There are so many different types of fish that it’s difficult to list them all. The following listing covers species of fresh fish that are available nationwide or in many areas of the country.
Keep in mind, names of fish often vary with the region. For instance, various types of North American flounder are locally called “sole”—French sole, Pacific sole, sand sole, lemon sole, even Dover and English sole—even though no North American fish is truly a sole. Some flounders are given market names like sanddab, fluke, plaice, or turbot.
This list is broken into “fatty fish” (over 5 percent fat by weight) and lean fish (under 5 percent). These designations are for fish caught in the wild. Generally speaking, their farm-raised counterparts are higher in fat.
Types of fatty fish
- Anchovies: Anchovies are small saltwater fish of the herring family. Rarely eaten fresh, they are usually sold in cans or jars and are used as a seasoning. Anchovies are a classic ingredient in salade Niçoise and Caesar salad, and are also a popular pizza topping. The tiny fillets are heavily salted and packed in oil. Whole anchovies are also sold in bulk, packed in salt. Puréed anchovies go into tubes of anchovy paste, a convenient flavoring.
- Butterfish: Called butterfish in the eastern United States, and Pacific or California pompano in the West, this small silvery saltwater fish is usually sold whole, drawn, or dressed. Suitable for broiling, baking, or pan-frying, it has a delicate flavor and soft, rather dark flesh that firms and lightens when cooked.
- Carp: This freshwater fish is a favorite with two diverse ethnic groups: Chinese cooks like to poach or steam it whole, while Eastern European Jews use it for making gefilte fish and also serve it poached, with a sweet-and-sour sauce. The flesh of carp is somewhat coarse, and parts of the fish can be tough. It is also a difficult fish to skin and bone, so you may prefer to buy fillets. It’s commonly sold dressed or split lengthwise. Try this fish baked, broiled, steamed, or poached.
- Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish): Chilean sea bass is not actually a member of the sea bass family. With its snow-white flesh, firm, rich texture, and melt-in-your-mouth flavor, Chilean sea bass has become extremely popular. Originally found off the southern coast of Chile to the Antarctic, it’s now caught throughout most of the southern hemisphere.
- Eel: While they resemble snakes, eel are actually true fish, with tiny scales and gills. They are freshwater fish and have rich, firm, sweet-tasting flesh. Fresh eel are occasionally available, though they are more reliably found smoked. Have your fish dealer skin them for you because their skin is very tough and difficult to remove.
- Herring: This huge family of fish has over 100 varieties. Small young herring are commonly sold as sardines. Fresh herring is occasionally available but you’re more likely to find it smoked and salted, or pickled.
- Mackerel: Mackerel is the common name for members of the family Scombridae, which includes many species of open-sea fishes, including the bonito and tuna. Mackerel is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids; some varieties have a stronger, oilier flavor than other fish.
- Pompano: Sometimes called Florida pompano, this silvery fish is caught in the Atlantic off the southern US coast. Overfishing has limited the supply so that pompano these days is fairly expensive. You can buy whole fresh or frozen pompano. Its rather oily, firm, white meat has a delicate flavor and is best cooked by broiling, grilling, or baking in parchment.
- Sablefish: Though it is commonly called “black cod,” this northern Pacific fish is not a cod, nor is it a butterfish, another name often applied to sablefish fillets. A high fat content gives it a soft texture and a rich taste that is surprisingly mild. Fillets, fresh or frozen, are the most common form found in stores, but sablefish is also sold whole—weighing about 3 to 15 pounds—or cut into steaks. The fish is excellent broiled, though baking, poaching, and steaming are also suitable cooking methods. It is also available smoked.
- Salmon: Succulent, delicious, and nutritious, salmon is one of America’s most popular fish. Salmon is usually sold in filets or cut into steaks, depending on the size and variety. It’s excellent poached, steamed, roasted, or grilled. You can also buy canned salmon to eat as you would canned tuna fish.
- Sardines The word “sardine” actually refers to more than 20 varied species of small, slender, soft-boned saltwater fish found worldwide and ranging in size from 3 to 6 inches. Sardines as we know them in the United States, however, are actually members of the herring family. Fresh sardines are occasionally available, but sardines are more commonly found salted, smoked, or canned in oil, tomato sauce, or mustard sauce. Some are packed whole, while others are skinned, boned, and sold as fillets.
- Shad: This member of the herring family is famous for its tasty roe as well as its rich flesh. Shad is one of the fattiest of all fish. Like salmon, shad is a fish that lives most of its life in salt water, but spawns in fresh water. Shad is at its best in the spring, when it enters inland waters on both the Atlantic and Pacific Northwest coasts to spawn. Females bear large sacs of roe weighing up to 3/4 pound each, which are considered a great delicacy. This fish has rich, sweet flesh but is very bony—360 bones, to be exact. It’s best to buy fillets if you are not familiar with this fish, as it is difficult to bone. Sometimes the roe is sold with the fish, and sometimes it is marketed separately. Because of its high fat content, shad remains moist and delicious when baked or broiled.
- Whitefish: The term “whitefish” is sometimes loosely used to describe various white-fleshed fish, but true whitefish is a freshwater species related to trout and abundant in the Great Lakes. It has particularly sweet, moist, delicate flesh and is a favorite for smoking. Whitefish for market average around 4 pounds and are sold dressed and in fillets. This fish can be baked, broiled, or poached. Just leave the skin on fillets to hold them together while cooking.
Types of lean fish
- Bass: A number of different freshwater and saltwater species are called “bass.” The freshwater basses such as largemouth and smallmouth bass are really members of the sunfish family, and are not commercially fished. The saltwater basses include sea bass and striped bass.
- Bluefish: This plentiful Atlantic fish is a great fighter, making it popular with sport fishermen. However, it ranges over a wide area during its lifespan and may be exposed to many contaminants, including PCBs and mercury. Some large bluefish have been found to contain PCB residues that exceeded the “level of tolerance” considered safe by the FDA, and even small bluefish may not be safe to consume too often. Although its exceptionally rich flavor has given bluefish a “high-fat” reputation, it actually has only 4.6 grams of fat per 3-ounce cooked serving. The bluefish you’ll find in the market average 3 to 6 pounds. They are sold whole, dressed, and as fillets. The rather dark flesh is best baked or grilled. The flesh lightens when cooked.
- Catfish: Best known in the South, this tasty freshwater fish has become increasingly popular in recent years and is now one of America’s favorite fish. Though once caught in rivers and streams, it is now farmed in ponds and sold fresh and frozen all over the country. The fish has a smooth but tough skin that can be difficult to remove, so it’s preferable to buy fillets or nuggets. Although traditionally fried, catfish are also delicious baked, grilled, poached, sautéed, or in stews.
- Cod: Among the five most popular fish eaten in the United States, Atlantic cod is one of the mainstays of New England fisheries. A similar fish, called Pacific cod, is caught on the West Coast. Cod is sold whole—at a weight of up to 10 pounds—dressed, and in fillets and steaks. The flesh is firm, white, and mild in flavor, and this very lean fish can be cooked by almost any method. Try it broiled, baked with tomato sauce, or in chowder. Small cod, weighing under 3 pounds, are sometimes marketed as scrod. They are sweeter and more tender than full-grown cod. In Europe, especially Spain and Portugal, very little fresh cod makes it to the marketplace, since the majority of the catch is destined to become bacalao, or salt cod. Though the fish itself is quite salty, the method of preparing it removes most of the salt.
- Flounder: This widely available flatfish, which can be found on nearly every American coastline, has a mild flavor and light texture that have made it a longstanding favorite. The flounder family includes the true sole (caught only in European waters), European turbot, and fluke. Winter flounder from New England is sometimes called lemon sole, and other flounders are offered as gray sole, petrale sole (a Pacific flounder), or rex sole. If you see Dover sole on a restaurant menu, it may be imported from England (and will be priced accordingly) or it may be a type of Pacific flounder that is sometimes called by this name in the United States. Flounder is sold whole, dressed or filleted, fresh and frozen. This fish can be broiled, sautéed, stuffed and baked, and the whole fish can also be steamed.
