How to Cook Fish Like You Know What You're Doing

Joe Gurrera, owner of Citarella markets and author of the book JOE KNOWS FISH, tells us why cooking seafood can be intimidating and how to do it like a pro. 

Kara Rota
3-minute read
Episode #207
image of flounder fish

Getting the best-quality fish begins with a great seafood shop. Look for a place that offers a wide selection and has lots of turnover. Finding high-grade seafood is half the meal prep, and can be more intimidating than cooking the fish itself. If you develop a relationship with a reputable fishmonger, you’ll get to know and trust his or her selection. (I happen to know one that can overnight fish anywhere in the US!)


Using your eyes and nose is the best way to familiarize yourself with raw seafood. Spend some time comparing fish, taking note of what looks good and what doesn’t. The fish should be bright and shiny, and its spots, lines, and markings should be sharp and crisp. The skin should glisten and not be dull. A fresh fish should be firm, not mushy. Another thing you should take into account when buying fish is its odor. Shop with your nose. Do you know why Citarella stores never smell fishy? Because fresh fish doesn’t smell—and our fish is always fresh. When you walk out on a dock and get a whiff of a strong fishy scent, you’re smelling the wood that’s holding those odors, not the fish. We revolutionized the traditional seafood shop setup just for that reason. There is no wood or sawdust to absorb smells. In our markets we use materials like stainless steel and granite.

The more you see and smell, the better judge you’ll become. Think of it like choosing produce in the store. You can most likely tell if a banana’s ripe, right? Is it bright and yellow or black, mushy, and overripe? It’s the same with fish. Familiarize yourself with fish and you’ll learn the signs of freshness.


People are always asking me how they’ll know if fish is fresh. I’ll tell you, so much of it is about experience. Because I’ve handled thousands of pounds of fish, I know the difference immediately—it’s become second nature to me. Until you have some experience, you need to rely on the person you’re buying fish and seafood from. You need to trust them. And how does a fishmonger gain that trust? Word of mouth is generally pretty reliable. What’s the fishmonger’s reputation? Talk with the person behind the counter. Spend some time there asking about the fish. When did he get it? Where was it caught? You’ll hear people say that stores have fresh fish on Mondays, but you really don’t know what they’re putting out. They could have gotten it the week prior. The day of the week doesn’t matter if you’ve built that trust.


I could ask you to fillet every fish you’re cooking, but that could get intimidating. Instead, rely on your fishmonger to do the work. If you’re buying a whole fish, ask them to clean it for you, which entails gutting it and removing the scales. You can also ask them to fillet it, skin it, and maybe even pull the pin bones—those tiny little bones in the meat. You can even ask your fishmonger to shuck oysters and clams for you. (There’s always the option of flying me out to wherever you live, and I’d be happy to show you how to do it in person!) But seriously, our fish guys at Citarella hand-cut fish and prepare seafood every day that gets sent overnight all across the country (check out our selection at citarella.com), so no matter where you live in the US you can get fresh seafood. Call and we’d be happy to answer any questions about fish. Throughout the book, look for the “Ask Your Fishmonger” icon, where you’ll find exactly what cut or preparation you’ll need for a specific recipe when special instructions are required.


  1. Use the freshest ingredients. Always.
  2. Depend on a timer, not a thermometer, when cooking fish.
  3. Pay attention. Don’t pick up your phone or leave the room.
  4. Always rinse and pat fish dry.
  5. Preheat your pan or grill, getting it nice and hot before fish touches it.
  6. When cooking fish, flip it only once. Don’t ever do it twice.
  7. Cook and serve fish immediately—but, despite what people think, leftovers are fine the next day.

Excerpted from Joe Knows Fish, (c) 2018 by Joe Gurrera. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved. Photo credit Bill Milne

About the Author

Kara Rota

Kara Rota headed children’s programming at Chicago’s Green City Market and studied food politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Kara has been a featured speaker at numerous venues including Food Book Fair, the Roger Smith Food Conference, and the Brooklyn Food Conference. She has written about food for Irish America Magazine, West Side Rag, Recipe Relay, and Food + Tech Connect, and is the former Director of Editorial & Partnerships at Cookstr.com.

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