Fish, lean

Why Eat It
Nutrition Chart

Why Eat It

Low in fat and calories, but rich in high-quality protein, lean fish is a very healthy alternative to red meat. Fish is a good source of vitamin E (a major antioxidant nutrient) and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which play a leading role in the prevention of heart disease. Omega-3s are also thought to have protective or healing effects in autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, and to help prevent cancer.

Although fatty fish have more omega-3s than lean fish, even lean fish are a good source--and these healthful fatty acids are found in very few other foods.

Lean fish typically have a mild flavor, making them adaptable to every sort of cuisine. And most of them are similar enough in taste and texture that you can substitute one variety for another--cod for turbot, or tilefish for flounder.


The following list covers species of fresh lean fish that are available nationwide or in many areas of the U.S. Names often vary with the region: This list includes the most familiar market nomenclature and also takes note of regional differences and widely-used names, even if they are technically not correct .

Bass: A number of different freshwater and saltwater species are called "bass" or "sea bass." Striped bass, also called striper or rockfish, is a large fish with firm, well-flavored flesh. Fish farms, where bass are harvested year-round, are becoming the principal source of this fish.

Catfish: Thanks to fish farming, this tasty freshwater fish, once only known in the South, is now one of America's favorite fish. The fish has a smooth but tough skin that can be difficult to remove, so it»s preferable to buy fillets or nuggets.

Cod: Among the five most popular fish eaten in the United States, Atlantic cod is one of the mainstays of New England fisheries. Pacific cod is caught on the West Coast. (Haddock and pollack, described below, are also members of the cod family.) Cod is sold whole--at a weight of up to 10 pounds--dressed, and in fillets and steaks. The flesh is firm, white, and mild. Small cod (under 3 pounds) are sometimes marketed as scrod; they are sweeter and more tender than full-grown cod.

Flounder: This widely available flatfish, found on nearly every American coastline, has a mild flavor and light texture that have made it a longstanding favorite. The flounder family includes the true sole (caught only in European waters), European turbot, and fluke. Winter flounder from New England is sometimes called "lemon sole," and other flounders are offered as "gray sole," "petrale sole," or "rex sole." If you see Dover sole on a restaurant menu, it may be imported from England (and priced accordingly) or it may be a type of Pacific flounder that is sometimes called "sole" in the U.S. Flounder is sold whole, dressed or filleted, fresh and frozen.

Grouper: See Sea bass.

Haddock: A smaller version of the cod, this lean North Atlantic fish can be substituted for cod in most recipes, although its flesh may be slightly softer.

Halibut: A flatfish, like flounder, halibut is found in both the North Atlantic and northern Pacific waters. This very large fish is usually marketed in fillets or steaks, more commonly frozen (or thawed) than fresh.

Lingcod: A popular Pacific coast fish, it is not a true cod, but has tender, delicate white flesh like its namesake. Whole lingcod, which weigh 3 to 10 pounds and up, are usually sold dressed, and markets also carry fillets and steaks.

Mahi-mahi: This is the Hawaiian name for a fish that is also called "dolphin" or "dolphin fish" because of its resemblance to that mammal (it is not related to the true dolphin, which is a type of porpoise). Caught primarily in Pacific waters, it is most often sold in fillets or steaks, fresh or frozen, with the skin attached to hold the fish together during cooking. Despite its rich, sweet flavor, mahi-mahi is a lean fish.

Monkfish: You won»t find whole monkfish for sale at your market; this fish is so ugly that the head is cut off, and its thick, tapering tail section is sold whole or in fillets. Also called goosefish or anglerfish, monkfish has long been popular in France (where it is called lotte). Its texture and flavor are often compared to lobster, and you can substitute monkfish for lobster meat or scallops in many recipes.

Orange roughy: This small saltwater fish is imported from New Zealand and sold in the form of frozen fillets. It has become quite popular, probably because its firm, slightly sweet flesh possesses an adaptable "neutral" flavor like flounder.

