Which Saltwater Fish Are Edible?

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Fish sliced and roasted cod, on a white dish with copy space and dark background
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Americans are often advised to eat more fish due to their many health benefits. Doing so can also be a wonderful way to enjoy more diverse, delicious dishes. Selecting and preparing saltwater fish to eat can be complicated, though, given the enormous diversity of options plus issues of sustainability. Whether you're starting from scratch in figuring out all the types of edible fish available to you or you want to broaden the fish category of your culinary repertoire, it's helpful to have a good understanding of the most common saltwater fish.


An Overview of Common Saltwater Fish

There are over 30,000 fish species in the world, and the huge majority of those live in saltwater habitats. In fact, 70 percent of the world's fish species live in the Pacific Ocean, and another 20 percent live in the Atlantic Ocean. When you're considering saltwater fish to eat, you can narrow down the edible fish species to those commonly caught in the wild or farmed by commercial fishermen. Available saltwater fish to eat varies considerably by region and season, with both domestic and imported fish sold fresh, frozen or processed into canned fish and ready-made fish preparations.


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Broadly, common saltwater fish fall into two categories: fatty fish, which have 5 percent or more fat by weight, and lean fish, which are the majority of edible fish. Fatty fish tend to have a stronger flavor; can handle dry-heat cooking, like grilling and broiling; and benefit from sharp, acidic condiments. Lean fish are more often prepared with wet cooking techniques, like steaming and braising, and are complemented by creamy or buttery sauces. Common saltwater fish are further categorized by family, species or groups of fish with similar culinary characteristics.


The Cod Family and Other Common White Fish

Atlantic cod and Pacific cod are among the most widely eaten of all edible fish, with firm white flesh that breaks into large flakes. Atlantic cod is firmer and sweeter than Pacific cod. Alaskan cod is a popular choice that's available year-round in the United States. Haddock, hake and pollack, including Alaskan pollack, are very similar to cod in texture and flavor and are often used as a cheaper imitation. All are used for fish and chips, fish chowder and fast-food-style fish sandwich patties and fish sticks.


The Sea Bass Family

There are hundreds of species in the sea bass family, although only a handful are readily available to U.S. consumers. These warm-water fish are characterized by their firm, mild, meaty flesh. Few small bones make sea bass easy to filet. The skin of sea bass is edible and can be delicious when crisp. Examples include branzino and grouper. Chilean sea bass, a popular saltwater fish with rich, firm flesh, is not technically a bass.


Don’t Forget Flatfish

Flatfish describes many different types of edible fish, all of which swim sideways, have a low profile, have both eyes on one side and have lots of fine bones. Their flesh is firm, white and delicate, and they're often seared with a buttery pan sauce. Halibut is one of the largest and most commonly eaten flatfish; smaller halibut are highly desirable. The flounder family of flatfish includes sole, with Dover sole being widely eaten, plus turbot and fluke. Dabs and plaice are also flatfish.



Members of the Mackerel Family

Mackerel is an oily fish that is soft, pale and firm yet flaky. The oiliness and richness of its flavor vary considerably depending on the particular mackerel species as well as the season. Kingfish are a large mackerel. Tuna, which is by far the most consumed type of edible fish in the U.S., are also in the mackerel family. White and albacore tuna are widely available in canned form, and tuna steaks are also available. Yellowfin, also known as ahi, is often eaten raw in sushi or is seared and eaten rare.


Hear About the Herring Family?

Herring, a common type of edible fish, inhabit colder north Atlantic waters. They are a smaller fish at no longer than 12 inches and include many different varieties. Herring are enjoyed fresh, smoked, cured and pickled. Shad has a similar flavor to salmon, although some are put off by its many small bones. Anchovy are small members of the herring family, most familiar to U.S. eaters in their salt-cured, oil-packed canned versions that feature on pizza and in Caesar salad dressing. Sardines are native to the Mediterranean and are hard to find fresh in the U.S. but are available in canned form.


More Saltwater Fish to Eat

Salmon, one of the most popular fish to eat, is both a saltwater and freshwater fish, migrating between the two. Available farmed or wild, it's prized for its flavorful, soft pink flesh and fatty skin. Mahi mahi is also featured on many seafood restaurant menus. It's sweet and mild with firm flesh. Red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico is a common saltwater fish in the South. It's recognizable by its red skin and flaky white flesh and is sometimes prepared whole.

Monkfish, also known as anglerfish, is an unusually ugly-looking saltwater fish caught primarily for its boneless, meaty tail. Its flavor is often compared to lobster and scallops, making this a coveted edible fish. Swordfish, a prized big-game catch also sold commercially as steaks, is notable for its dense, meaty flesh. It's sturdy enough for grilling and is mild in flavor.



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