I’m a dad and a chef, which means I’m busy and, truthfully, a little absent-minded. So whether I’m cooking at home for my family or at work in my restaurant kitchen, I gravitate towards simple techniques that are forgiving and hard to screw up. Steeping fish is at the top of that list.
Many fish recipes call for hot and fast cooking, like pan roasting or broiling, where the risk of smoke and splatter is high and the juicy and tender “doneness window” is brief. If it passes you by, you’re left with a dry, tough, fishy-tasting result and a smelly, messy kitchen. Steeping, on the other hand, is slow and gentle, meaning that it doesn’t require constant vigilance. The doneness window is wide, which gives you a high probability of serving your fish at its best, plus the technique is odorless and requires no additional fat.
So what is steeping? Simply put, it’s the practice of pouring hot water over something or adding something to hot water—think tea leaves—and letting it sit until it’s ready to consume. That something might be squid, shrimp, or many of the finned fishes, like cod, salmon, or seabass. Timing-wise, squid cooks faster than shrimp, and cod takes a bit longer than both. When I cook squid or shrimp, I pour hot water over the seafood or add it to a pot of just-boiled liquid and leave the pot to rest off the stove until the ingredient is cooked (it takes just a few minutes), no additional heat needed. (Cod, depending on the thickness of the piece, may need a little more time on the lowest heat to cook all the way through. I lift the cod out of the water with a spatula and check to see if the flakes separate cleanly. When they do, the fish is ready to eat.)
There’s no reason you can’t steep in plain water, but I like to season it up. If I’m cooking at the beach, I often walk right down to the water’s edge and collect some sea water in which to steep my catch. If I’m at home, I improvise “sea water” by salting the water and adding a piece of kombu. Sea water is fantastic for tender-fleshed fish like cod and salmon. For shrimp and squid, which have inherently stronger flavors, I prefer to use a more robust liquid. Often that’s a simple court-bouillon (a quickly-cooked broth), which I make by adding a little vinegar, sugar, salt, and some aromatics like onion, garlic, and bay leaves to the water.
Both at home and at work, I rely on a short list of reliable methods that I know will work every time. Steeping is high on the list because it yields a perfectly-cooked ingredient that I can integrate into a more elaborate dish, like spicy shrimp salad with sambal and peanuts or cod with 6 minute eggs, lemon, dijon, caper sauce and soft herb salad. The hardest part—the fish cooking—is simple, which leaves me room to focus on the fanciful part: playing with flavor, texture, and color.
The best part about steeping fish, however, is that it doesn’t matter if you get distracted by a colleague, a child, or a shiny object—whatever you’ve got going will likely still work out all right.
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