Don’t be a chicken. Cook fish.

Dec. 7, 2018

In matters of health, this season can be a time of excess – especially in eating and drinking. Well, if you’re going to scarf a lot, at least help yourself to foods better for you than not. Fish fills that bill, by and large.

a photo of salmon with white wine in the background
Fear not. Cooking fish doesn’t have to intimidate you. The key is keeping it simple, like this velvety recipe for salmon poached in white wine. Photo: Getty Images.

And many special year-end meals are themselves “pesce-centric,” as it were, such as Christmas Eve’s “Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

It’s just that we too often shy from cooking fish for fear of cooking it wrong. Here’s our year-end gift to your kitchen: cooking tips to avoid slipping up on fish.

Fear not: keep fish simple and you can master it

Just like you, I, too, was a chicken when it came to fish.

I could cook a terrific Thai green curry, or a mean vindaloo, or a yellow cloud of hollandaise.

But when I cooked seafood, I froze. The mussels vulcanized; the salmon was overdone. Cooked cod resembled a glacier: it calved sections of itself.

I knew that seafood and lake fish are, in fact, the simplest things to cook. But I always messed them up – just like dozens of other home cooks with whom, over the years, I’ve shared stories in the mysterious ways of fin and gill.

Then, a few years ago, I learned the great lesson of cooking fish: Don’t.

Don’t cook it, at least much. It’s best to cook fish hardly at all. Treat it, all of it, simply and at a minimum.

That admonition is about the heat only. About the seasonings or flavorings, you may be as lavish or as parsimonious as you wish. But back off on the fire.

Here are some quick fixes for fish of various sorts.


Place shell-on shrimp of any size, at room temperature, in a flat, heatproof dish and pour over them a court bouillon (heated flavored water) that has been brought to the boil and seasoned generously with anything aromatic (garlic, shallots, a mix of sweet and hot peppers, various herbs or spices).

Just pour the liquid over them. That will be the hottest that the shrimp ever will be. Leave the shrimp until the liquid and the shrimp in it cool to the temperature of your liking.


Steam or boil a one and a half pound lobster no more than seven minutes, despite that cookbooks say to cook lobsters that size for 10-12 minutes. Then immediately plunge the lobster into an ice water bath and cool it down as a first step.

Then, when you want to serve the lobster, cut it up and reheat it for three or four minutes, over high heat, in a sauté pan, with the meat still in the shell, flavored with splashes of olive oil and soy sauce, and any aromatics (as above, for the shrimp) that you choose.

This preparation makes for a more flavorful lobster than a traditional water-only steam or boil.


Most scallops that you see at market are called “wet” scallops, soaked in very cold water at sea after harvesting (and, most likely, preservative solutions such as sodium benzoate or sodium tripolyphosphate to keep them glossy and white).

You might think that you are sautéing them in olive oil or the like but you are also steaming them in those liquids.

The best scallops to buy, if you can get them, are “dry” scallops. Sure, they have a much shorter shelf life and are more expensive, but you can get a crust on them in a way not possible with wet scallops. So, quickly crust them, flip them, crust again, and they’re done. Sixty to 90 seconds a side should do it, depending on the thickness of the scallops.

Flaky-fleshed fish:

The rule for cooking most other fish was always “10 minutes per inch” over the heat, but, depending on the heat (stovetop, oven or grill), that can be way too long.

It’s best to learn to cook flaky fish by touch rather than by time or temperature. Push down with your fingertip on a piece of fish as it cooks and gauge its resistance. That will tell you it’s done or not.

It’s a difficult rule to learn, but fish that is cooked to medium-rare – the preferred doneness, as far as chefs think – will feel like pressing the inside base of your thumb when your palm is nearly stretched out.

Our pal salmon provides additional help. When the white juices from the albumin begin to ooze out of the top, you know it’s ready.

It’s best to broil thin fish, such as flounder or a filet of trout. If you’re broiling a whole flat fish such as a snapper, cut deep angular slits in one side of the fish, in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Doing so allows the heat to penetrate into the fish more quickly and evenly.

Before broiling, dress the fish with olive oil, sea salt, pepper, citrus peel (orange or lemon) and thyme or rosemary.Many chefs also “two-stage” fish cookery. They cook only partially atop the stove in a sauté pan, and then finish cooking for three to four minutes in a hot (450 degree) oven. Doing so assures both a flavorful crust and an even temperature throughout.

Salmon poached in white wine

Makes 6 servings

My mother used to poach – at a super low simmer – large filets of salmon in what I considered to be an unholy amount of dry white wine. But no one ever has equaled how tender the result. It’s like a pudding with gills.

Bring a bottle (or more, depending on how much fish you will cook) of dry white wine to a soft boil in a large flat pan; lower heat to a bare simmer and add a good pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Add 6 skinless salmon filets, about 1/2 pound apiece, at room temperature; cook through, until the fish is opaque, never allowing the liquid to boil above a low simmer, about 15-20 minutes. Gently lift the filets with a slotted spatula and serve.

An exotic take:

Before adding the wine, in the dry pan, toast until fragrant 2 teaspoons coriander seeds and a short length of cinnamon stick; remove and set aside. Sauté a tablespoon of garlic-ginger paste (available at Indian markets) in a tablespoon of oil or ghee, add back the toasted spices and proceed as above.

With a bed:

Place the finished salmon filets on a bed of mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, mashed cauliflower or sautéed green leaf vegetables. Reduce 1/2 cup of the poaching liquid to 1/4 cup and spoon a bit of the sauce on each filet and its bed.

For a Mediterranean spin:

Before adding the wine, sauté for 5 minutes in 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 medium chopped onion and 1/2 chopped red bell pepper. Add and sauté for an additional 2 minutes 4 cloves garlic, minced. Add a squeeze of lemon juice, 1 chopped ripe tomato and 2 tablespoons rinsed chopped green olives.  Add wine and proceed as above. When the fish is cooked through, remove and set aside in a warm place. Pour off most of the wine and reduce the vegetables to a thick sauce. Serve over the filets.

Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. The Denver native lives in his hometown. Contact Bill at


About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.