Pacific rockfish is the most common near-shore fish on North America's West Coast. It's an excellent white-fleshed fish for quick and easy meals and is a favorite in Asian and American cuisines. There are several varieties of rockfish, and while they may taste slightly different from each other, all rockfish are firm, lean, and mild-flavored.
Pacific rockfish—also known as rock cod or Pacific snapper—is a very versatile fish. From fried to grilled to steamed and even raw, you have plenty of preparation options. It's fantastic in almost any fish recipe, and if you have a recipe that doesn't specify a type of fish, rockfish would be a great choice.
What Is Pacific Rockfish?
Rockfish are very common in the Pacific Ocean. More than 70 different varieties of this bass-like fish swim around the North American shorelines. They're also found down to depths of 300 feet or more. Depending on the species, rockfish can grow from two to five pounds but can also grow as large as 40 pounds. This fish has also been known to live up to 200 years.
The medium-firm fish is mild tasting with a flakey texture, making it ideal for a range of cooking techniques and flavoring options; it can be simply poached or spiced up and fried. This makes Pacific rockfish a supermarket staple available year-round.
How to Cook It
Because Pacific rockfish is somewhat of a "blank slate," the cooking options really run the gamut. It can be incorporated into ceviche or a bouillabaisse, or the fish can be simply baked, sauteed, or pan-fried and topped with a light sauce. Rockfish can be deep-fried and is a good choice for fish tacos, as well as several Asian recipes that call for a white fish. Because of the flakiness, it is not recommended for grilling unless you are cooking it whole.
If you do buy a whole rockfish, there are two preferred ways to prepare it: fry it crisp in oil or to steam it. Crispy-frying takes advantage of the rockfish's firmness while steaming highlights its delicate flavor. Both methods have been perfected by the Asian-American community, so look to Asian cuisine for inspiration.
If you bought a whole rockfish but don't want to cook it that way, you can fillet the fish before cooking. Be sure to keep the heads and bones as this lean, clean-tasting fish is perfect for fish stock. Preserve your stock and use it later to create amazing dishes like a classic Normandy sauce.
What Does It Taste Like?
This mild fish has a slight sweetness to it with a little bit of nuttiness. Because of the lower oil content, rockfish is lighter in taste and texture and has a nice clean finish. Rockfish will easily take on the flavors of the ingredients it is cooked with but is also substantial enough to stand on its own.
The more than 70 species of Pacific rockfish can be found from the Bering Sea in Alaska to Baja California with only 12 varieties being sold commercially. The main differences between the varieties of rockfish are their texture and color. The varieties are often named for their primary color—either black rockfish or red rockfish—with China cod, a black rockfish, being the exception (which is often considered one of the best varieties). China cod is easy to spot because it is black with a yellow racing stripe running along its back. It is especially fine-textured, which means it can bruise easily during transport, and therefore it often commands a high price.
Many people also enjoy the red varieties, such as vermillion or copper rockfish. These are fine fish, but not very different than the more common black, brown, and olive rockfish. Other common commercial varieties of rockfish are Pacific ocean perch, widow rockfish, canary rockfish, chili pepper rockfish, yelloweye rockfish, and thorny head rockfish.
As this fish is favored in Asian cuisine, Asian fish recipes are always a wise choice. For example, Sichuan sweet and sour crispy fish is a fantastic introduction to oil-frying a whole rockfish. For steamed rockfish filets, try a ginger-soy fish recipe. You also can use rockfish with a Japanese simmering sauce or simply pan-fry and serve with sambal.
If you have a skinless fillet, use it in any fillet recipe or serve it raw.
Where to Buy
Rockfish should be readily available in the seafood section of your grocery store, usually sold as skinless fillets. It's not uncommon for them to be incorrectly labeled as "snapper." Rockfish, while tasty, do not have anywhere near as fine a flavor as real red snapper, which only lives in the Atlantic Ocean.
Rockfish also is frequently sold whole or scaled and gutted. You'll mostly find the whole rockfish in Asian markets. High-end Western markets are selling the whole fish with more frequency as more people discover the joy and ease of cooking them.
Storing Pacific Rockfish
As with any fresh fish, Pacific rockfish needs to be kept refrigerated until use. Rockfish have an average shelf life of five to seven days in the fridge when wrapped well. It is best to not freeze this fish as its quality will decline.