When you want to sauté, fry, broil, or even marinate a fish, which fat or oil is best to use? If you're using the same oil for almost every recipe, now is a good time to break that habit. You'll find that selecting certain oils for different cooking techniques will not only elevate the food's flavor but also dramatically alter the way the fish cooks.
In addition to selecting the type of oil to use when cooking fish, you should also keep in mind how much oil you are using. Some types of fish are naturally oily, like salmon, trout, and tuna, so you want to use only the amount of oil needed to keep the fish moist and prevent it from sticking. If you are cooking delicate fillets, you also want to use the oil sparingly, or else the fish will fall apart while cooking.
Understanding the Different Oils
There are a lot of options when it comes to choosing a good cooking oil for fish. But there are also a few general rules to follow and a few things you'll want to keep in mind.
First of all, don't use flavored oils for cooking. In the best-case scenario, the oil's flavor will disappear while you're cooking. However, there's a very good chance that it will actually turn acrid and ruin the dish. Save these oils for a light drizzle once the fish is off the heat and ready to be served.
Also, remember that less-refined oils also have a lower smoke point; never use unrefined oils for sautéing or other high heat preparations over 350 F. Some oils like canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, and peanut can be either refined or unrefined, so it's important to read the labels.
Oils for Pan-Frying Fish
Pan-frying (sautéing) is one of the most popular ways to prepare almost any fish and involves pouring a little oil into a hot pan and quickly cooking the fish over high heat. Stir-frying in a wok is very similar, but the key with either pan is to use just a little oil and very high heat.
That high heat, however, will ruin many oils—when oil reaches its smoking point it will turn acrid. It is far better to use an oil with a high smoke point when cooking at very high temperatures.
The oil with the highest smoke point is avocado oil, but it can be expensive. More affordable alternatives are canola, corn, and vegetable oil. If you prefer to use olive oil for sautéing, make sure it is light or refined olive oil and not extra-virgin, which has one of the lowest smoking points. If you want to go through the process of clarifying butter (removing the solids), you can sauté with that as well as it has a very high smoking point.
Oils for Frying and Deep-Frying Fish
The difference between simply frying and deep-frying is the amount of oil in which the fish is cooking. Frying is cooking in enough oil so half of the fish is covered in oil as it cooks, while deep-frying is submerging the entire piece of fish into hot oil.
The best choices for frying and deep-frying fish are oils with higher smoking points. When it comes to frying, neutral oils such as vegetable and canola are ideal for dishes where you don't necessarily want the oil to impart much flavor to the dish. Peanut oil has one of the highest smoking points and is great for frying Asian food or any preparation where its flavor will complement the finished dish. Olive oil, if light or refined, can be used to fry fish and will pair especially well with Mediterranean-style recipes. If you prefer, you can also use lard or butter when frying.
When deep-frying or completely submerging the fish or seafood in oil, use the same type of oil as you would for a regular fry. Canola oil is a good choice because it has a neutral flavor and is inexpensive, which is perfect for such high-volume use. You can use a refined olive oil (not extra-virgin) to deep-fry, but keep in mind it will not make your deep-fried food healthier.
Oils for Grilling, Broiling, and Baking Fish
Grilling, broiling, or baking often require that you coat the fish in oil before cooking it. This helps conduct the heat from the burners through the fish (and keeps the fish from sticking to the grill). In this scenario, extra-virgin olive oil is a great option because it has a nice, clean taste and is one of the healthier oils available. However, you could use almost any oil you have in the kitchen.
Oils for Fish Marinades
When it comes to a marinade, extra-virgin olive oil is perfect because it will remain liquid in the fridge. And since the marinade will permeate the fish, the healthier the oil, the better it is for you. Vegetable oil is another good option.
Specialty oils do have a limited place in fish and seafood cooking, but they're nice to use for certain recipes. For instance, you could use walnut oil in French dishes or sesame oil in Asian recipes. They're most often used to add flavor and can be mixed with the main oil as you start cooking. Once finished, lightly drizzle the specialty oil over the food for extra flavor.