August 13, 2004
Cooking seafood properly
It's always great to get reader mail, especially when they have genuine problems that inspire an article. This one comes from Shanti, who says:
Whenever I cook salmon (not like a curry, but pan-fried), it tends to become too hard. How do I keep it flaky and soft? We cook it till we think it is well done - about 10 minutes on each side.
Well, first of all, I'm envious of Shanti having salmon. I wish we in India got decent salmon at a decent price. Sadly, neither of those has happened.
Her question, however, is quite simple to answer.
Just don't cook it to death, my dear lady.
10 minutes on each side murders any texture, moisture or flavour the fish has got, unless your steaks are 2 inches thick, of course. (And if they are, you have a very accommodating mouth, I must say.)
If you really want moist, tender fish (or anything else for that matter), you need to avoid cooking it "well done". Well done meat and fish is always firm to the touch and has also lost a fair bit of juiciness. The best best is a "medium" which happily straddles the middle ground between the raw ickiness of "rare" and the leather-like lack of appeal of "well done". To reach medium doneness, the ideal time is about 3 minutes on each side, for a total of 6 minutes cooking time. Factors that will change this time slightly are the thickness of the fish piece (thinner cooks faster) and the temperature of the fish before you start cooking (ice-cold fish will make a mess and take longer). Very thinly-sliced fish fillets don't need to be flipped over at all. Obviously, this isn't an ISO 9000 style absolute guide. The kind of fish you use will also affect cooking time. Fattier fish will take a little longer; leaner fish, not so much. "Cook's instinct" plays a big role in turning good food to great food.
Without being slave to a kitchen timer, is there any old "grandma's wisdom" method to check the fish while it's cooking, you ask? Of course there is! When you're nearing the total cooking time and have about a minute to go, poke a small corner of the fish with a fork. Properly cooked fish will be opaque all the way through and should flake into nice chunks. It will also appear moist. Fish that's not quite done won't be fully opaque. Fish that's overcooked will be opaque but will flake into small, dry bits.
Shanti's mail inspires me to rant a bit about cooking seafood properly. You have no idea how many people come into my restaurant, disliking squid or prawns because they think it's too "hard and leathery". These poor folks have been turned off these delicate creatures of the sea for life, possibly caused by a bad experience or two at the hands of a cook who didn't know how to make them right.
And what do you think is the number one cause of "hard, leathery, seafood" is? That's right, it's overcooking. (The second is not getting it fresh, but that's an article for another day.)
I've already explained how to properly cook regular fish fillets. Let's then turn our attention to the things that actually need them: prawns and squid ( also known by the more poetic name of calamari). They need more attention simply because if you turn away for a few seconds while they cook, you could be left with pieces of leather to eat.
Prawns: Americans call them shrimp, but that's just to-mah-toe, to-may-toe. Prawns are ideal for quick-cooking methods like stir-frying because they get done in a jiffy. So that's my excuse for wanting to cook them. That they taste good even with just a bit of salt and pepper is a bonus. But you have to absolutely, positively take it off the heat fast. If you throw prawns into a hot pan and stir them around with your seasoning, they are usually done in about a minute and a bit. If you're stir-frying them the oriental way, it's closer to 30 seconds. Luckily, you can simply watch for them to change colour. When they're done, their flesh will turn an ivory-opaque and there will be a bright orange hue to their tails. This can also appear as orange rings on their body, though this will vary depending on the geographical origin of the prawns.
When you see this happen, wait no more. No, don't even think about it. Immediately take them off the heat. If you overcook them, they can't be salvaged unless you then cook them on medium heat for another 15-20 minutes. Don't worry about it being undercooked. Remember that the heat from the pan will continue to cook the prawns for another 30 seconds or so, so slightly undercooked prawns will be just fine and dandy when they're being served.
Squid: A lot of people don't like squid. Can't blame them too much. It's far too easy to mess squid up and the result is too unappealing for anyone to give it a second chance. What a pity because squid is both relatively inexpensive and also yummy when done right. So how long does it take? More time than prawns? Less?
Actually, it's a lot less. Squid will be done in about 30 seconds or so on medium heat and about 15 seconds on a hot wok. As with prawns, you have to keep a keen eye on the squid. The instant it turns opaque, stop the cooking. This will capture the squid at its most tender, giving you a dish that's a treat. If you are using squid in a dish that needs slightly longer cooking, you might want to cut the squid into bigger rectangular pieces rather than the rings they're usually cut into. As with prawns, if you miss the chance to get them out early, you'll have to wait for another 15 minutes on medium heat before the tenderness returns.
The cooking time I've given above assumes that you're pan-frying or stir-frying the seafood. If you're adding them to a curry which needs simmering, the time taken may be more. But you don't have to play the guessing game. Just watch for the colour change in the dish. When the flesh firms up and turns opaque, it's safe to say that they're done. Trust the chef.
I hope this article has proved useful to you. As I wrote earlier, it is better to undercook seafood slightly because a) that can be fixed later and b) the hot cooking vessel will cook them for a little while longer after you stop the cooking. This will ensure that you always taste seafood that's juicy and flavorful, rather than feeling that you just took a bite out of your shoe. If you have any questions or comments, please do use the "Comments" link below to let me know. I might be able to use it in a future column.