When it comes to “beautiful tastes,” there is perhaps none more beautiful than the taste of fish when the season, harvest, handling and preparation all come together…when we are lucky to taste a fish as good as it can be.
How a fish is caught and handled during its first three hours out of the water determines its eating qualities, at least that is what I found after I started paying attention to the relationship of flavor to fish handling on my own salmon troller in SE Alaska, studying hook-and-line fishing methods in different parts of the U.S. and Europe and working with chefs and fishermen conjointly to correlate what happens on deck with what happens in the pan and on the palate. The concept is simple but it took something like 10 years for the light bulb to go off.
Hook-and-line gear (longline, troll, jig, rod and reel) offers the potential for the highest quality fish because they come aboard and can be dealt with individually. Here are the steps I have found that produce the highest quality, best tasting and most beautiful fish.
- As soon as the fish come aboard or even before, the fish is stunned by a sharp blow to the top of the head. The heart is still pumping but the fish won’t flop and bruise itself and we can prevent the lactic acid build-up associated with struggle. The stunning step also prevents scale loss. Scale coverage is essential to the manufacture of protective slime when rigor mortis sets in. Complete scale coverage makes for beautiful, shiny fish and is probably the best indicator of how well a fisherman has handled the fish.
- Bleed as soon as possible while the fish is alive by severing an artery between the heart and the gill. This allows the fish to die a relaxed death and removing the blood results in cleaner flavor.
- Dress. Remove the entrails and rinse as soon as possible.
- Get fish into ice before it goes into rigor mortis (gets stiff). Fish should be straight when they go into rigor. Pre-rigor icing is the key step to supple, resilient high quality fish.
- In a perfect world, the fish would be left in rigor iced until it started to come out. Gaping sometimes seen in very fresh fillets (see below) comes from handling and filleting in rigor, especially if the fish in rigor gets bent in the process.
It is counter-intuitive, but fish can be too fresh. Depending on the species, cooking a fish in rigor can result in a weird texture, i.e. soft, grainy or, in the case of sturgeon, like shoe leather.
For more on fish handling see: The Beautiful Taste: Fishing with Chefs in Boston. Fish Handling, Part 2