For much of the country, local seafood isn’t from the sea at all — it’s from regional lakes, rivers and streams. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend fitting 8 ounces of high-EPA and -DHA fish into weekly menus. Freshwater fish can be a nutrient-rich, economical choice for many.
Varieties of trout, bass, salmon and perch all have something in common: these species can live in both fresh and salt water. Fish named “perch” include a few distant cousin species that frequent the ocean, but most perch are freshwater fish. Salmon, on the other hand, frequently live in both rivers and oceans.
Freshwater and saltwater fish differ in only a few nutrients. Freshwater fish generally are higher in calcium and also have slightly higher levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Freshwater salmon and bass contain a higher proportion of vitamin A and folate compared to their salty counterparts.
A major consideration when choosing freshwater fish is its origin. North America’s lakes, rivers and streams host myriad fish species. While the Environmental Protection Agency has released pointed mercury advisories for some saltwater fish, advisories aren’t as cut and dried for freshwater fish. For those eating fish from freshwater sources, recommendations regarding local contamination levels provide the most important information about fish safety, including recommendations about how much it’s safe to consume. The EPA also provides extensive regional maps for determining levels of contaminants such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyl and dioxin in waterways. Local advisories can be found through state departments of health or department of environmental conservation websites.
Freshwater Fish in the Kitchen
With little nutrient variability and a generally even cost at the seafood counter, the taste and texture of freshwater fish may well be the deciding factor for choosing these species over their saltier counterparts. While ocean seafood often lives up to its “fishy” descriptor, the salty, briny taste is avoidable with freshwater fish.
Thin, delicate freshwater perch tastes great when cooked over medium heat with lemon, sesame seeds and a splash of soy sauce. Like all light fish, it easily absorbs flavors yet retains its own subtle milky taste. In the U.S., perch is known by the name “walleye” when it is found in clear, cool lakes and rivers. "Sauger," another type of perch, is found in lakes and silty rivers. Sauger is the smaller of the two and will often weigh less than 2 pounds, while walleye can grow to almost 3 feet.
Heavier and more robust is the freshwater bass. Even without seasoning, bass has a richness that feels fatty and decadent. A thick glaze, sauce or crusting of bread crumbs all work well baked onto this fish. Oily salmon stands up to grilling, baking and other dry-heat cooking methods. Because of its fat concentration, salmon has the highest calories per serving of freshwater fish.
A relative of salmon, trout is another popular freshwater fish. Rainbow trout fares best in cold water and usually lives in lakes and streams. Lake trout are larger and prefer even colder water. Flaky yet substantial, this fish can be grilled with a simple black pepper rub or stand up to a richer sauce without losing its refined quality.
Mild-flavored, versatile white fish is found in lakes and streams across the country. Often found smoked or frozen, white fish also can be baked or grilled.
Freshwater smelt are small, oily fish with a mild flavor. These fish are often eaten whole (including with bones) and frequently are battered or lightly coated with flour and pan fried.
When choosing fish, use all of your senses to ensure you are getting the freshest fare. The scent should be noticeable but not overpowering. The flesh should look milky and vibrant, not dull, and it should spring back into place after it’s pressed. Forming a relationship with a fishmonger is a good way to learn more about where seafood comes from and to get tips for preparing different types of fish.
Garlic, Ginger and Coconut-Encrusted White Fish
Recipe developed by Jessica Corwin, MPH, RDN
1 pound white fish fillet (or two 8-ounce fillets)
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons whole-grain flour
2 egg whites
4 ounces walnuts, crushed
½ cup unsweetened coconut
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped (optional)
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly coat an 8 x 8-inch glass baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
- In a small bowl, combine ginger, garlic, salt and pepper; season white fish with spice mixture. Using two dinner plates or wide dishes, add flour to one and egg whites to the other. Dredge each fillet first in the flour, then in the egg mixture. Place fillet in a baking dish.* Sprinkle crushed walnuts and coconut on top of the fillet, pressing these ingredients gently onto the fillet to make them stick. Top with a sprinkle of brown sugar and a splash of fresh lemon juice. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until the fish begins to flake with a fork or reaches the internal temperature of 145°F. Top with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and serve immediately. Serves 4.
* If the fillet has thin ends, fold them under to create a more even thickness for cooking.