Different Types of Fish & Seafood Basics
Updated March 1, 2015
There is so much to cover when it comes to seafood as it encompasses an entire ecosystem rather than a single animal. Much of what we’ll cover will touch on all of the basic types of seafood, the properties they have, the preferred cooking methods, as well as general rules of thumb. The different types of fish listed here are the typical varieties common to most cooks.
When dealing with seafood, it is important to know what kind of product we are dealing with. The term seafood can have different meanings to different people. When referring to seafood, some may refer to shellfish, or shellfish and other edible marine creatures. Some may define seafood as food that comes from saltwater shellfish, or saltwater shellfish and fish. Due to this ambiguity, we will opt to not use seafood as a term in an effort to not promote confusion and we will opt for the more appropriate “fish and shellfish”.
Eco-Stable Types of Fish
It is the responsibility of all aspiring cooks and chefs to be a part of the solution for the dwindling number of certain types of fish and to try to source their product from ethical sources. Overfishing from techniques such as trawling is incredibly destructive. Please insist on knowing the source of your fish, their methods of fishing, and refusing those that are unethical.
List of Endangered/Over-fished Species (Enature.com)
- Bluefin Tuna (overfished – Albacore OK)
- Red Snapper (overfished)
- Orange Roughy
- Beluga Sturgeon (Beluga caviar)
- Chilean Seabass
- Clams (Dredged)
- Lingcod (Good from Alaska, overfished off West Coast)
- Oysters (Dredged)
- Atlantic Salmon (Overfished, farmed even worse)
- Scallops (Dredged)
- Sharks (overfished, slow growing)
- Swordfish (overfished)
The different types of fish can be divided into 2 categories – Flatfish and Round fish. From here, we can further break down this category to include fresh water and salt water as well as fatty fish and lean types of fish. Because these categories cannot be combined under a neat family tree, we will use flatfish and round fish as the defining category division when talking about fish, while having fresh and salt water, fat and lean being attributes to the different types of fish.
Round fish are those that many are already familiar with. They are cylindrical in shape and have the characteristics we’ve grown to identify with. Some popular round fish:
Different Types of Round Fish:
- Arctic char
- Red Snapper
The fattiness or leanness of the different types of fish is how we determine the proper cooking methods. Many round fish are fatty, and lend themselves well to sauteing, baking, pan-frying, grilling and other dry-heat methods due to the ability to maintain their juiciness. Some fatty fish do not hold up well to deep-frying due to the fish having a tendency to become too soft. Lean fish are best prepared using moist-heat methods such as poaching, steaming, and in such dishes like soups and chowders.
How do you determine what is a lean fish and what is a fat fish? Knowing the different types of fish requires studying and memorizing which fish is fat and which is lean (Or by bookmarking this page). There is generally no rule in determining fatty and lean fish and knowing the difference does have a large impact on the cooking method. We’ll take the small popular group mentioned above to help you gain a basic understanding.
Descriptions of Different Types of Fish
Bass is usually referred to by a number of unrelated fish. The better known freshwater types of fish include largemouth, smallmouth, redeye and black. Bass are lean and delicate.
Catfish is a fatty scaleless freshwater fish that is common in lakes and rivers. Wild catfish have a tendency of tasting “muddy” and it is recommended you purchase the farmed variety for flavor reasons. They can be prepared by almost any cooking method, but take well to frying.
Arctic char is a different type of salmon that is found in the far northern rivers. It is a lean fish and pink-fleshed. Wild char availability is limited to August, September, March, and April. They are available farm raised.
Cod is the best-selling, most popular fish available. They are often used in fish sticks, pre-breaded portions, drawn and filleted. Cod is a lean type of fish. Scrod is a marketing term used for cod weighing less than 1.1kg (2-1/2 lbs)
Haddock is the second most commercially available type of fish. They are lean, with a strong flavor and a more delicate texture than Cod.
Herring are long silvery-blue fish found in northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. They are a strongly flavored, fatty fish. Herring can be used to grill or roast easily but because they are soft they tend to spoil quickly.
Sardines are young, small herring which have a fatty, oily flesh with a flaky texture. You will know sardines due to their availability in canned form. They are great for sandwiches and salads.
Tilapia is the name given to many species of freshwater aqua-farmed fish bred worldwide. They are a lean fish with a firm texture. They are sometimes marketed as a snapper variety despite not belonging to the snapper family.
Trout is a common North American freshwater fish. They are related to salmon and are a fatty fish. Some common varieties include Rainbow Trout, Red Mountain Trout, and Brook Trout.
Red Snapper is a fish gaining popularity within the restaurant industry. The only true snapper is the red snapper. It has a lean, pink flesh and can be prepared using almost any cooking method. The bones and head are excellent for fish stock.
Salmon is a very common round fish that is available both farmed and wild and come from both freshwater rivers and salt water from the Pacific and Atlantic waters. There are many varieties of Salmon and the availability ranges by the time of year. They are a fatty fish and the most popular in Canada. The different types include Chinook or King Salmon, Coho, Pink, Tyee, Chum, Spring, Sockeye, and Kokanee.
Swordfish are a very lean game fish with firm, meat-like texture. Swordfish are becoming endangered.
Tuna is another highly popular fish. It is a fatty fish with a firm texture and mild flavor. The different varieties of tuna include bluefin, yellowfin, bonito, albacore, and ahi.
There are hundreds more fish that are available. Remembering which is fatty and which is lean will help you know exactly how to cook that particular fish. Dry-heat methods are preferred for fatty fish because their fat content will help keep the flesh moist, while moist-heat methods are preferred for lean fish to help keep it moist and flavorful.
