The Smart Cook's Guide to White Fish
Whether you are trying to follow the Mediterranean diet, eat fish on Fridays for religious reasons, or just want to learn how to cook something new, this guide to the wonderful world of white fish will help you navigate the fish counter and choose between cod, haddock, pollock, flounder, and halibut. For a novice cook, there can be a whole lot of trepidation around cooking fish: "Will it stink up my kitchen?" No. Well, not if you follow our advice. "What if I undercook it?" That's unlikely, as fish more often falls victim to overcooking. "The recipe calls for 'white fish,' is that really what the fish I'm shopping for is called?" Welcome to the ocean of confusing fish terminology! Let's wade in together, but first a couple of things to note.
There is an actual fish called a "whitefish." Rather, it's a freshwater species found in the Great Lakes region of North America and that's the last time it will be referenced here. This guide is all about white fish group, which encompasses a broad swath of saltwater species that are all varying shades of white and generally mild in flavor. A quick note about sustainability before we go on: Just because a sign or label describes the fish as "wild-caught," don't assume that means it is a more virtuous choice than farm-raised options. Here, we will try to point you in the right direction for shopping with sustainability in mind, but it's important to note that there's rarely a short, easy answer when it comes to an issue as complex as this one. For more information on each species, check out Seafood Watch created by the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
This guide categorizes the fishes by their two distinct body shapes: flat and round. What does this have to do with your dinner? Because the final shape and thickness of the fillet you see at the counter will influence how you will want to cook it—and, perhaps just as importantly, what you can substitute in case the store is fresh out of the catch the recipe says you need.
Round fish fillets typically weigh around five ounces and run an inch to an inch and a half thick (when they aren't cut from the tail-end, which are thinner). You can safely swap the round fish varieties listed below in and out with one another depending on what is available at your local store. Whatever fish you buy, it's important that they are all around the same thickness so they will cook evenly.
A perfectly cooked piece of cod is moist, flaky, and firm. For a round fish, it's on the more delicate side, and it is very mild-tasting and even a touch sweet. This is a great "gateway fish" for anyone who doesn't love the way some seafood tastes. Ready to start cooking? Luckily, the world will never run out of recipes for cod; it's been the poster child for mild-mannered white fish in recipes for decades, leading to lots of delicious and different ways to use this versatile fish.
Due to decades of severe overfishing that led to a dramatic collapse in the early 1990s, Seafood Watch suggests that you buy either farmed Atlantic cod or wild-caught from Alaska.
A popular choice for fish and chips, haddock is very similar to cod (they are technically related) and can be a seamless stand-in if good cod is unavailable. Delicate and soft, try using haddock in a classic fish chowder. For a lighter meal, it's delicious baked in parchment with chorizo and fennel.
Have you ever had fish sticks? Then you've had pollock. Don't overlook this white fish. It's high in protein, low in fat, has vitamin B12 off the charts, and boasts the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids on this list. This darling of the freezer aisle is firm and mild tasting. Given its popularity for being breaded and fried, you wouldn't guess that it can also fair swimmingly in a light and brothy dish like this clams and white fish recipe, or this healthy and hearty one-pan dinner co-starring tomatoes and potatoes, but the truth is it can.
Alaskan pollock comes from one of the largest sustainably-certified fisheries in the world and follows regulations to avoid overfishing.
These types of fish typically run on the smaller side and the fillets are true to their name—they're flat and thin; average fillets will run between four and six ounces. With the exception of halibut, types of flat fish fillets can be interchanged with one another as needed.
The largest flat fish, halibut is delicate in flavor but dense and meaty in texture, making it an outlier in this category. Nicknamed "the steak of seafood," halibut is a popular fish with chefs and one of the pricier options. The skin is too tough to eat so make sure it is removed at the seafood counter or after cooking; the cheeks are a delicacy but hard to find—you'll need to check specialty seafood shops. Because it's very lean, halibut is prone to drying out when overcooked, so keep an eye on your timing. You can also opt for a goof-proof method like this recipe that slowly poaches the fish in olive oil. Other great ways to prepare halibut are on the grill or quickly seared and folded into these tacos.
Farmed or line-caught halibut is the recommended choice from ocean advocacy groups who are concerned with the harmful by-catch practices from commercial fisheries.
The flounder category is huge, so if you don't see anything labeled as flounder, look for plaice, lemon sole, summer fluke, and dab. They all cook lightning fast, so make sure you have what you need for your meal—be it a bright sauce or a rice pilaf—ready and waiting in the wings before you start. Flounder has a light and delicate texture and clean flavor, making it a lovely choice for steaming alongside healthy sides like couscous and summer vegetables. Beyond the spa menu, try it baked with a crunchy Dijon-breadcrumb topping, or dredged in flour and sautéed in this classic French method of preparing fish. Best of all, flounder is an abundant species so there is little concern for overfishing.
A quick word about sole, which is a true catfishing success story: In North American waters, there is actually no such thing as sole. It's just flounder with a fancier name tag. Shady marketing isn't all to blame; the story goes that back when English settlers first arrived, they assumed that this near-identical looking fish was the same sole they had back home. You can sometimes find true Dover sole in upscale seafood markets, it will be imported from Europe; it is considered a delicacy and will be priced like one, too!