The secret to cooking fish well is so simple . . . and it actually improved the way I cooked many other foods, too.

The Secret to Cooking Fish

Before we cruised, I had never cooked fish.  Heck, I didn’t really even like fish.  I remember being in a somewhat remote spot on one trip we took, where the only restaurant only served fish.  Reluctantly, I ordered the “catch of the day.”  As I took the first bite, it hit me that if all fish were this good, I’d love fish.

As we began cruising, fish became part of our life.  But it still took me a couple of years to learn the “secret” of cooking fish well.

You see, virtually every recipe I had said to “cook until flaky.”  And since I was always worried about the fish being raw, I’d cook it until it was definitely flaky.  It was not only flaky, it was dry and kind of tasteless.

When we had great fish at a beach barbecue with friends, I asked for tips.  And I learned two things that apply pretty much no matter how you’re cooking the fish.

First is don’t overcook it.  Instead of “flaky,” you’re aiming for “just opaque” if you’re eyeballing it.

But the second tip was what really helped me: use an instant-read meat thermometer stuck in the middle of the thickest part of the fish.  Most fish should be 135° F., although tuna, marlin and swordfish only need to reach 125° F.  Cooking to a higher temperature just dries the fish out.

Suddenly, I consistently cooked delicious fish. After fish, I began using the thermometer for chicken, then for pork and beef, then even for baking.  I took all my cooking up a notch and I no longer wonder if something is really done.

I now have a whole downloadable PDF of thermometer temperatures — you can get a copy here.  If you need a good instant-read thermometer, here’s the current version of one I have.  If you prefer one that doesn’t require batteries (say if you’re heading to remote places), here’s my other favorite.

The secret to cooking fish well is so simple . . . and it actually improved the way I cooked many other foods, too.

The secret to cooking fish well is so simple . . . and it actually improved the way I cooked many other foods, too.

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25 Comments
  • Patricia Margit Brown
    Posted at 27 January 2014 Reply

    I learned this from sister. She is an excellent cook, especially fish!

  • Grace May
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Thanks for this Caroline. I’m just like you I never ate fish, but have started to as it will become our staple diet when we start cruising, I also tend to overcook it so am itching to try with the thermometer now. NI also need to learn what fish you allowed to catch and which fish you should not eat.

  • Sara Burns
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Thank you for this. Cooking to appropriate doneness has always been a challenge for me. I’ll practice this before our cruising life begins so we won’t starve.

  • Dell Robertson
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Therese Anne 🙂

  • Debra Perfitt
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Now all I have to do is catch a fish!

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

      Easiest place is at the fish market . . . altho it’s more fun when it’s off the back deck, I hate to admit that we’ve been known to buy it.

    • Debra Perfitt
      Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

      Yep we keep watching for fishing Pangas!

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

      Technically, you can say you got it off the back deck if that’s where you make the deal with the panguero!

  • Anne Ellingsen
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Any tips on fishing

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

      Seriously — ask the locals and the other cruisers. We’re not expert at all — most other cruisers catch far more than we do. But I’ve learned that I can often trade half a loaf of homemade bread for a couple of fillets!

    • Anne Ellingsen
      Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

      Thanks Carolyn

  • Marc Latta
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Fyi Adam Weidow

  • Tammy Nielsen Joeright
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Here is my secret… make my husband do it!

  • Kristi Cilles
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    Most chefs rule of thumb is 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Either in 400f oven, on the grill, or in a pan.

  • Steven Burke
    Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

    …that is a good looking dorado!…any chance you could describe what equipment you use to catch them? Type of rod, line weight, lure, boat speed, etc? -Gracias

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 12 June 2015 Reply

      Hand line dragged behind the boat (you know that 1/8″ line that West Marine sells . . . cleat it off to a stern cleat), whatever weight line the tiny store in the fishing village has, a chunk of shock cord 10 feet in front of the leader to absorb the initial hit, “Mexican Flag” lure (they’re red, white and green; find them everywhere in Mexico). Best luck if the boat is moving 6 knots or more . . . Tayana 37 rarely moves that fast, so we didn’t have as good luck as some other boats. We used a similar setup from the dinghy and got a number of yellowtail.

  • The Sea and Sailors
    Posted at 14 June 2015 Reply

    be vegetarian… 🙂

  • JoySea
    Posted at 27 August 2015 Reply

    If you like fried fish, try breading your fish with Panko (Japanese bread crumbs). They work well on any fish.

  • Randy Hicks
    Posted at 22 June 2016 Reply

    Great tips.

  • Anne Marie Nielson
    Posted at 22 June 2016 Reply

    Great tips thanks..

  • Rosanne Smith
    Posted at 02 November 2017 Reply

    Colby you should read this.

  • Scott Sweeney
    Posted at 03 November 2017 Reply

    Yes, definitely don’t over cook, especially Tuna or Mahi – like cardboard.

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