One of the most common fears that people have with seafood is that it is going to taste “fishy”. People tend to have a widely varying tolerance for this fishy flavor, but most would agree that the taste of a bad piece of fish is among the most off-putting of anything in the culinary world. In fact, it can be so off putting that some people may only give it one shot. The problem with that approach is that most seafood novices don’t start with the best quality seafood. Perhaps they start with a can of tuna, or a fish stick, or a tilapia at a chain restaurant. Perhaps, they get a stray anchovy on a piece of pizza. If that were your first taste of fish, nobody could blame you for concluding that you should write off fish in general.
Don’t allow yourself to fall victim to that erroneous conclusion. There are hundreds if not thousands of species of fish that are commercially available in the United States, and hundreds more that you can catch for yourself. Not to mention the hundreds of types of other see creatures that are available. Different fish vary tremendously in both flavor and texture and each of these can be prepared in a wide variety of ways. This allows for millions of combinations and an almost endlessly diverse menu. If at first you don’t succeed, pick something else and try again, or pick the same thing and try again another way.
If you have determined that you are particularly sensitive to fishy flavors or you are uncomfortable with the idea of eating the more exotic treats that the ocean has to offer, you probably want to play it safe, at least when you first start exploring new dishes. The number one factor that will impact your enjoyment is always going to be freshness. This is where most people go wrong. Shellfish, like crab and lobster, start developing off flavors immediately after the animal dies. In some cases, even freezing will not prevent this. Depending on conditions, they can become inedible within a couple of hours. Shrimp can be frozen without degrading their flavor, but can deteriorate extremely quickly even just a few degrees above freezing. Many fish can be frozen for up to 6 months without a problem, but some are only good for a couple of days. The skills article on purchasing seafood will help you manage this critical aspect of making great seafood at home.
The other way that you can play it safe and tiptoe into the seafood section of the menu is to try some of the more basic and widely accepted offerings first. Once you have identified one thing that you like, it is easier to build on that with other similar preparations. Perhaps, you could start with a coconut shrimp with a spicy dipping sauce. That would be texturally safe for most people and the flavor of the shrimp is usually mild in comparison to the sauce. Then you could try a tempura shrimp, and then maybe a boiled shrimp in cocktail sauce. You could move from there into a barbecued shrimp or a grilled stuffed shrimp. You could expand on that into crab dishes or mussels. You could start with a nice fish and chips dinner with plenty of vinegar, or ketchup, or tartar sauce and then you could move from there into grilled fish or fish tacos. I recall at some point in the development of my palate, when I believed that I would only eat dry fish. It had to be either fried or grilled, but if the menu included a baked fish or a fish soup, I was terrified. That fear was broken when I tried a green fish curry. The texture wasn’t slimy like I had imagined and the flavors of all the spices that make up a curry really complimented the fish.
Gradually expanding your comfort zone using the freshest fish available will help ensure that you enjoy most of your experimentation, but preparation can take some finesse, so make sure to allow yourself to fail occasionally and don’t be deterred. The recipes included on this site are intended to be manageable for cooks at any level, and for many of these, you can miss by a lot and still be OK. I’ve attempted to give a warning where timing or technique is critical. After you have made a few recipes, you can apply those methods to similar species. Experimentation is a fun way to improve your diet and add variety to your life and if you do it properly, the risk is low. One way that you can keep the risk low is by adding a shellfish appetizer to a meal that you are already comfortable with. That way, you are not making a massive portion and you won’t go hungry if you don’t like it.
When I lived in New Orleans, my comfort zone for fish grew from the original 3 species to include all of the local gulf fish. I like to fish and I would often catch several types of fish in a day. By cooking several different types at a meal, I was inadvertently developing another strategy for keeping my risk low. I was cooking several different fish with different characteristics so if I didn’t like one, I was bound to like one of the others. I was able to see how the different fish reacted to each cooking method and then choose the best one. When I had exhausted all of the game fish options and all of the grocery store options, I expanded my search to include an Asian seafood market. That can be a real adventure. I found fish in there that I had never heard of. I used my learning from the gulf fish and decided, when in doubt, try several. I would pair a crazy new sea creature with a safer looking alternative. Cooking pairs of fish eventually turned into Four Fish Fridays, which allowed my family to try out 30 new species of fish in a summer.
As you experiment, keep notes on what fish you like and what techniques work for each one. Being a nerd at heart, I keep my list of fish and shellfish on a spreadsheet with a list of techniques that have worked and a score based on how much each member of the family liked it. Treat your kitchen like a lab and make changes to a single variable each time you cook something, then note if it made the dish better or worse. The hardest part about developing your cooking skills is remembering what you did last time. Take notes and grow your skills deliberately. This will help you to become better faster and with less setbacks.