Culinary Arts

19 Different Types of Fish for Eating and Cooking: Learn How to Eat Fish Sustainably

Written by MasterClass

Jun 17, 2019 • 12 min read

According to Chef Wolfgang Puck, “A lot of people have problems [with] fish—how to handle fish and how to buy fish—yet it can be so simple.” Here’s a guide to shopping and cooking some of the more common species you’ll find at the fish counter.

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What Are Fish?

Fish are aquatic cold-blooded vertebrates found both at sea and in freshwater. Many edible fish are great sources of nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, protein, B vitamins, iodine, and calcium, but fish also pose a risk of harboring toxins and parasites and spoil much more quickly than other meats, which is why it’s especially important to buy fish that’s fresh, in season, and sustainably harvested.

How to Shop for Fish

Eating fish doesn't have to be bad for the environment, but it's important to research varieties of fish and learn when they are in season. Plan your dinners and lunches around their availability to make sure you're not contributing to overfishing practices.

When buying a fish, make sure the gills are bright red and the eyes are not sunken. These indications mean the fish is fresh. Buy fish that smells fresh, and not too fishy, which can indicate bacteria. Look for whole fish that is shiny (not dull) and taut (not wrinkly). Eyes should be bright black (not opaque gray) and convex (rounded outward—not flat). Flesh color varies among species but fillets should not be brown around the edges.

6 Endangered Fish to Look Out For

For most of us, fish are the only wild food we eat. This means that when choosing fish we need to think not only about what we’d like to eat, but where it comes from. Overfishing can endanger vulnerable species, and bycatch—fish that are incidentally caught when harvesting other types of fish—can also harm marine ecosystems. Some endangered edible fish include:

  1. Bluefin tuna are endangered. Although the population of wild Pacific bluefin tuna in the US is below target levels, US-caught tuna is considered sustainable because policies are already in place to prevent overfishing.
  2. Wild Atlantic salmon from the Gulf of Maine is endangered and has protected status. Most US Atlantic salmon is farmed.
  3. Chinook salmon from the Sacramento River and Upper Columbia River are endangered, while several other varieties of Chinook salmon are threatened. Chinook salmon from Alaska is considered sustainable.
  4. Coho salmon from the Central California coast are endangered, while Coho salmon from the lower Columbia River, Oregon coast, southern Oregon, and Northern California coasts are threatened. Coho salmon from Alaska are considered sustainable.
  5. Sockeye salmon from the Snake River are endangered.
  6. Steelhead trout are endangered in Southern California and threatened in the California Central Valley, California coast, Columbia River, Puget Sound, Snake River Basin, and Upper Willamette River.

How to Prep Fish

Once home, rinse fish under very cold water to remove surface bacteria. Blot rinsed fish dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel and wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap to minimize oxygen exposure. If you’re not going to eat fish the day you buy it, refrigerate plastic-wrapped fish on chopped ice.

Fish has a reputation for being difficult to cook, because when overcooked it tends to taste very dry, and fish becomes overcooked more quickly than other proteins. The proteins in fish muscles, optimized for cold temperatures, can start to coagulate at room temperature, and most fish dries out around 140°F. Fish flesh is fragile because it’s low in collagen, meaning the flesh easily sticks to surfaces.

4 Types of Fatty Fish

Fish in general are lean animals, but so-called fatty fish are about 5 percent or more fat by weight and can stand up to dry-heat cooking methods such as sautéing or grilling. Fat content varies by species and even the location of a fillet, but in general, farmed fish are fattier than wild-caught fish.

Raw carp fish in skillet with tomatoes onions and citrus

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1. Carp is a freshwater fish with coarse, tough flesh and lots of bones. Since fish bones are smaller and have less calcium than those of other animals, they can soften (and even dissolve) with cooking. Carp is commonly poached or steamed whole in Chinese dishes. In Eastern European Jewish cuisine, it’s made into gefilte fish or poached with sweet and sour sauce. Carp can sometimes have a muddy flavor in late summer through fall. Try Sichuan-style whole carp: Cut slashes in the carp skin every quarter inch, then fry in a wok until golden. Add water, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, scallions, ginger, star anise, dried hot chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns to the wok and cook, covered, until carp reaches desired doneness.

Cooked Chilean sea bass on plate with tomatoes onions and puree

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2. Chilean Sea Bass (aka Patagonian toothfish) isn’t actually part of the bass family. It has firm, white flesh that produces thick flakes with a rich flavor (it’s around 14 percent fat by weight). Chilean sea bass average 15 to 40 pounds but can weigh up to 100 pounds and are often processed and frozen on the fishing boat. Try pan-searing Chilean sea bass for crispy skin and serving with peas, asparagus, spinach, or bok choy.

