How can I eat more fish cheaply?
January 16, 2006 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I'd love to add more fish to my diet. But I can't afford salmon or tuna steaks or swordfish or any of that yuppie crap. I happen to live near a decent fish market. They sell all kinds of cheaper fish: spots and chubbs and mackerels and whatnot. Tell me about those. How do I pick 'em? How do I cook 'em? Which ones are the tastiest? Which are the best bargain?
posted by nebulawindphone to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Whitefish (e.g., tilapia, cod) will take on the flavour of whatever sauce and herbs you cook them in. Oily, fatty fish will have their own unique flavours, such as mackerel, tuna and salmon.

Taste appeal comes down to personal taste. Some people like milder flavours and some like the stronger taste of the oilier, fattier fish.

Do you have a Trader Joes near you? They sell frozen fresh fish fillets very cheaply. Take one out of the freezer, throw it in your fridge the day before to thaw, and you're set.
posted by Rothko at 2:26 PM on January 16, 2006

Well, this doesn't quite answer your question but it might be useful nonetheless. Check out this series that The Chicago Tribune recently did on the alarming levels of mercury in fish. (You'll also find info that says the benefits of eating fish outweigh the possible harm, but it's good to have all the info.)
posted by lilybeane at 2:30 PM on January 16, 2006

If mercury is a concern, consider using canned white tuna or canned salmon. But I'm guessing you want fresh stuff.
posted by acoutu at 2:31 PM on January 16, 2006

Seems going the canned route can expose you to just as much mercury. Excerpt from the Chicago Tribune series:

A Tribune investigation shows the tuna industry has failed to adequately warn consumers about the risks of eating canned tuna, while federal regulators have been reluctant to include the fish in their mercury advisories--at times amid heavy lobbying by industry.

When the Food and Drug Administration updated its mercury warning last year, it arbitrarily classified canned light tuna as low in mercury to "keep market share at a reasonable level," one agency official told an FDA advisory panel, according to transcripts of the meeting.

The government has recommended that children and pregnant women eat canned light tuna because it generally contains less mercury than canned albacore does. Yet industry officials acknowledged in interviews that tens of millions of cans of light tuna sold each year are made with a species that on average contains just as much mercury as albacore.

Some of these cans carry special labels marketing them as a "gourmet" product, but others are sold as regular light tuna. That means shoppers have no way of knowing whether the can of light tuna they buy at the store tonight is potentially risky.

Making choices about canned tuna based on mercury risk is complicated because not all tuna species contain the same amount of the toxic metal, which can harm children's developing brains and cause neurological problems in adults.

posted by lilybeane at 2:39 PM on January 16, 2006

Mackeral is one of my faves and one of the easiet to prepare because they don't have scales, which means you can cook and eat the skin (which sounds gross but it's actually the best part — like the skin on fried chicken). Other easy-to-prep fish (a.k.a. scaleless) include flounder, and shrimp is always good. Most decent fish markets will gut and descale anything you buy anyway, so it's just a matter of searching the internet for a good recipe.
posted by Brittanie at 2:47 PM on January 16, 2006

Easiest way to cook fish is to rub salt and pepper in and grill or fry in oilve oil- takes about 2 minutes for sole and about 10 for large cuts. Mackerel is espsciall ygood fried in butter. An easy method for larger fillets or steaks is to rub in seasonings, cover lightly in mayonnaise, wrap in foil and bake in the oven (they mayo keeps it tender).

You can also bake any fish in a casserole dish- one good seasoning mix is olive oil, lemon pepper and cayenne but you can use most anything you like. I also like to cook the fish most of the way, then cover in fresh cilantro and fresh chopped tomatoes for the last five minutes.

Left over fish makes good fish tacos or pie/ casserole the next day.
posted by fshgrl at 2:53 PM on January 16, 2006

I'm a huge fan of catfish, which I coat in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, bake at 375 for 20 minutes, and then serve as fish tacos in corn tortillas with pico de gallo and guacamole.