- Grouper: See Sea Bass below.
- Haddock: A smaller member of the cod family, this lean North Atlantic fish can be substituted for cod in most recipes, although its flesh may be slightly softer.
- Halibut: A flatfish, like flounder, halibut is found in both the North Atlantic and northern Pacific waters. This very large fish is usually marketed in fillets or steaks, more commonly frozen (or thawed) than fresh. Poach, bake, broil, or sauté halibut steaks as you would salmon. You can also substitute firm, white-fleshed halibut fillets in flounder or sole recipes.
- Lingcod: A popular Pacific coast fish, lingcod is not a true cod, but has tender, delicate white flesh like its namesake. Whole lingcod, which weigh 3 to 10 pounds and up, are usually sold dressed, and markets also carry fillets and steaks. Try this fish baked, poached, or grilled.
- Mahi-mahi: This is the Hawaiian name for a fish that is also called “dolphin” or “dolphin fish” because of its resemblance to the porpoise, which is actually a mammal. Caught primarily in Pacific waters, it is most often sold in fillets or steaks, fresh or frozen, with the skin attached to hold the fish together during cooking. Mahi-mahi has dense, sweet, moist flesh something like swordfish, and it can be cooked in the same ways: baked, broiled, and poached. Despite its rich flavor, mahi-mahi is a lean fish.
- Monkfish: You’ll rarely find whole monkfish for sale. This saltwater fish is so ugly that the head is cut off, and its thick, tapering tail section is sold whole or in fillets. Also called goosefish or anglerfish, monkfish has appeared on many American restaurant menus in recent years. Its texture and flavor are often compared to lobster, and you can substitute this lean fish for lobster meat or scallops in many recipes. (Monkfish is sometimes referred to as “poor man’s lobster.”) It can be poached, sautéed, stir-fried, cut into medallions, or used in chowders and soups.
- Mullet: Most of our saltwater mullet comes from Florida, with silver and striped mullet the most common species. This fish has distinctive areas of dark and light meat. The dark meat is strong-flavored and oily, while the light flesh is mild and sweet. Buy mullet dressed for baking, broiling, grilling, or sautéing. It is also sometimes sold in fillets.
- Orange roughy: This small saltwater fish is mostly imported from New Zealand and sold in the form of frozen fillets. It has become quite popular, probably because its firm, slightly sweet white flesh possesses an adaptable “neutral” flavor like that of flounder. Orange roughy can be cooked by almost any method and substituted for other mild-flavored, white-fleshed fish such as cod, haddock, and halibut.
- Perch: Although some species of saltwater fish, such as rockfish, are called perch, the true perch is a freshwater fish. Yellow perch and walleye from the Great Lakes are the most familiar American types. Most perch are caught by sport fishermen. Weighing 3 pounds or less, this fish has firm, flaky white flesh and is sold whole, dressed, and as fillets. Small perch is most commonly sautéed, but can also be baked, broiled, or poached.
- Pike: This slender freshwater fish, also called pickerel, comes from the Great Lakes and other northern US and Canadian lakes. Its intricate bone structure can make filleting this fish difficult. The flesh is flaky and somewhat dry, so it’s best to bake pike with a moist stuffing or a sauce, or poach it. Small whole fish are often sautéed. Pike is one of the leanest of all fish, with less than 1 gram of fat per serving.
