Part of the problem is that most of our cooking is recipe-dependent. When we buy flounder, we prepare it in one of the two ways we know for preparing flounder. We never look at the qualities of that fish, and question whether it might be good sautéed or steamed. And we never stop to think: What would happen if I roasted that salmon or braised a tuna steak?
Of all the cooking techniques, braising is the least identified with fish cookery. Normally, we braise brisket and short ribs, simmering them in rich stock until they fall from the bone in a heap. On the other hand, fish are more commonly poached, gently simmered in broth just until the flesh becomes firm.
Sound very different? It's not. Of course, a pot roast simmers for hours and a fish fillet cooks in minutes, but other than that, the techniques are quite similar.
Any fish that can be poached can be braised. But in braising, there is a preliminary step that can make an extraordinary difference. Before simmering, food that's braised is browned.
Browning is a visual and flavor factor in cooking that we associate regularly with meat, but not often with fish. Browning makes fish heartier, richer, and in many ways, meatier. Where a poached salmon is definitively summer fare, that same salmon, when braised, takes on a wintry feeling. Even the flavors change. Poaching uses citrus, fresh herbs and pinto gris. Braised fish teams with wild mushrooms, olives, juniper and Bordeaux.
The technique for braising fish is identical to that used for braising meats, except that precautions must be taken for the more fragile texture and quicker cooking time of most fish.
First, the fish is browned.
This can be done in a number of ways. It's most common to sear the meat in hot oil, but browning can be accomplished just as easily, and to a variety of effects, on a grill, under a broiler or in a very hot oven.
Because browning happens at high temperatures under intense heat, the surface of fish has a tendency to dehydrate and stick to the cooking surface. For that reason, the fish should be oiled or coated in flour to protect its surface.
Whenever a technique calls for browning fish, how the fish is cut becomes important. Almost always, fish steaks are preferred over fillets for browning.
Here's why: The grain of fish flesh lies in crescent-shaped sections running down each side of the central skeleton. When butchered in fillets, the broad side of the grain is exposed. If it should stick during cooking, the fillet will be pulled apart.
On the other hand, steaks are cut in cross-section, leaving only the end of the grain opened to the cooking surface. This means that even if the steak should stick, only little bits of meat will be pulled from the surface, leaving the integral shape of the steak intact.
After the fish is browned, it is covered by enough liquid to come about halfway up its height, and it is simmered until done. The liquid can be anything from water to champagne, and the amount depends on how long the recipe will simmer. The objective is to end up with a sauce that is barely thickened at the same moment that the braised fish comes to full tenderness.
Unlike meats and fibrous vegetables, fish doesn't need to be braised very long. The general guideline is eight minutes of simmering per inch of thickness. For most braised fish, this means that the simmering stage takes 10 minutes or less. If the simmering is done in an oven, then the cooking will go more slowly, about 12 minutes per inch of thickness.
Nearly any fish can be braised. Fish are classified for culinary purposes by fat content. A lean fish is any one with a fat content of less than 5 percent. This would include all flatfish, cod fish, snappers, perch, whiting and bass.
Oily fish — salmon, bluefish, tuna and mackerel — have fat percentages of up to 45 percent. You can usually tell the oiliness of a fish by the color of its flesh. Lean fish are white-meated, while oily fish have colored flesh.
Generally, oily fish are preferred for browning techniques, like grilling, broiling and sautéing. Lean fish are often chosen for wet cooking methods, like poaching or steaming, but because braising involves both browning and cooking in liquid, it bridges the gap.
However you cook fish, there is one old cook's tale that must be dispelled. A fish is not perfectly cooked when you can see it flake — it is, by then, overcooked. Flaking occurs when the membrane that holds the muscle fiber of the fish together breaks down. When this happens, the juices run out, leaving the fish hopelessly dry.
What the flaking rule means is that a properly cooked fish will show a flake when it is gently pressed, indicating that the membrane is soft enough to make the fish palatable, but it has not yet fully dissolved.
The following dishes are cases in point, braising both lean and oily fish with a variety of flavors.
Cod Steaks Braised With Wild Mushrooms
1/3 cup flour
salt and pepper to taste
2 lbs. cod steaks
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 lb. wild mushrooms (any variety), trimmed and sliced
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary leaves
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups vegetable broth
3 Tbsps. chopped flat-leaf parsley
juice of 1/2 lemon
Season the flour with salt and pepper.
Dredge the cod steaks in the mixture. Pat off any excess and save the remaining flour.
In a large, heavy deep-sided skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
Add the cod and brown the cod steaks on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Remove and set aside.
Add the onions to the pan and cook over medium heat until softened, about 3 minutes.
Add the mushrooms.
Stirring constantly, cook until the mushrooms lose their raw look, about 4 minutes.
Stir in the garlic, rosemary and tomato paste, and cook for another minute.
Add the reserved flour and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
Add the wine and broth.
Bring to a simmer, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Return the cod steaks to the pan, cover and simmer over a medium-low heat until the cod flakes yield to gentle pressure, about 8 minutes.
Transfer the fish to a platter.
Stir the parsley and the lemon juice into the sauce, and boil until lightly thickened.
Pour sauce over the fish and serve.
Anchovy-Braised Tuna Steaks
1 can (2 oz.) flat anchovy fillets, packed in olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 tuna steaks (1-inch thick)
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cups canned, diced tomatoes with their juice
2 Tbsps. chopped fresh basil leaves
Chop the anchovies finely and mix with the garlic. Set aside.
Butterfly the tuna steaks with a long thin-bladed knife, cutting each steak horizontally up to, but not through, its straighter edge. Open up like a book.
Spread 11/4 teaspoons of the anchovy mixture in the interior of each tuna steak, and reserve the remainder for later. Close the steaks and rub with some of the oil from the anchovies.
Heat half of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet for 1 minute over high heat.
Add tuna steaks and brown on both sides; remove to a plate.
Add the remaining olive oil and the onion, and cook over medium heat until softened.
Add the remaining anchovy mixture and the tomatoes with their juices. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the basil and place the tuna steaks on top of the simmering sauce.
Cover and simmer over low heat for 5 to 6 minutes.
Serve the tuna steaks with some of the sauce.
Salmon Braised With Fennel and Apple
flour for dredging
salt and pepper to taste
4 salmon steaks, about 3/4-inch thick
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 large Granny Smith or Winesap apple, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 ribs fennel, thinly sliced
3/4 cup vegetable broth
1/2 cup apple cider
juice of 1/2 lemon
Season the flour with salt and pepper, and dredge the salmon steaks on both sides, patting off any excess flour mixture.
In a deep skillet, heat half the olive oil until bubbling.
Brown salmon pieces on both sides over high heat. Remove to a plate and keep warm.
Add the onion and the remaining oil to the pan, and cook over medium heat until lightly browned.
Add the apple slices, sugar and fennel. Cook until lightly browned, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Add the broth and cider; heat to a simmer.
Return the salmon to the pan along with any juices that have collected on the plate.
Cover and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, until the salmon flakes when lightly pressed.
Lift the fish from the pan with a slotted spatula and place on a platter. Surround with the apples and fennel.
If the liquid in the pan is too thin, reduce for several minutes to thicken. Add the lemon juice and pour over the fish.
Andrew Schloss is a food-industry consultant and a cookbook author. His current book is 2500 Recipes From Everyday to Extraordinary.