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The five things you need to know about fish

In a special three-part series, "Today" food editor Phil Lempert offers tips on safety, value and how to get the best tasting seafood.

Fish is one of our healthiest, most inexpensive and easiest to prepare foods. So why last year did the average American consume just 15.6 pounds, as compared to a whopping 118 pounds of red meat?

A lot of us are confused about fish. After all, there are more than 500 different species and lots of questions about taste, cooking preparation and what is safe to eat.

When it comes to value:
Buy frozen seafood fillets! Most seafood was put on ice (or even in a freezer) on the boat right after it was caught. Buying frozen seafood will not only save you money, but usually the texture and taste will be better since it hasn’t already been defrosted.

Always defrost seafood in the refrigerator the night before using. Thaw fish fillets in milk. The milk absorbs the "frozen" taste and adds a "fresh caught" taste. Never thaw frozen fish out on a counter, as the bacteria will grow rapidly and may cause food poisoning. In an emergency, you can run the seafood under cold running water to defrost (but typically the texture and flavor will not be as good).

Tip: Unlike meats and other products, don’t refreeze defrosted unused or cooked seafood. The consistency is more likely to become freezer burned, resulting in an off flavor and texture.

It's easy to cook fish!
Fish are naturally tender and contain very little connective tissue. Unlike meat, they require short cooking times at a high temperature. Most people actually over-cook fish at home, and find that the fish is dry and tasteless. Best bet is to either poach the seafood or wrap the fish in aluminum foil that has been coated with olive oil on the inside, fold over loosely, forming a tent, then cook in the oven broiler or on a BBQ.

Guidelines for Cooking Fish

  • Measure fish (dressed or stuffed, fillets or steaks) at thickest part.
  • Allow 7-10 minutes cooking time per inch of thickness for fresh fish.
  • Allow 12-15 minutes cooking time per inch of thickness for frozen fish.
  • Fish is ready when fish is opaque and flakes easily along the natural lines of the fish.
  • Remember the principle of residual heat: a pan will hold heat when it's removed from the heat source, continuing to cook the food for several minutes. For best results, cook fish until it's almost done, then remove the pan from the oven, microwave, stovetop or grill and let it stand for a few minutes to finish cooking.

When fish cooks, the proteins denature or unwind, then reattach to each other; as a result, the cooking process squeezes out water and the molecules shrink, pressing closer together. Because fish have very little connective tissue and fat, the flesh is quite delicate when cooked, so go easy with the spices and sauces. Best bet is marinating, which adds both flavor and moisture to the fish, but marinating should be very brief. If fish flesh sits in acidic ingredients for more than 30 minutes, the acid will begin to denature the delicate protein, and you'll have a mushy fish when it's cooked. Even the richer flesh of salmon and tuna should only be marinated for about an hour.

Beware the labels:
Organic seafood! Lots of retailers and seafood companies are trying to capitalize on the organic trend by selling “organic” fish. Don't be fooled. There is no such thing. The USDA has not issued regulations on organic seafood. You will wind up paying 30 percent to 50 percent more, and get ripped off.

Is fish safe?
The question of whether to buy Wild or Farm Raised fish has made the headlines, and there is unfortunately not a standard answer across all species. Some farm-raised fish, like trout and tilapia, have been tested, and the toxicity (levels of PCBs and dioxins) is lower than those tested in open waters. Farm-raised salmon toxicity, however, continues to test at much higher levels than does its wild (mostly Alaskan) counterparts. The problem is that wild salmon is widely available over the summer months, as it is caught between May and September. For other times of the year, the best bet is to buy farmed salmon that was raised in the U.S., Chile or Canada, which has been found to have lower levels of PCBs and dioxins.

Farmed salmon actually has a pink coloring added to give it the color that comes natural to wild salmon (from eating other smaller fish). To be sure of what you are buying, read the fine print on the label. If it says coloring, or natural coloring added, you can be sure that the salmon was farmed.

Tip: The larger the fish, the older the fish, and typically those species will contain more toxins in general, due to the fact that they swam in waters longer than their smaller fish counterparts.

For more information, be sure to watch our "5 Things You Need to Know" series on "Today." Wednesday we talk about meat; for 24/7 information, visit Phil’s Web site at:

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .