Cook time depends on the type of frozen fish, but none take long
Frozen fish is one of the great convenience foods, always ready and close at hand when you need a meal idea in a hurry. Sometimes, taking time to thaw the fish in advance isn't practical, so luckily you can cook fish directly from frozen in as little as 10 to 12 minutes. Your actual cooking time can vary with the cut of fish and the method you choose, but it's still a great way to get dinner on the table when time is tight.
Frozen's Not a Bad Thing
Fish recipes typically urge you to buy the freshest fish available, and to cook it immediately. That's great if you live on the coast and have nothing better to do with your afternoon than visit the markets, but it's less practical when you have a job and hungry kids. Buying your fish frozen is a more pragmatic option. Because it's so perishable, fish is typically blast-frozen shortly after it's caught, so its peak freshness is preserved. In fact, the "fresh" fish you see at the supermarket was often purchased frozen and then thawed. Short version: Frozen fish isn't necessarily a compromise, and is often the best option available to you.
Extend Your Cooking Time
If you're looking at a recipe and wondering how it would translate to cooking from frozen, a good general rule is to allow about 50 percent more time for thick cuts, such as a halibut steak or a big salmon fillet. Thinner choices, such as tilapia fillets, thaw more quickly as they cook, so you might only need to increase your cooking time by 20 to 30 percent.
Getting the Fish Ready
You'll only need a moment to prepare your fish for cooking. First, rinse it under cold water. The portions usually pick up a bit of surface frost in the freezer, and sometimes are deliberately glazed with ice as a protective coating. Rinsing removes that. Next, blot the fish as dry as you can get it with a paper towel. If you're grilling or pan-frying, this can help you get some browning before the interior of the fillet starts to thaw and release moisture. For other methods, it helps any seasonings, marinades or coatings adhere to the fish.
Sample Times and Techniques
Your actual cooking time will fluctuate depending on the thickness of each piece of fish, the heat you choose and the method. You'll need to check the doneness periodically as it nears the end of your expected cooking time, either flaking the fish with a fork or testing thick cuts with an instant-read thermometer. For most fish, 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit is an appropriate final temperature. Here are brief descriptions of several cooking techniques, and approximate times you should allow for cooking:
- Pan searing/frying: Start by placing the non-skin side of the fish face down in a hot skillet for 3 to 4 minutes, so it can brown. Turn the portion, cover, and cook for another 6 to 8 minutes. Thin portions should be done at this point; thick pieces should be finished in the oven for another 5 to 8 minutes, or until done.
- Grilling: Thin portions can be brushed with oil and then cooked in a fish-grilling basket over a medium-high heat, approximately 400 F. Turn frequently, until the fish has had approximately 6 to 8 minutes per side. Thicker portions should be cooked in a foil pouch, sealed for 8 to 10 minutes and then open for 8 to 10 minutes with the lid down.
- Broiling or roasting: Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until it reaches the correct doneness. Thick portions might need to be turned once, to ensure even cooking. Use your broiler's low setting, if it has multiple options; if you're roasting, set the oven to 450 F.
- Baking in sauce: If you opt to bake the fish in a sauce, your cooking time will depend on the sauce. If you start with a sauce that's hot and freshly made, cooking time can be as little as 8 to 10 minutes for thin cuts and 15 to 18 for thick. If you start with a cold or room-temperature sauce, it can easily take twice as long.
- Steaming: Steaming fish Asian-style on a bed of aromatic herbs or vegetables is fast, tasty and trouble-free. Most cuts need only 5 to 7 minutes.
- En papillote: Cooking "en papillote," in a pouch of foil or parchment, can speed cleanup. It also lets you incorporate flavorings in the pouch with the fish, which is a good thing. Allow about 15 to 20 minutes in a 420 F oven for thin cuts, and 5 minutes longer for thick ones.
A Few Tips
Fish won't usually retain seasonings very well when it's still frozen, so for most of these cooking methods it's best to hold off on adding spices or herbs for the first few minutes, until it has thawed slightly at the surface. Cooking in a pouch or sauce is the exception, because the fish will flavor itself as part of the process. The same holds true if you plan to add a topping such as breadcrumbs. Instead of trying to coat the fish in crumbs – they'll just get soggy – start the fish on a sheet pan, and then after a few minutes pull it out and sprinkle the crumbs over the top. If you really want to stack the deck in your favor, toast the crumbs first in a dry pan so they'll already be lightly golden.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.