How to Cook Fish Perfectly—in the Microwave

Bon Appétit

When I told Cecilia Chiang—perhaps the most important Chinese chef in American history—that I was hungry, the last thing I expected was for her to microwave fish for dinner.

After all, Cecilia was an icon. She opened The Mandarin in 1961, a Chinese banquet-style restaurant in San Francisco, the first of its kind, where she introduced a Northern brand of Chinese cuisine to America. At that time, most diners were only familiar with the much more common Southern Chinese cooking out of Chinatown. But soon enough, she became a bastion of the type of elegant, exacting Chinese cooking that chefs like James Beard, Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Jeremiah Tower came to learn from. And though she passed in 2020, her legacy lives on.

This is all to say: If one of the most well-respected chefs in American culinary history used the microwave to cook fish, so should you.

When I was visiting Cecilia at her apartment in San Francisco, she stuffed the fish with ginger and scallions, placed it on top of two chopsticks resting on a rimmed plate, and stretched a shower cap over the top, before she microwaved it on high. The result was a succulent, perfectly steamed piece of fish. It was pristine, clean, and honestly, sort of mind-boggling.

Unlike in a traditional steamer, which cooks the food from the outside in, a microwave kindles heat inside out, through vibrations of the water molecules within the ingredient. Because of this internal agitation, ingredients cooked in a microwave—including a fillet of fish—tend to cook more evenly, more quickly, and more cleanly.

Both techniques, though, highlight the inherent characteristics of the fish: its sweetness, its savoriness. Meaning, they remove the unpleasant qualities that can creep up when cooking fish: a metallic gaminess or muddy mush. It’s a win-win either way, but ever since Cecilia introduced me to the microwave method, I’ve turned to it again and again in times of expediency.

The first step of microwaving fish is perhaps the most important: Pick the right fish. In Hong Kong, we’re lucky to have our pick of a cornucopia of fresh and saltwater fishes of varying textures and flavors. Some are more gelatinous and stick to your lips. Others are waxy and flake more easily. Some are deep and brinier in flavor, others light and sweet. My favorites back home are humpback grouper, threadfin, and striped mullet.

In the absence of access to quality fishmongers, any sort of fresh, white-fleshed fish works well for this technique. It would be most traditional to steam whole fish, but fillets cook faster and fit in microwaves. Sea bass, flounder, ocean perch, and red snapper are all great choices, around a pound in weight. Try to get it thoroughly descaled, but skin-on, as the skin is where much of the collagen is, which when cooked will become lovely, slippery, and subtly sticky.

But you can’t just throw the fish in the microwave and hope for the best. The fish first needs to be dry-cured with what may seem like an excessive amount of salt and sugar. This draws out moisture from the surface, concentrating the flavor and locking in the firm texture. After the cure, rinse to remove excess salt and to wash off any funk.

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Author:Lucas Sin |

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