- Pollock (Alaska and Atlantic): Tons of mild white Alaska pollock from the Pacific go into fish sticks and surimi, which is ground up pollock that is flavored and shaped to imitate such shellfish meat as crab, lobster, and scallops. Pollock is one of the top 10n fish in the American diet. Atlantic pollock, a different species, is richer and more flavorful. Though sometimes called Boston bluefish, it is not related to true bluefish. It has a dark layer of flesh just under the skin on one side, which can be removed for a milder flavor. Cook this lean fish as you would cod—bake, broil, poach, sauté, or use it in chowders and soups.
- Porgy (scup): This mild, delicate-tasting fish has a big following on the East Coast. It can be found dressed, whole, and occasionally filleted, and is often served pan fried.
- Rockfish (ocean perch): Fish of this large family go by many names. The Atlantic species is called Atlantic ocean perch, rosefish, or redfish. Some of the many Pacific varieties may be called rockfish, rock cod, Pacific ocean perch, or even Pacific red snapper, although they are quite different from cod, freshwater perch, and true red snapper. All types of rockfish/ocean perch have mild, firm, white flesh and have become very popular throughout the United States. Market size is 2 to 5 pounds and the fish are sold mostly in the form of thick fillets, which can be cooked by just about any method.
- Scrod: Scrod is simply young cod.
- Sea bass (grouper): Various species, including the large, diverse family of fish known as groupers, are marketed under this name (sometimes spelled “seabass”). Most have firm, lean, white flesh. One of the most popular species is black sea bass, which is a small fish—usually under 5 pounds—found in the Atlantic. It is marketed mostly in the Northeast and is popular as a steamed or fried dish in Chinese restaurants. Usually sold fresh and whole, and sometimes filleted, it can also be baked, broiled, or poached. Red and black groupers are taken from southern Atlantic waters and the Gulf of Mexico. Weighing from 3 to 20 pounds, they are sold fresh as steaks or fillets, which are best broiled, poached, sautéed, or stuffed and baked. Grouper is also good in soups and stews. The same cooking methods are also suitable for white sea bass, a West Coast fish from a different family that typically weighs 10 to 15 pounds and is sold whole, pan-dressed, or in thick fillets or steaks.
- Shark (mako, dogfish): If you aren’t a fish lover, you may nevertheless find this notorious predator appealing as food. Shark has a lean, meaty, “unfishy” texture, a mild flavor, and is free of bones, due to its cartilaginous skeleton. Mako shark, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, are similar to swordfish in texture and flavor. Dogfish is a small shark averaging about 2 feet long with firm, rich flesh. Other types of shark, such as thresher, blue, and blacktip, also appear on the market. Shark is usually sold in thick steaks, sometimes in fillets. The meaty flesh holds up well in grilling and can also be baked or poached. Fresh shark may have a slight odor of ammonia, which can be lessened by soaking the fish in salted water, milk, or water and lemon juice for a few hours, then rinsing it before cooking. If shark has a strong ammonia odor, it has not been properly treated after it was caught; pass it up.
- Skate (ray): This flat, kite-shaped ocean creature is a relative of the shark. Like the shark, it has tough skin instead of scales, and a cartilaginous skeleton rather than bones. Usually just the triangular “wings”— not the body itself—are eaten. It’s easiest to buy skate skinned and filleted. Skate flesh has striations of muscle that make it resemble crabmeat in texture, and its flavor is similar to that of scallops or other shellfish. Try skate baked, broiled, sautéed, or poached. Like shark, skate may have a slight odor of ammonia when you buy it. If it does, follow the suggestions given for preparing shark, above. Unlike most seafood, skate improves with a little aging. Storing it in the refrigerator for a day or two will tenderize it.
- Smelt: This small, delicately flavored fish is related to salmon. Some species live in fresh water, while others are found in the Pacific and the Atlantic. Rainbow smelt and eulachon are the major commercial species. Because smelt are small and are usually eaten whole, they are most commonly sold dressed or drawn. The soft bones are edible, but the fish is also easy to bone once it’s cooked. Smelt are very often deep-fried or sautéed, but they can also be broiled, grilled, or baked.
