Striped bass, also known as striper or rockfish, is one of the most sought-after fish in North America, and it is easy to understand why: The fish is delicious, healthy, and extremely versatile. But not all stripers are created equal. Learn everything you need to know about striped bass, including what to look for when shopping for it and how to cook it.
What Is Striped Bass?
The striped bass (Morone saxatilis) is native to the East Coast and migrates from freshwater to saltwater, swimming upriver each spring to spawn, then back to to coastal areas to feed. Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, and Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, are important fisheries for stripers, and the commercial season usually lasts from late June through mid-December. Wild striped bass can grow to over 70 pounds, but they are most often caught between 3 to 15 pounds.
Besides its East Coast home, stripers have been introduced into lakes throughout the country, and have also become a fixture in West Coast waters. In addition to the wild species, there are several different types of farmed striped bass that are available throughout the year.
How to Cook Striped Bass
Striped bass is incredibly versatile. It has enough flavor and meatiness to take exceptionally well to the grill (especially thicker fillets), where the natural sweetness of the fish is balanced by the pronounced smoky char. But it can also be sautéed, broiled, pan seared, oven roasted, or even steamed en papillote.
While striped bass fillets are the norm, you might want to consider getting a whole fish to grill, roast, or bake in a salt crust, if, that is, you can find the right size (about 3 pounds for two people or 5 pounds for four), and have no trepidation about the eyes or removing the meat from the bones. Many people swear that cooking fish on the bone gives the best flavor and most delectable texture.
You could also have your fishmonger break a whole striper down just for you. Ask him or her to leave the skin on the fillets: Score the skin with a sharp knife and dust the skin with flour. Then, sear it skin-side down in a hot, heavy-duty skillet with a bit of olive oil or butter until the skin is crisp. Flip it over for a few seconds and serve. The crispy, salty skin is a brilliant counterpoint to the sweet meaty flesh.
What Does Striped Bass Taste Like?
To put it succinctly, striped bass tastes absolutely delicious. The flesh is white and flaky with enough fat to make it seem almost buttery (even when no butter has been added) but not so much as to make it seem oily. Moreover, the primary flavor is sweet and briny, without a hint of fishiness. A squeeze of fresh lemon is all it takes to bring out its aqueous glories.
Striped Bass vs. Chilean Sea Bass
Chilean sea bass is incredibly popular in the United States and Canada, as is striped bass, so it makes a good comparison. And, as it turns out, they are quite different. First of all, Chilean sea bass is not a member of the bass family Moronidae. Its real name is Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), which is a member of the Nototheniidae family. The name was created by a fish wholesaler named Lee Lantz. It was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration as an alternative commercial name for Patagonian toothfish in 1994. Family names aside, the fish are quite different. Chilean sea bass comes from the cold deep waters around Antarctica and Patagonia. It is almost opaque white with a firm texture that flakes into large pieces, a moderately high fat content, and a mild flavor. For all these reasons, it seems a bit more like cod. Striped bass, on the other hand, is much more delicately textured, with a distinctive pink tinge to its flesh and a notable sweetness. Both fish, however, are quite versatile, and both have their loyal followings.
There are three basic varieties of striped bass, which are notably different, even if the type is not always clearly indicated. Wild striped bass is the classic wild fish native to the East Coast of the United States (it can now be found on the West Coast). When it is fresh and in season, there is nothing better. The wild fish has a full though mild, sweet flavor and a big flaky texture that combines both density and delicacy. The downside is they are not always available, but when they are, make a point to get them.
The most common variety is a natural cross between striped bass and white bass (Morone chrysops), which, unlike striped bass, is a freshwater fish. For this reason, this farmed version tends to have a milder flavor. Also, because the farmed fish are generally a bit smaller than the wild stripers, the texture tends to be a bit firmer. The upside here is they are available year-round and don't have the high price or price fluctuations that the wild product often does.
Finally, some fish farmers on the West Coast have begun to farm a type of striper that has the same genetic identity as the wild Morone saxatilis, except that it is available year-round and tends to be a bit smaller than the wild version, giving the farmed fish a slightly firmer flesh and slightly less pronounced flavor.
Striped Bass Recipes
Wild striped bass is incredibly versatile and can turn even the simplest recipe into a memorable occasion.
- Simple Grilled Sea Bass Marinated in Sake
- Herbed Sea Bass Baked in Paper
- Bass With Lemon Herb Butter
Where to Buy Striped Bass
From an eating standpoint, stripers are at their best between 18 inches―the legal minimum―and 36 inches. Larger bass becomes coarser in texture and, because they are a top predator where they live, they can accumulate higher levels of heavy metals.
Don't forget the collars, which are the triangles of meat behind the gills. Marinated and grilled, many people feel they are the best part of the fish. And don't forget the cheeks, that is, the discs of meat on either side of the fish's head. The cheeks of a large striper can make an appetizer that beats just about anything.
Storing Striped Bass
Fresh striped bass fillets, whole or portioned, can be wrapped securely in plastic wrap and kept in the freezer for six to nine months. Transfer from the freezer to the refrigerator a day ahead so the fish can thaw gradually. Once thawed, it should be cooked and enjoyed. Of course, it is always preferable to eat fresh fish as soon as possible after it's been caught. Look for firm, translucent flesh without any sign of dullness or dryness. Fillets purchased in a shop or fish market should be consumed within a day or two at the most. If a fish has been filleted just for you, it can hold well-wrapped in the coldest part of the fridge for up to three days, but as always, the sooner you consume it, the better it is.