Raw salmon filets on wood plank with lemon

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3. Salmon, the second-most consumed fish in the US, is popular both for its versatility in the kitchen and the fact that it’s packed with nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. Born in freshwater, salmon migrate to saltwater and return to their home rivers to spawn. Salmon has a tender texture and mild-to-rich flavor, depending on the species and whether it's farm raised or wild caught—farmed salmon tend to be fattier, while wild salmon tend to have more flavor and firmer flesh. Here Chef Gordon Ramsay shows you how to nail a filet of salmon perfectly and create a delicious, light supper with an easy, yet elegant Italian-inspired shellfish and vegetable minestrone. Harness what Gordon calls “the jewels of the sea” in a broth that money can’t buy. For an easy weeknight dinner, try Oven Baked Salmon en Papillote With Lemon and Herbs.

Raw Shad fish on green plate with raw vegetables and ingredients

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4. Shad is the largest fish in the herring family. It has an oily, mild sweetness, similar to salmon in flavor (and, like salmon, shad migrates back to freshwater to spawn). Lots of small bones make it difficult to fillet, but shad is especially popular for its roe. Try dotting shad with butter and broiling until golden. Serve with lemon slices.

15 Types of Lean Fish

Most fish are considered lean, meaning they’re less than 5 percent fat by weight. Lean fish tend to benefit from wet cooking methods, such as steaming or poaching, and rich, creamy sauces.

Raw bass with tomatoes and lemon on wood

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1. Bass can refer to hundreds of different species, including branzino (aka European sea bass or loup de mer), black sea bass, and farmed hybrid striped bass (aka sunshine bass; a cross between freshwater white bass and sea striped bass). Bass tend to have firm, mild-tasting flesh and simple skeletons that are good for filleting, with a low collagen content that can lead to bass tasting dry. Try Gordon Ramsay’s Crispy Whole Branzino. Leaving the skin on creates a crispy texture and cooking the fish whole results in incredibly moist flesh. Branzino is sweet, meaty and full of flavor.

Mahi-Mahi with white rice and vegetables on plate

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2. Mahi-Mahi (aka dolphinfish) has sweet-tasting, moist, firm-textured, pinkish flesh and a low fat content (less than 1 percent by weight). Whole mahi-mahi average 8 to 25 pounds and are available year-round, with Ecuador considered the most sustainable source. Try substituting mahi-mahi for tuna in Gordon Ramsay’s Seared Sesame Crusted Tuna Recipe.

Raw trout on wood board with knife and ingredients

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3. Trout are typically freshwater fish. Although related to salmon, trout don’t have the same pink flesh because their diets are different. The exception is steelhead trout, which eat the same crustaceans that give salmon their pigment. Rainbow trout are the most commonly available variety, often sold whole due to their small size (about 1 to 3 pounds). They have a slightly nutty flavor and delicate texture and are available year-round. Arctic char, a type of trout are farmed in Iceland and Canada, can have just as much fat as salmon. Try grilled trout with homemade chimichurri.

Red snapper fish on black background with ingredients

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4. Red Snapper is a saltwater fish found off the southeastern coast of the US. It’s usually sold as skin-on fillets to show that it’s genuine: real red snapper has red skin and flaky white flesh that tastes mildly sweet. (“Pacific red snapper” is actually a type of rockfish.) Averaging 2 to 6 pounds, red snapper can be baked, broiled, grilled, poached, or steamed whole or as fillets, and the bones and head are good for fish stock. Red snapper from the Florida Gulf, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama are considered more sustainable than red snapper from Mexico and is available July through September. Try grilled whole red snapper stuffed with cilantro and thinly sliced limes.

Raw tuna filets with salt and pepper and herbs on wood

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5. Tuna is the most popular seafood in the US, but about 95 percent of what we eat is precooked and canned. Tuna’s high myoglobin content gives its raw flesh a deep red color and meaty flavor. Tuna is best cooked to around 120°F, when not quite opaque, and can become mushy if held at 130 to 140°F. The most important commercial species of tuna are albacore, which averages 10 to 40 pounds, has light brown or pink-red flesh, and is available May through November; bigeye, which averages 20 to 50 pounds and is available July through October; and yellowfin (aka ahi), which has darker flesh than albacore and is available June through September. Treat tuna like you would an amazing wagyu steak—they deserve that respect. Tuna is a delicate meat with very little fat. Encrusting it with sesame seeds protects the meat during the sear and adds a nutty flavor as the seeds toast. Searing happens quickly with tuna—only 30 seconds on each side over medium heat. If the pan gets too hot, add a touch of cold oil to keep the sesame seeds from burning. Try Chef Gordon Ramsay's Sesame Crusted Tuna With Cucumber Salad.