- Snapper: There are a number of snapper species in US waters, and red snapper, caught off the southeastern coast, is by far the best known. Because this fish is in great demand, other species, such as mutton snapper and silk snapper, may be falsely advertised as red snapper in markets and restaurants. You can recognize the real thing by its bright red skin, usually left on the fillets to identify it, and its light-colored flesh. Because red snapper tends to be expensive, you’re more likely to find it in a restaurant than in your fish market. If you can buy a dressed 4- to 6-pound fish, show it to best advantage by baking, grilling, poaching, or steaming it whole, and bake or broil fillets.
- Sole: See Flounder above.
- Striped bass: The striped bass, also called striper or rockfish, is a large fish with firm, well-flavored flesh. Once abundant on both coasts, striped bass has become much rarer because of overfishing and contamination with PCBs, and commercial fishing is now banned in most Eastern states and in California. Fish farms, where bass are harvested year-round, are becoming the principal source of this fish.
- Swordfish: Highly prized by sport fishermen, swordfish can be found on both the east and west coasts. This large saltwater fish has meaty, rich-tasting flesh. Unfortunately, like many fish, swordfish has been severely overfished. Another drawback to swordfish is that many fish have been found to contain large concentrations of mercury. Other big fish, such as shark, are also susceptible to mercury contamination, but swordfish have been found to contain the highest levels. Since this problem was discovered, the FDA has monitored both domestic and imported swordfish very closely. Swordfish is usually sold in steaks or chunks, fresh or frozen. Its exceptionally firm flesh makes it a good choice for kebabs. Or broil, poach, or bake swordfish steaks.
- Tilapia: Tilapia is sometimes called sunshine snapper, cherry snapper, Nile perch, mouthbrooder, or St. Peter’s fish. Tilapia is an important farm-raised fish, which was once largely imported, but is now being farmed in this country. This firm-fleshed, mild tasting fish can be prepared like flounder or snapper.
- Tilefish: Caught in deep Atlantic waters, tilefish average about 10 pounds. This fish was not very popular until a few years ago, but now is increasingly available and worth seeking out for its firm, pinkish-white flesh that has some of the sweetness of lobster or scallops. You’ll find whole tilefish and fillets in the market. Tilefish can be substituted for other white-fleshed fish such as cod, where its sweet flavor will be a bonus. Use tilefish in chowders, or bake, broil, poach, or steam it.
- Trout (freshwater): Related to salmon, trout are freshwater fish that, in markets, range from 1 1/2 to 10 pounds whole. Rainbow trout, the most frequently available, is sold fresh or frozen throughout the country all year. It is an immensely popular game fish, but only farm-raised rainbows are sold commercially. Steelhead trout is an ocean-going rainbow trout that breeds—and tastes—like salmon. It is also farmed. Trout generally have mild, sweet flesh, though texture, flavor, and fat content vary. Usually, the larger the fish, the higher the fat content. Smaller trout are sold whole or dressed. They are often panfried, but can also be broiled, grilled, or baked. Try poaching or baking whole larger fish, or steaks or fillets.
- Tuna: Americans eat more tuna than any other fish or shellfish, though about 95 percent of the tuna we eat is canned. Tuna is a member of the mackerel family, and may weigh up to 1,500 pounds, depending on the species. Atlantic Bluefin tuna are prized for sushi. Yellowfin tuna are also served raw in sashimi, or seared lightly. Albacore tuna is often canned as “white tuna.” Tuna has firm flesh that can be prepared like meat: grilled, seared, or roasted. Leftovers are easily made into tuna salad the next day.
- Weakfish (sea trout): This fish’s name comes from its fragile mouth, which tends to break when the fish is hooked. The sweet, pale flesh is also rather tender, and should be handled carefully in cooking. Weakfish average 1 to 3 pounds and are abundant on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Weakfish are sold whole, dressed, and in fillets, and can be substituted for striped bass, or for less flavorful fish such as cod and pollock. Bake whole large weakfish, and grill, broil, or steam smaller fish and fillets.