All you need to cook fish to perfection is a little prep and timing.

By Lisa Milbrand
Updated February 21, 2020
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Learning how to cook fish means preparing healthy, high-quality seafood dishes at home—think of it as a win for everyone involved. Shrimp, salmon, and tuna may be the most popular fish to cook, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea. “Don’t be afraid to experiment outside ‘classic’ fish dishes,” says Nicolle Walker, a personal chef in Bloomfield, New Jersey. “Fish is incredibly versatile and an easy way to add lean protein to meals.”

No matter which kind of fish you want to cook, smell is one of the best ways to check for freshness. Good seafood should smell mild and fresh, and not have that strong fishy odor. If you’re particularly sensitive to fishy smells, soak your fish fillet in milk for 20 minutes before you cook it. The casein in milk helps draw away a chemical called trimethylamine oxide, which is responsible for the fishy odor.

Read on to learn how to cook fish like an expert, whether it’s in the oven, in parchment, or on the grill: Seafood at home has never tasted better.

How to cook fish in the oven

One of the simplest—and tastiest—ways to cook fish is to bake or broil it in the oven. Simply slather on a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and some herbs, place it in the pan (a piece of foil or parchment paper at the bottom of the pan helps minimize cleanup), and let it cook. The size of the piece of fish and the baking temperature both impact how long you cook fish in the oven—a whole fish, for instance, would take 35 to 45 minutes in a 375-degree oven, while a salmon fillet will cook in a 400-degree oven in 15 minutes, Walker says.

How to cook fish in parchment

This delicious method for cooking fish is one of the simplest—pick a fish fillet of choice, add some vegetables and herbs and spices, then seal it all in a piece of parchment paper or foil. Steam or roast it, and serve.

One of the biggest challenges to cooking en papillote (or in paper) is ensuring that all the ingredients are done at the same time. If you’re including vegetables that generally have a longer cooking time, such as carrots or potatoes, you’ll need to slice them very thinly so they’re fully cooked when your fish is done.

In general, cooking fish in parchment requires slightly less time than a comparable cooking method. If you’re roasting it in the oven, knock a few minutes off the cook time of traditionally roasted seafood, and make sure that you tightly seal the package to help trap in the steam and heat that cooks your fish.

How to cook fish on the grill

Grilling fish is one of the fastest—and healthiest—ways to cook fish. It’s best used for firm-fleshed fish like salmon, tuna, and swordfish. (If you want to cook cod, tilapia, and other more delicate fish, it’s best to wrap it in a foil packet to keep it from sticking to the grates or falling apart.)

The secret to perfectly grilled fish is proper preparation of the grill and the fish. Oil the grill well to help minimize the chance of the fish sticking to the grates. Baste the fish itself with a little olive oil, lemon juice, and spices, then start grilling with the skin side down. Wait until the fish easily lifts off from the grate before you flip—that usually happens about two to four minutes after you place it on the grill. Fish fillets will cook in around 10 minutes on the grill.

How to know when your fish is cooked

One of the biggest challenges to cooking fish is avoiding overcooking it. “The best way to tell if a fish is done is if it gently flakes, but mostly holds its shape,” Walker says. “If it flakes apart completely, it’s overcooked, if it doesn’t flake at all it’s undercooked.”

As it gets close to the time you’re expecting your fish to be done, keep checking the fish.

“Overcooking fish can happen really, really fast, no matter which method you use,” Walker says. “And that’s when it gets really fishy smelling, and then people think that they don’t like fish.”