Perch Although some species of saltwater fish are commonly called perch (see Rockfish), the true perch is a freshwater fish; yellow perch and walleye from the Great Lakes are the most familiar American types. Weighing 3 pounds or less, this fish has firm, flaky white flesh and is sold whole, dressed, and as fillets.

Pike: This slender freshwater fish, also called pickerel, comes from the Great Lakes and other northern U.S. and Canadian lakes. Its intricate bone structure can make filleting this fish difficult. The flesh is flaky and somewhat dry, so it's best to bake pike with a moist stuffing or a sauce, or poach it; small whole fish are often sauteed. Pike is one of the leanest of all fish, with less than 1 gram of fat per serving.

Pollack: (Alaska and Atlantic) Tons of mild white Alaska pollack from the Pacific go into fish sticks and surimi (mock crabmeat), making it one of the top fish in the American diet. Atlantic pollack, a different species, is richer and more flavorful. Though sometimes called Boston bluefish, it is not related to true bluefish. It has a dark layer of flesh just under the skin on one side, which can be removed for a milder flavor.

Rockfish (ocean perch): Fish of this large family go by many names: on the East Coast of the U.S., Atlantic ocean perch, rosefish, or redfish; on the West Coast, rock cod, Pacific ocean perch, or Pacific red snapper (although they are quite different from cod, freshwater perch, and true red snapper). Market size is 2 to 5 pounds and the fish are sold mostly in the form of thick fillets.

Sea bass (groupers): Various species, including the large, diverse family of fish known as groupers, are marketed under this name. One of the most popular is black sea bass, a small fish (usually under 5 pounds) found in the Atlantic; it is marketed mostly in the Northeast, and is often served, steamed or fried, in Chinese restaurants. Usually sold fresh and whole, and sometimes filleted.

Red and black groupers are taken from southern Atlantic waters and the Gulf of Mexico. Weighing from 3 to 20 pounds, they are sold fresh as steaks or fillets. White sea bass, a West Coast fish from a different family, typically weighs 10 to 15 pounds and is sold whole, pan-dressed, or in thick fillets or steaks.

Shark (mako, dogfish): If you aren't a fish lover, you may nevertheless enjoy shark, which has a lean, meaty, "unfishy" texture, a mild flavor, and is free of bones, due to its cartilaginous skeleton. Mako shark, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, is similar to swordfish in texture and flavor. Dogfish is a small shark with firm, rich flesh. Other types of shark, such as thresher, blue, and blacktip, also appear on the market. Shark is usually sold in thick steaks, and sometimes in fillets. The meaty flesh holds up well in grilling and can be cooked in some of the same ways as beef.

Skate (ray): This flat, kite-shaped ocean creature is a relative of the shark. Like the shark, it has tough skin instead of scales, and a cartilaginous skeleton rather than bones. Usually just the triangular "wings" are eaten. It's easiest to buy skate skinned and filleted. Skate flesh has striations of muscle that make it resemble crabmeat in texture; its flavor is similar to that of scallops or other shellfish. Unlike most seafood, skate improves with a little aging: Storing it in the refrigerator for a day or two will tenderize it.

Smelt: This small, delicately flavored fish is related to salmon. Some species live in fresh water, while others are found in the Pacific and the Atlantic. Rainbow smelt and eulachon are the major commercial species. Because smelt are small, and usually eaten whole, they are most commonly sold dressed or drawn. The soft bones are edible, but the fish is also easy to bone after cooking.

Snapper: A number of snapper species are caught in U.S. waters, and red snapper, caught off the southeastern coast, is by far the best known. Because this fish is in great demand, other species (such as mutton snapper and silk snapper) may be falsely advertised as red snapper in markets and restaurants. You can recognize the real thing by its bright red skin (usually left on the fillets to identify it) and its light-colored flesh.

Swordfish: A large saltwater fish with meaty, rich-tasting flesh, swordfish can be found on both U.S. coasts. The problem with swordfish is that many fish have been found to contain large concentrations of mercury. Since the discovery of this problem, the FDA has monitored both domestic and imported swordfish very closely. Swordfish is usually sold in boneless loins (a lengthwise quarter-section of the whole fish), steaks, or chunks, fresh or frozen.