There are only a few commercially available fish that can be categorized as being a flatfish. All different types of flatfish are lean and have a firm delicate texture. The different types of flatfish available are:
Different Types of Flat Fish
Flounder has a lean firm flesh that is pearly white with a sweet mild flavor. Poaching, steaming and frying this type of fish is recommended.
Sole has many different types of fish/species associated with it. Flounder is sometimes marketed as Sole due to the popularity of Sole. They are a lean fish and one of the most flavorful available. Any flatfish which is harvested in North America and sold as Sole is actually flounder. There is English Sole (Flounder), Petrale Sole (Flounder), Dover Sole (Flounder), Lemon Sole (Flounder)
Halibut is the largest available flat fish and is very popular due to its appealing texture, color, and sweet, mild taste. It is a lean fish that absorbs flavor well and can be poached baked, grilled or broiled and goes well with many sauces.
Turbot is a different type of fish that is a Pacific flatfish with no real culinary distinction. In Europe, the turbot is prized for its delicate flavor and firm lean flesh.
The Different Types of Mollusks
There are two categories of mollusks available – Univalve and bi-valve. Mollusks are sea creatures who have a hard outer shell that protects their soft interior. Mollusks can be prepared in a variety of ways, each of which has its benefits in flavor and texture.
Univalve mollusks are few in number and only include Abalone and Conch.
Bi-valve mollusks have a number of members, most of which you are already familiar with. These include:
There are many varieties of each, and they all have a unique taste and flavor. Clams varieties include soft-shell clams, surf clams, geoducks, red river clam, and quahogs. Mussel varieties include blue mussels and green shell.
Oysters are sold in the shell or shucked and are best eaten live but can be steamed or baked in the shell. A shucked oyster can be breaded and deep-fried, pan-fried and sauteed. They can be added to stews or chowders. The varieties of oysters include Atlantic Oyster, European flat oyster, Olympias, and Pacific oysters.
Scallops contain an edible white adductor muscle that holds both sides of the shell together. This is the part in which you buy while the rest of the scallop is unused. They come in a variety of sizes and are great in stews, chowders. They can be fried, but care is needed as overcooking can cause toughness and stringiness.
Cephalopods are park of the mollusk family that does not have an outer shell. The most popular of the cephalopods include:
Octopus is generally very tough and requires mechanical tenderization or long, moist-heat cooking to render a palatable and tender product. You generally want to simmer an octopus for many hours and never boil. If octopus meat is boiled, it will turn out very tough. Once you have tenderized the octopus it can further prepared by grilling, frying or baking. It has a white lean flesh and is flavorful
Squid is the most popular cephalopod that many people have tried and enjoy. It is not as tough as octopus and can be prepared in a multitude of methods. Overcooking squid can cause the flesh to become rubbery and unappealing. Proper cooking, as with the scallop, is required to ensure a good product.
A crustacean is found in both fresh and salt water. They are defined by having a hard outer shell with jointed appendages that protects their sweet, tender meat. There are many types of crustaceans and each has their own qualities. They include:
- Shrimp & Prawns
A crayfish can be called crawfish or crawdad, but they all refer to the same species. They have an appearance of a miniature lobster and most of the meat is found in the tail. The flesh is sweet and lean. Crayfish can be simmered whole and served hot or cold. The tail meat can be used in deep frying, soups or pan fried. It is a staple in Cajun cuisine.
Crabs are found along North American cost lines in great numbers. There are a number of varieties of crab, each with their own flavor and texture. Their meat is highly versatile and can be used in soups, stews, curries, and casseroles to name a few. Crab should always be cooked live and you should not use dead crabs unless just recently killed. The varieties are as follows:
- King Crab
- Blue Crab
- Snow/Spider Crab
- Stone Crab
King crab is the most sought-after due to its very sweet and tender flavor. It is the largest crab and is caught in the cold water of the North Pacific. King Crabs are always sold frozen, usually in the shell.
Dungeness crab is the most popular variety found due to its delicate meat and sweet flavor, availability, and price. They are sold live or precooked.
Blue crab is found along the eastern seaboard and accounts for 50% of all crab harvested in the US. Their meat is sweet and rich and is available as soft-shell or hard-shell. Soft-shell crab is those harvested within 6 hours of molting and are available live from May 15 – September 15.
Snow crabs or spider crabs are an abundant species and are often substituted for the scarcer and more expensive King Crab. They are harvested in the northern North American waters and is sold precooked and usually frozen.
Stone crabs are generally available as cooked flaws, even fresh or frozen. The meat is firm with a sweet flavor that is close to lobsters and can be served hot or cold with cocktail sauce, lemons, or butter sauces.
Lobsters have a brown-black outer shell and have firm white meat with a rich, sweet flavor. Lobster shells turn red when cooked and can be poached, steamed, simmered, baked or grilled and can be served hot or cold. Lobsters should be kept alive until just before cooking. Dead lobsters should not be used. The coral (eggs) are considered a prized delicacy.
Shrimp and prawns are found worldwide and are very popular. The difference between the terms shrimp and prawn is the location in where it was caught. Freshwater prawns are referred to as prawns while marine species are referred to as shrimp. In commercial practice, a prawn is considered to be a large variety of shrimp. There are dozens of varieties available and are often classified by size. They are highly versatile and can be prepared using a wide array of cooking methods.
This article should help you familiarize yourself with the vast amount of available fish and shellfish and the proper cooking methods used to produce a superior product.