Preparing Fish Without Fear


Mr. and Mrs.  Matson Schwalm with Giuseppe Tentori, Executive Chef of GT Fish & Oyster. 


By Samantha Schwalm


Freshly prepared fish it is one of the healthiest things we should all eat on a regular basis.  This low fat food is filled with omega-3 fatty acids, rich in vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus as well as providing a great source of minerals, such as iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium.  So why do the same people who regularly order fish at restaurants cook it infrequently or never at home?  Sometimes I hear, “I do not want my house to smell fishy.“  A majority of fish, if fresh, will not smell fishy. In fact, a good fish market almost never smell fishy but often has a briny aroma, like a perfect oyster, or the smell of the ocean you get when walking on a beach.  However the excuse I hear most often is, “It can be a little intimidating to cook at home.“  Cooking fish, is a lot easier than one would think, it simply takes a little knowledge and willingness to try.  In this article I am going to detail how I feel you can consistently prepare fish utilizing three basic techniques: baking, cooking in parchment, and pan searing.

Let’s start with baking salmon in the oven, a favorite dish for many fish lovers.  If you have ever cooked salmon you may have noticed unappetizing soft white stuff that seeps out of the sides of the fish. It is called albumin and is a protein pushed out of the muscle fibers as the fish cooks.  It is not at all harmful nor does it affect the flavor.  It is a result of over cooking the fish, or potentially cooking at too high a temperature.  The key to perfect salmon is low and slow.  The highest heat I ever bake salmon is in a 350 degree oven. Ideally, I recommend baking at 325 degrees for about 15 minutes.  Another important thing to remember when baking fish is to line the baking sheet with foil that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Not only will this make clean up easier, it will also prevent fish from sticking to the bottom of pan when you go to serve.  Place the fish skin side down on the pan. Next, season the fish with salt and pepper.  Layer thin lemon slices and sprigs of dill on top of the fish, this will add a wonderful flavor while baking. Halibut, swordfish or tilapia will cook perfectly using the same technique.  All fish becomes flaky when it is cooked throughout. It should pull apart easily with a fork to let you know it is finished.


Salmon with lemon wedges, ready to bake in the oven.


Poisson en Papillote is French for fish in paper, and is my favorite technique to prepare fish. The fish steams in the paper or foil (easier to roll), which makes it much harder to overcook. The fish served in paper also results in a beautiful presentation for any dinner party.  My favorite fish for this technique is Dover sole, which can be difficult to find so any light fish can be used as substitute such as whitefish, flounder or sea bass.  Place each fish fillet in a large square of parchment paper that you have cut to be about 12 inches by 12 inches. Then season with salt and pepper.  Top with lemon slices, four spears of asparagus, four cherry tomatoes, and white wine. Fold the parchment paper around the edges tightly in quarter inch folds to create a half moon shape. Make sure you press as you crimp and fold to seal the packets well, otherwise the steam will escape. Arrange the packets on a baking sheet. Bake until the fish is cooked through, about 12 to 14 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. To serve, cut open the packets and set directly on the plate. I usually serve with a rice pilaf, which helps absorb the juices on the plate.

Probably the most common way to prepare a fish, and a favorite of many Midwesterners on Friday nights is pan searing. I recommend starting with a filet of fish which could be perch, walleye or even a large piece of cod.  Often, the skin is typically left on and should not be removed, as it will add flavor to the dish.  When choosing a pan for searing fish, I recommend using a cast iron or heavy metal pan. Non-stick frying pans are not designed to be used over very high heat for prolonged periods of cooking, so they are not an ideal choice for pan searing. Due to high heat, this preparation requires close attention.  I recommend placing oil or butter in a pan and swirling it around the pan in order to evenly coat the bottom of the pan.  It is important that if butter browns quickly or oil starts to smoke, take the pan off the heat immediately. However, once you have reached proper cooking temperature, place skin side down.  Allow to sear for 30 seconds and then proceed to turn the heat down to medium-high; medium if it is a thick fillet.  Using a metal spatula, press down on each fillet for 30 to 60 seconds. Some people even place a smaller pan on top of the fish.  This is because fish tends to arc when it’s seared like this, and you want the skin side to brown evenly.  Depending on the thickness of fillet, I recommend letting it cook undisturbed for at least two minutes, possibly, even three to five minutes. The key to the preparation is allowing two-thirds of the cooking to occur on the skin side which allows the skin to crisp. The thicker the fillet, the longer the cooking time, and the lower the heat. The fish is ready to be flipped ready to flip when it stops sticking to the bottom of the pan. Once flipped, the fillet typically only needs to cook for another minute and like the skin side, the fish is ready when it is no longer sticking to the bottom of the pan. Serve with the crispy skin side up, some lemon wedges and a simple tartar sauce.

I hope the fear of cooking fish at home no longer exists.  Most fish markets will have a wonderful selection of seasonal fish, and are usually generous with communication on what is fresh and tips and recipes.  However, if you are a fish and seafood lover and want to leave it to the professionals, I highly recommend going in and visiting Giuseppe Tentori and his staff at GT Fish & Oyster. The Branzino and Oyster Po‘boy slider are must eats.

Fish en Papillote Recipe

4 square pieces of parchment paper

1 shallot thinly sliced

12 asparagus spears

Cherry tomatoes

1 Tbs olive oil

Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

4 halibut filets

1 lemon thinly sliced (seeds removed)

8 sprigs of thyme

1/4 cup white wine

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

Drizzle a little olive oil on each piece of parchment.

Place a filet on top if each drizzle of olive oil. Next salt & pepper.

Layer 1 or 2 slices of lemon each piece of fish. Place the asparagus, thyme, and tomatoes next.  Finally, put a little white wine.  Start crimping and folding the parchment, until it is in a half moon shape.  Make sure it is completely sealed, so nothing will leak out.

Bake in a 375 oven for 14 minutes. Serve with a side of rice pilaf.


Tarter Sauce:
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup mayonnaise 
2 TBS dill pickle relish 
1/2 a shallot diced
Pinch of salt 
Pinch of white pepper

Mix all of the ingredients together and enjoy!


Samantha Schwalm is owner of Paris Kabat Catering, providing personal chef and cooking services in Chicago. She can be followed on Instagram: paris_kabat_catering and at FB: Paris Kabat Catering.