Raw cod filet on herbs and lemons

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6. Cod are saltwater fish that can be found from the Atlantic, caught in New England, to the Pacific. Both varieties are mild in flavor with flaky white flesh. Atlantic cod averages 2.5 to 10 pounds and has less moisture, firmer texture, and sweeter flavor than Pacific cod. It’s available January through March. Pacific cod averages 5 to 15 pounds and has a delicate texture. It’s is available year-round, with the most sustainable option from Alaska. Cod works well baked, broiled, or in a chowder. Try substituting cod for chicken in piccata.

Halibut on tray with raw ingredients

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7. Halibut is the largest of the flatfish, a type of sideways-swimming fish with both eyes on one side of the head. It has firm white flesh with more collagen than other fish, so it’s more forgiving in terms of dryness. Found in the North Atlantic and northern Pacific, halibut can be very large so it’s commonly sold as frozen (or previously frozen) fillets. Pacific halibut averages 10 to 60 pounds and is available March through November. Try pan-seared halibut with brown butter and sage.

Raw Flounder on parchment paper with herbs and lemon

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8. Flounder is a family of abundant saltwater flatfish with mild, light flavor that includes sole, turbot, fluke, and Dover sole. Flounder are versatile fish that can be broiled, sautéd, stuffed and baked, or steamed whole. Like all flatfish, flounder have both eyes on one side of their heads. Summer flounder (aka northern fluke) has edible skin, delicate texture, and is available April through May. Try breaded, pan-fried flounder with lemon and fresh herbs.

Raw whole pike fish on wood with herbs and oil

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9. Pike is a type of lean, bony freshwater fish found in North American lakes, including the Great Lakes. One of the leanest fish, pike has a flaky, dry texture that’s good baked with stuffing or sauce or poached. Pickerel is the smallest fish in the pike family and is especially lean and firm. Try pickled pike with red onions.

Fried catfish on plate with lemon and herbs

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10. Catfish is a freshwater fish that’s often farmed and sold skinned because its scaleless skin can be difficult to remove. Catfish gets its name from the barbels (fleshy filaments) hanging from its mouth, which look like cats’ whiskers. It’s in the same family as carp, but catfish’s simpler skeletal structure makes it easier to fillet. Channel catfish is the most common species in the US, where it’s available year-round. Mildly sweet catfish fillets can be fried, baked, grilled, poached, sautéed, or in a stew. Try breaded, fried catfish served with coleslaw.

Raw perch filet with lemon and seasoning on black background

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10. Perch, confusingly, refers to many different species, of which the only “true” perch are yellow perch and common perch. Yellow perch is native to eastern North America and weighs about 1 to 2 pounds. Farmed yellow perch is available year-round and has pink flesh with a sweet flavor and flaky texture. Common perch is similar to yellow perch but greener in color and can weigh up to 6 pounds. “Pacific ocean perch” is actually a type of rockfish with a nutty-sweet flavor and firm texture, available year-round from California to Alaska. Try lightly flouring yellow perch fillets before pan-frying and serving with risotto.

Raw monkfish filets with raw ingredients

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12. Monkfish (aka anglerfish) averages 7 to 15 pounds, about 1 to 4 pounds of which is boneless, dense tail meat typically sold as skinned fillets, since the skin can make monkfish taste tough when cooked. It has a sweet flavor and firm texture that’s often compared to lobster or scallops. Try substituting monkfish for chicken in Chef Thomas Keller’s Chicken Paillard Recipe—paillard is a technique that can be applied to other proteins, such as monkfish, beef, and pork. The technique for pounding and cooking doesn’t change. Try sautéing with different fats like clarified butter instead of oil for monkfish.

Raw tilapia filets with lettuce and lemon on wood board

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13. Tilapia is a name for several species of freshwater fish found in waters above 60°F and commonly farmed in the US. Tilapia typically has firm, white flesh, with a somewhat bland flavor. Fast-growing tilapia can be harvested within 8 to 10 months. Try Filipino nilasing na tilapia, or “drunk” tilapia—whole fish briefly marinated in Shaoxing wine, coated with flour and cornstarch, and then fried until crispy.

Swordfish with lemon and salt and pepper

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14. Swordfish are distinguished by the “swords,” or bills, that stick out from their upper jaws, which they use to slash at prey. These large fish (averaging 50 to 200 pounds) have dense, meaty, almost boneless flesh that can be white or pink. Look for swordfish August through October, and try pan-roasting with compound butter.

Orange Roughy raw filet with lemon

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15. Orange Roughy is a saltwater fish found in New Zealand and Australia with firm, moist, white flesh that cooks to a flaky texture and mild sweetness. It’s from the slimehead family, a name it was known by until rebranding in the 1970s. Slow to mature, orange roughy can live to be over one hundred years old. Try orange roughy in South Indian Fish Curry.

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