I think the best way to judge whether it's fresh is to smell it. You want a minimum of "fishy" smell. I like to buy larger fillets, about 3/4 lbs, and inch or so thick at their thickest point.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:59 PM on January 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Lilybeane, my dietician told me that canned *white* tuna (not light or albacore) and canned wild salmon are safe, as long as you don't eat more than two cans (total) a week. She produced several research studies to this effect. She said the toxins must be weighed against the risks of not having enough Omega-3s.
posted by acoutu at 3:05 PM on January 16, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the tips. To clarify:
  • I've cooked fish before. It's just that I'm unfamiliar with the cheaper kinds. (Okay, okay, I was raised by yuppies.)
  • I'm glad you're all looking out for my health, but I'll make my own decision about mercury. Thanks for the heads-up, though.
  • And yeah, acoutu, I'd prefer fresh.

posted by nebulawindphone at 3:11 PM on January 16, 2006

If you're male and there is a history of gout in your dad's side of the family, watch out for mackerel and its relations! That includes sardines and anchovies. Whenever I eat more than a serving of those in a day, it's pain that night.
posted by brownpau at 3:15 PM on January 16, 2006

Best answer: Since no one here is seeming to even attempt to answer your question...

There a few reasons why a fish might be cheap. It could be a very oily type (Mackerel, Bluefish, SArdines) in which case its cheap becuase it goes off quickly and is very "fishy" tasting. I love these, but I can see why some people don't

Another reason might be difficulty in getting fliets off the fish or lots of bones that get in the way. An example of this might be a porgy - delicious, but virtually impossible for your fishmonger to cut up into pretty filets.

Another category is that its just plain ugly - this is the class monkfish used to fall in, but its not cheap anymore

Or it could be a type of fish that Americans have not grabbed hold of like say Skate - fantastic, mild, very interesting texture. A lot of things like this are bycatches - i.e. the boat went out looking for x and gotta little y it sold cheap. You find some amazing stuff in this category - i.e. there are fish that Americans consider trash that are highly prized for their flavor in other parts of the world.

The best way to handle this question is not to give you species, because who knows what's gonna be there. Instead you should try and figure out a few fool proof methods for different types of fish. For example when I was in school and got my hands on some cheap oily fish I took a big splash of olive oil, S&P, maybe a herb if I could find it, and threw it on a grill whole, then drizzled lemon and more oil on it before serving. For example Mackeral is great like this as are Sardines.

With something like skate a classic way to prepare it is to dust it in Wondra or plain flour, saute it in butter, and then make a pan sauce - maybe with lemon and capers, or white wine and mustard, or any combination of those things.

The nice thing about cheap fish is that it is often the most environmentally friendly fish to eat as it isn't popular.

And of course, the cheapest fish is always Tillapia - skinless chicken breast of the sea - tasteless protein.
posted by JPD at 4:02 PM on January 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

I find coating a mixture of honey and dijon mustard on bluefish masks the fishy flavor and tastes excellent.
posted by any major dude at 4:08 PM on January 16, 2006

Rockfish of all sorts are cheap, delicious and defrost quickly. Any kind of local cod (where are you located? here on the west coast we get lots of ultra-cheap rock cod, ling cod and various other types), cabazon, "snapper" (which really describes everything from vermilions to kelp bass and more), china cod, etc. are all delicious fried, baked, broiled, grilled or made into soups or claypot dishes. In the bay area and Marin and throughout the north coast you can often get these at the docks for half the price of the fish market, even, and they'll clean and bag everything for you.
posted by luriete at 4:13 PM on January 16, 2006

Tasty fish, on the cheaper side:
Cod (getting pricier, though)
Char (if you can get it)

I've only ever seen Chubb smoked, and I'm not sure what you mean by "spots". There are some very delicious flatfish that have spots.
posted by gemmy at 4:18 PM on January 16, 2006

Here's a tilapia recipe thats very easy to make :

1 Whole fresh cleaned tilapia (not the fillet, the whole entire fish).

1 red onion

some ginger and garlic

cayenne pepper, salt

oil or butter spray (i use pam)

(If you're feeling adventurous, leave the head on the fish, if not, you can cut it off. )

Blend onion, garlic and ginger. Mix in cayenne pepper (quantity depending on tolerance for heat) and salt. Put fish in baking tray. Pour blended veggies onto fish. Stick in oven for 20 mins on 350 till the flesh is tender...then broil for 5 mins, spraying the oil to brown it. Broil till it looks good enough to eat.

Oh, i typically make zapped veggies that go well with the fish:

Green pepper, sliced lengthwise
Half an onion, sliced lengthwise
Cauliflower florets
Sliced tomatoes.

Stick all the veggies except the tomatoes in a microwavable bowl. Pour a little oil (maybe about a tsp or 2) in bowl. Add about a tablespoon of whatever your favorite allspice is (Mrs Dash, maggi, whatever). Zap in microwave for about 2 minutes. The point is to get the veggies still crunchy but not raw. After 2 or 3 minutes depending, add the tomatoes and zap for 1 more minute. (otherwise the tomatoes will just turn into watery goo if u zap it from the beginning).

