Fishy means it’s old.”

3. Ask if the fish or shellfish has ever been frozen.

Often vendors will sell shrimp or squid, for example, that were frozen and thawed before hitting the market, and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at them. The process of freezing has a massive impact on the product’s flavor and texture.

“You lose a lot of the natural water content,” Zamarra says. “Think about what happens to water when it freezes—it expands. Imagine the water looking like a snowflake, and these sharp, jagged icicles cut up the cell structure. When the fish defrosts, all those cells are damaged, and the water that’s inside leaks out, creating a much dryer fish. It will lose a lot of the flavor because all of the flavor that was in the fish is now lost.”

4. Eat more wild striped bass.

The fish is Zamarra’s go-to for several reasons. “It’s meaty, has a nice fat content and is super versatile to a lot of cooking techniques,” he says. “You can grill it, eat it raw, poach it, roast it, sauté it—you can cook it in any way.”

5. Make sure your mollusks are alive.

Never cook clams or mussels that are dead, as dead shellfish spoil quickly and become inedible. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to check before buying.

“If you tap it, it should close,” he says. “If it doesn’t, that thing is dead, and you should throw it in the garbage immediately.”

6. Be wary of misleading marketing—especially when it comes to salmon.

“You’ll see king salmon, Scottish salmon, organic salmon—there are so many different types, and it is purposefully misleading,” Zamarra says. “The easy thing to remember is that wild salmon is always the best option. It’s healthy and environmentally friendly. The only wild salmon that’s in America anymore is from the Pacific Northwest, as Atlantic salmon are all extinct. There’s some wild Scottish and Irish, but it doesn’t really make it into the country, so if you see Scottish salmon, you can generally be assured that it’s farmed. And any Atlantic salmon is farmed, too. They try to trick you by saying ‘organic.’”

Another form of fish trickery? Artificial dyes are often added to farmed salmon to make the flesh look pink. “That’s kind of gross,” he says. “I think if people knew that, they wouldn’t buy it.”