Tilefish: Caught in deep Atlantic waters, tilefish average about 10 pounds. This newly popular fish is increasingly available and worth seeking out for its firm, pinkish-white flesh, which has some of the sweetness of lobster or scallops. You»ll find whole tilefish and fillets in the market. It can be substituted for other white-fleshed fish such as cod.

Trout (freshwater): Related to salmon, trout range from 1-1/2 to 10 pounds whole. Rainbow trout, the most frequently available, is sold fresh or frozen throughout the country all year. It is an immensely popular game fish, but only farm-raised rainbows are sold commercially. Steelhead trout is an ocean-going rainbow trout that tastes like salmon; it is now also farmed. Trout generally have mild, sweet flesh, though texture, flavor, and fat content vary. Generally, the larger the fish, the higher the fat content. Lake trout is a large recreational fish caught in deep lakes in the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada; commercial lake trout come mainly from the Great Lakes and are available dressed or in fillets or steaks. Smaller trout are sold whole or dressed. Substitute large trout for salmon in recipes.

Weakfish: This fish's name comes from its fragile mouth, which tends to break when the fish is hooked. The sweet, pale flesh is very tender, and should be handled carefully in cooking. Weakfish average one to three pounds and are abundant on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. Spotted sea trout, a closely related species, is abundant from the Carolinas to Florida. Both fish are sold whole, dressed, and in fillets, and can be substituted for striped bass, or for less flavorful fish such as cod and pollack.


Because of more sophisticated fishing methods, improved refrigeration and faster shipping, fishermen are able to bring fish to market that were previously either uncatchable or too perishable. We rely increasingly on imports from Canada, Latin America, and even New Zealand. Furthermore, aquaculture (the science of breeding and raising fish on fish "farms") is making a rapidly growing part of the supply of both fresh and saltwater species.

Most fish markets now offer many kinds of fresh fish. It's true that a handful of species--including tuna, pollack, cod, and flounder--account for at least three-quarters of all the fish we eat. But other varieties are growing in popularity and availability nationwide.


Since government inspection is not mandated for seafood, it is up to the consumer to find a reliable source for fresh fish. You have to trust your senses when shopping for fish: Overall quality can be judged by sight, smell, and touch. Start by locating a good fish dealer, either a fish market or a supermarket fish department with a good reputation, a clean appearance, and a knowledgeable staff. Ask questions about unfamiliar fish (and expect informed answers), and let the dealer know if seafood you've bought is ever unsatisfactory: You are entitled to return it if it is less than perfectly fresh.

Schedule your shopping so you can get seafood home and into the refrigerator as quickly as possible. Make the fish store (or fish counter) the last stop of your shopping trip. In warm weather, or when you may be delayed on the trip home, have the fish packed in ice or bring a picnic cooler to keep it chilled.

Your nose will tell you instantly whether the fish in the shop are fresh; on walking in the door, you should smell only a saltwater scent, not a "fishy," sour, or ammonia-like odor. When buying prepackaged fish, take a closer sniff: Off-odors will penetrate the plastic. The date on the label will help you choose the freshest fish in the display, but don't place total faith in it: Ask the fish dealer when it was packaged.

(Fresh shark and skate may have a slightly ammoniac odor, which can be lessened by soaking the fish in salted water, milk, or water and lemon juice for a few hours, then rinsing it before cooking. If these fish have a strong odor of ammonia, they have not been properly handled; pass them up.)

Fish decays much faster than beef or chicken, so it must be kept very cold to forestall bacterial growth. Fish should be displayed atop clean ice, with metal trays or sheets of paper or plastic to shield the delicate flesh of fish steaks or fillets from direct contact with the ice. (Whole or dressed fish, protected by their scales, can safely be placed directly on ice, and should be covered with some ice as well.) Fish should not be stacked too deeply or displayed under hot lights.