Take zapped veggies and pour over fish (include the liquid from the bottom of the veggies).

Eat with rice.


(total prep and cooking time - 30 mins or so)
posted by ramix at 4:51 PM on January 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

For whole fish, you want clear eyes and it should smell clean or like nothing.

As for how to choose, cultivate a relationship with your fish monger. They should know best.
posted by plinth at 4:53 PM on January 16, 2006

gemmy, This is spot. Mostly found in the Chesapeake Bay.

JPD's got some good advice. Monkfish and skate both getting pricier, thoug. The problem with cheap fish is that the restaurant industry re-names them and turns them into trendy fish periodically.

Do you have a good fishmarket? The prices will fluctuate wildly. Your best bet is to keep an eye on the market, buy whatever's cheapest and freshest, and figure out how to cook whatever you go home with. The freshest fish don't smell fishy and don't look beat up, regardless of species.
posted by desuetude at 4:55 PM on January 16, 2006

Whiting, in the winter it is really cheap. (When I lived in NYC.) Eel is good if you surf the web to learn how to prepare it. "Rough fish" like chubs and carp (the term in Romanian for Carp is CRAP) can be boiled into a Central European style fish soup - lots of paprika and onions and three hours of boiling - I live in Europe, and they eat that crap here, but believe me, you don't want to try it.

Any chinese fishmonmgers nearby? Korean markets? They sell a lot of cheaper fish because they sell a lot per day. At least in NY. Small , even tiny fish like "whitebait" are not common in US markets, and wqhen they appear they are cheap. And good. Salt water minnows fast fried in oil with salt are the best snack to come out of the Balkans.

Mackeral is good only if it is really, frigging really fresh. Frozen Mackeral is dog food.

Squid - it freezes amazingly well, is easy to clean, and it is squid. Squid is the food we will eat in Heaven. Fried, baked, grilled, it rules.
posted by zaelic at 5:09 PM on January 16, 2006

For whole fish, you want clear eyes and it should smell clean or like nothing.

also check the gills, brown is bad, and the scales are shiny and stay intact.
posted by any major dude at 5:53 PM on January 16, 2006

I like to put sole or snapper fillets in a greased pan, add some sliced onions, sliced tomato, salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and bake for 20 minutes.

I also like to do it with onion, orange marmalade mixed with a bit of OJ, salt, pepper, and bake.

Cheap and easy. I used to eat it once a week.
posted by acoutu at 6:33 PM on January 16, 2006

If you care about not further hurting the fish stocks of the world, I'd suggest taking a trip over to They'll help you decide which fish to eat.
posted by pwb503 at 7:41 PM on January 16, 2006

Marlin was a fish that was always available in my fish market in NYC for about a quarter the price of the high end fish like wild-caught salmon, monkfish, seabass. I found it to be extremely low in fat and delicately-flavored; I took to broiling it with just a touch of butter and paprika and it quickly became one of my favorite things to eat.

I hear it's mostly made into cat food. Lucky cats.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:14 PM on January 16, 2006

The Joy of Cooking has a dozen or so pages containing, I'm guessing, most kinds of fish you'd be likely to get your hands on. There's qualities of the fish, best ways to cook, etc. There's even pictures of most of them. Very informative I think.

Check out a newer edition at the library.
posted by sevenless at 9:20 PM on January 16, 2006

As far as cheap fish goes, tilapia is outstanding. It's got a good basic taste and texture - it's not super flavorful, but I consider that to be a good thing, because it means you can prepare it a lot of different ways. It's really easy to grill well, and a little bit of your flavor of choice (lemon, dijon mustard, etc.) goes a long way.
posted by TunnelArmr at 10:15 PM on January 16, 2006

Ask your fishmonger for any of the smaller or damaged fish that he has trouble selling. Scale and clean.
Put in pan with onion , tomato, garlic, parsley and stir fry until brown.
Transfer to larger saucepan and pour over one litre or more of boiling water and then leave to boil and reduce for up to an hour.
Mash whole lot through sieve or with a mouli and then add rice or rice and vegetables, to cook ; season to taste and you end up with a very tasty + cheap "arroz pescado". Enjoy
posted by adamvasco at 1:52 AM on January 17, 2006

Mrs. DakotaPaul and I love catfish, and our usual recipe is quick and easy. Just coat a couple filets in creole or jerk seasoning (really coat it, so you can barely see the flesh), add a little bit of salt and pepper, and a slap a dab of butter on top if you're so inclined. Throw under the broiler for 8-10 minutes. Yum.
posted by DakotaPaul at 3:40 PM on January 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

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