Whole fresh fish should have tight, shiny scales, and should not feel slippery or slimy. The eyes should be bright and clear, not clouded or sunken in their sockets. Gills should be clean and tinged with pink or red, never brownish or sticky. The surface of a steak or fillet should look freshly cut, and the fish should not be sitting in a pool of liquid. (Prepackaged fish should not contain excess liquid, either.) The flesh should look moist, slightly translucent, and dense, not flaky. Pass up steaks or fillets that are dried out at the edges.

Whether whole or cut, fresh fish is firm and resilient: If you poke it with your finger, the flesh should spring back, not remain indented.

Frozen fish can be of very high quality, but only if it has been handled properly. Sometimes fish are flash-frozen on the boat just after they are caught; later the fish are thawed and sold as fresh. The quality may be comparable or even superior to fresh fish, and such fish needs no special treatment (except that it should not be refrozen when you get it home). When buying pre-packaged frozen fish, be sure that the fish is still solidly frozen when you buy it. Watch out for excessive quantities of ice crystals or water stains on the package, or for cloudy liquid in the package if the wrapping is clear. Avoid fish with freezer burn, which will appear as whitened, cottony-looking patches.


Unlike beef, with its myriad cuts and grades and elaborate nomenclature, the forms in which you'll find fish in the market are simple and few.

A whole fish (sometimes called a "round" fish) comes to you just as it was caught. You'll likely have the fish seller prepare it for you, drawing or dressing it or cutting it into steaks or fillets. If the fish is filleted, about half the total weight of a whole fish will be discarded as fins, scales, skin, head, and bones.

A whole drawn fish has been eviscerated through a small opening so that it is not split. The gills and usually the scales are removed, but the head and tail are left intact.

A whole dressed fish has been split and then eviscerated; it is also scaled, and the fins, head and tail are cut off. The backbone (which runs through the center of the fish) can be removed if you want to stuff the fish.

Fillets are the meaty sides of the fish, cut away from the backbone. Most of the other bones are also taken out when fish is filleted, but fine bones called "pins" may remain; these can be removed before or after you cook the fish. Lean fish fillets are usually sold without their skin. If both sides of the fillet are left connected at the top, it is called a butterfly fillet; if joined at the bottom, it's a kited fillet. Fillets are the most popular form of fish in the United States. They can be cooked in many different ways--sauteed, steamed, broiled, poached--and are easy to eat because they are basically boneless.

Steaks are thick cross-cut slices from dressed large roundfish such as salmon, or from thick flatfish such as halibut. Steaks are usually surrounded by a band of skin and have a section of the backbone in the center. Dense fish steaks can be grilled or broiled, braised, or cut up for use in chowder; steaks of fish with more delicate flesh are good for poaching and baking.

Fish fingers are strips of fillets or steaks.


Use fish within a day of buying it, although it can be kept an extra day if it is of very high quality and was very fresh when purchased. Whole or drawn fish will keep longer than steaks or fillets; lean fish keeps better than oily fish.

Rinse and rewrap fish when you get it home: Place it on paper towels in a clean plastic bag or tightly covered container, and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Or, place the fish in a heavy plastic bag and set it in a pan of ice.

If you want to freeze fish yourself, you'll need a freezer that stays at 0°F, preferably a chest-style unit rather than the freezer compartment of a refrigerator. Fish for freezing should be perfectly fresh and of high quality. Thawed fish is sometimes sold as fresh, so be sure to ask the dealer if you suspect this, because fish that has been frozen should not be refrozen. The faster the fish freezes, the better, so freeze whole fish only if they weigh less than two pounds; cut larger fish into fillets or steaks. Rinse and dry the fish and wrap it tightly in heavy-duty freezer paper or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic wrap. Overwrap the package with foil or a freezer bag, then label and date the package and freeze it quickly. (Packaged fresh fish should be rinsed and rewrapped.) Freeze fish that you've purchased frozen (and that has not been thawed) in its original wrapping. In general, you can cook frozen fish without thawing it (unless the recipe requires that the fish be soft or flexible, as for rolling or stuffing). Frozen lean fish will keep for up to six months.


Fish can be just as easy to prepare as chicken breasts. If you buy dressed fish, fillets, or steaks, there is virtually no additional preparation necessary. Just rinse the fish quickly (or dip it briefly in cold water), then pat it dry before cooking. Always check for bones remaining in a fillet (this is likely with roundfish) by running your finger across the fillet; if you feel the tips of any bones, pull them out with tweezers.

If you want to thaw frozen fish, place it in the refrigerator overnight; do not thaw it at room temperature, where it may be subject to bacterial contamination.

As with raw meat or poultry, you must thoroughly wash all surfaces and utensils (and your hands) used to prepare raw fish; be particularly careful not to bring cooked food into contact with raw fish, or with utensils that were used to prepare it.

Don't marinate fish at room temperature; place the fish and marinade in the refrigerator.

With the risk of bacterial and parasite contamination, it's important to cook all seafood properly . This doesn't mean it should be overcooked, however. Fish is delicate, and if overcooked it will be dry and tough. Fish should be cooked just long enough to destroy any harmful organisms, and to alter its texture slightly. The cooking of fish should be carefully timed to ensure that it is cooked enough for safety but not beyond the point of moistness and tenderness.

The "10-minute rule" is a standard guide to cooking times devised by the Canadian Fisheries and Marine Service. Simply measure the fish at its thickest point and cook it for 10 minutes per inch of thickness. There are a few modifications: If the fish is stuffed, measure it after stuffing; double the time if the fish is frozen; and add five minutes if the fish is cooked in a sauce. Turn the fish (except thin fillets) halfway through the cooking time. (The Canadian rule does not apply to microwave cooking, which is much faster than conventional methods.)

Even when applying this rule, it helps to be familiar with the appearance of properly cooked fish as an additional doneness test. The flesh should be just opaque: not translucent, but not chalky. The flesh will be firm and moist. When probed with a knife tip, the fish should barely flake--if it flakes too easily and falls apart, the fish is already overcooked. For large whole fish, you can use a meat thermometer and cook to 145°F. Test for doneness well before the prescribed cooking time has elapsed: Fish will continue to cook by retained heat even after it is removed from the pan or the oven, so it may be best to stop cooking it when it is just a shade underdone.

Use the Canadian rule (and the visual checks described above) for calculating cooking times for fish, using any of the following methods. Remember that frozen fish need not be thawed before cooking as long as you allow for the extra cooking time.

Baking: Baking works best with oily fish--dressed and stuffed, or in steaks or large chunks. Leaner fish will need added moisture: Cover the fish with vegetables or sauce, bake it atop a bed of chopped vegetables, or baste it during cooking. Line the baking pan with foil for easier removal of the baked fish, which may stick to the pan, or use a nonstick pan. Bake fish in a preheated 400°F to 450°F oven.

Baking in parchment or foil packets also keeps fish moist, especially if vegetables or a little liquid (such as broth or wine) are included in the packets. Place the fish on a large square of cooking parchment or foil, fold the wrapping over the contents, crimp the edges together to seal it, and bake until the fish tests done. (If your recipe calls for any acidic foods, such as tomatoes, lemon juice, or wine, use parchment rather than foil; the combination of foil and acid can cause the fish to discolor.)

Broiling/grilling: Dense, flavorful fish in steaks, fillets at least 3/4 inch thick, or cubes (for kebabs) stands up best to these cooking methods. Whole fish can also be successfully grilled. Lean, delicate fish will benefit from marinating and basting to provide additional moisture. Whether grilling or broiling, position the rack so the fish is four to six inches from the heat source.

To eliminate the danger of the fish falling apart when you turn it, grill whole fish in a special hinged basket. Also useful for grilling fish are special grill racks made of a metal sheet perforated with small holes (rather than those made of widely-spaced wires). Give any grill or broiler rack a liberal coating of nonstick cooking spray before grilling fish, and preheat it before placing the fish on it. You can also grill fish on top of a perforated sheet of foil in a covered barbecue.

Microwaving: The microwave is the answer for people who think cooking seafood is complicated or tricky. You can microwave plain fillets or steaks instead of pan-poaching them, or cook more elaborate sauced or combination fish dishes with ease. Arrange fish in a microweavable dish with thicker portions to the outside for even cooking. For plain fish and most recipes, you'll need to cover the fish with plastic wrap and vent the wrap by turning back one corner or piercing it a few times. Rotate the dish halfway through the cooking time.

Check the fish for doneness before the recommended cooking time has elapsed (especially with an unfamiliar recipe): You can always cook it more, but there's nothing to be done if the fish is overcooked. Remove the fish from the oven when the edges are opaque but the center is still slightly translucent; let it stand for the indicated time after microwaving so it can continue cooking from retained heat. Test again after the standing time elapses, and return the fish to the microwave if it is not fully cooked throughout.

You can also microwave fish in parchment packets (but not foil), as described under "Baking." And if you need to thaw frozen fish, microwaving is an excellent way to do it. Cooking times: for boneless fish, three to six minutes per pound at 100 percent power (let stand for three to five minutes after microwaving); for 4-ounce fillets in parchment, five to seven minutes at 100 percent; for thawing frozen fish, six to eight minutes at 30 percent (medium) power. (These times are a rough guide: Consult your microwave oven manual for more specific instructions.)

Poaching: This gentle cooking method can be used for almost any kind of firm-fleshed fish, and lean fish is ideal for it. Fish steaks, fillets, or whole fish can be poached by immersing the fish in a pan of simmering fish stock, a mixture of water and lemon juice or wine, or water and skim milk. (Although you can improvise a poaching pan by using a roasting pan and a roasting rack, the most efficient equipment is a fish poacher--a long, narrow pan fitted with a removable rack--for large whole fish.) Bring the liquid to a gentle simmer, partially cover the pan, and poach until the fish is opaque. Or, place the fish in already-simmering liquid and continue as described.

Sauteing: Lean fillets are good sauteed. A light coating of crumbs or flour (dip the fish in milk first to help the coating adhere) or a cornstarch dredge will give the fish a crisp crust and help hold it together during cooking. Use a nonstick pan liberally sprayed with cooking spray or brushed with oil; heat the pan, then add the fish. Cook, turning once (turn carefully to avoid breaking the fish) until the fish is lightly browned on the outside and it tests done on the inside. Remove the fish from the pan promptly.

Steaming: Any fish that can be poached, whether whole, steak, or fillet, is also a candidate for steaming--and since the fish is not immersed in cooking liquid, it retains more of its natural flavor. You can also cook flavorful vegetables along with the fish and serve with a well-seasoned sauce. For equipment, you can use a collapsible vegetable steamer lightly coated with nonstick cooking spray or oil. Or the fish can sit on a heatproof plate atop a steaming rack in a pot or skillet, which should be sufficiently large so that its sides don't touch the edge of the plate. Another option is a wooden Chinese steamer that can be placed in a wok or large skillet. Whichever piece of equipment you choose, use 1" to 2 " of water as the cooking liquid, to which you can add fresh herbs such as fennel or dill. Bring the water to a boil, place the fish in the steaming basket (or on the steaming rack), cover the pot tightly, and steam the fish until it tests done.

Stir-frying: Chunks of lean, dense fish such as halibut or shark can be stir-fried as you would chicken or beef. Lightly coat the fish in cornstarch before frying. Watch the cooking time carefully, or the seafood will overcook and toughen. It's a good idea to stir-fry the fish first, then cook any vegetables or other ingredients. Return the seafood to the pan and toss it quickly to reheat it just before serving.

Nutrition Chart

Sole or Flounder/3 ounces cooked

Total fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Monounsaturated fat (g)
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
Dietary fiber (g)
Carbohydrate (g)
Cholesterol (mg)
Sodium (mg)
Vitamin B12 (mcg)
Phosphorus (mg)
Selenium (mcg)

Striped Bass/3 ounces cooked

Total fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Monounsaturated fat (g)