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Know Your Grouper
gourmet articlesarchiveknow your grouper

The American public is taking notice of one of Mother Nature’s finest treasures, the Grouper. These South Atlantic and Gulf species are migrating their way throughout the United States to some of the most sought after white tablecloth restaurants with great success and a high consumer perception of value.

Groupers belong to one of the largest and most expansive families of fish, the sea bass, Serranidae. There are many Grouper species harvested by fishermen at different price points. An educated fish buy creates a happy customer and satisfied chef. When purchasing Grouper, one should note the major differences in skin tone, texture, flake size, moisture content and flavor depending on size and location of harvest. As in life, the most inexpensive is not always the highest quality or value.

The most cherished family member, “the bread winner”, is the Black Grouper, Mycteroperca bonaci. Close and equally treasured cousins include the Gag, Mycteroperca microlepis, Scamp, Mycteroperca Phenax and Warsaw, Epinephelus nigritus. Southern chefs, because of their familiarity with these species and proximity to the source, feature these Grouper when “in season”. The flesh is firm and sweet with a limited bloodline. It is the most versatile in its class due to a high moisture and oil content, and denseness of flake. The flavor of these four species is very distinctive when compared to other Grouper and finishes with a nice lobster and shrimp flavor due to the Grouper’s diet of shellfish. Grouper is also a very forgiving fish to prepare.

Other commercially caught Groupers that are harvested in volume are Red Grouper, Epinephelus morio, Nassau, Epinephelus striatus, Snowy, Epinephelus niveatus, Yellowedge, Epinephelus flavolimbatus and Speckled Hind, Epinephelus drummondhayi. These species are the most frequently seen in the marketplace, because of the limited commercial supplies of the Black Grouper and its kissing cousins. Groupers in general, have a lower fillet to whole fish ratio, 32-36 % yield for Reds and 38-42 % yield for Blacks. When buying whole fish make sure you calculate the lower yield, it may surprise you. Another surprise may wiggle your way. Grouper, particularly Reds, Nassau, Yellowedge, Snowy and other varieties landed in the Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, or the Caribbean area, are prone to parasites in the summer months. They pose no health hazard to humans when properly cooked to external temperatures exceeding 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

One important health issue is ciguatera. Though very rare, ciguatera can be found in Reds, Nassaus, Snowies, Yellowedges and Speckled Hinds, which are mostly harvested around coral reefs and shipwrecks at a depth of 80 to 150 feet of water. Competent commercial fishermen are always on the lookout for problem fish. The native watermen can detect ciguatera Grouper by their movement in the water. They call them “Dumb Groupers” because they swim sideways and act like they have had too many margaritas. You have to trust your supplier to buy from reliable sources, especially when purchasing these specific species.

Purchasing Grouper can be challenging because of the large number of species in the sea bass family. Always purchase this product with the skin on. This will help you identify the species and learn the finer details of Grouper varieties in the marketplace. Be very careful when purchasing pre-cut Grouper fillets from suppliers that import this product from Mexico or South America. The Grouper will be hard to identify and you may be receiving a product in the Drum or Corvina class, which in the end gives the true Grouper a bad rap.

Grouper is harvested year round. Peak Eastern seaboard and Gulf production occurs during our summer and fall months. Prices will fall, and quality and consistency will rise. During our winter and spring, most of the production is landed off the South American Atlantic coast, with spotty landings and quality being moderate. The Grouper biomass has been highly regulated for fifteen years. The Eastern seaboard fishing season has been shortened and catch totals are tallied. Recent regulatory activity in the Gulf has closed all commercial Grouper fishing during the key February 15 to March 15 spawning period. Focus on long-line fishing of Grouper is also under regulatory scrutiny due to the high level of “juvenile” by-catch. Understanding the biomass and harvest techniques is important for a quality fish program. Grouper are generally harvested by hook and line, vertical-line or so-called “bandit-rigs”, and long-line techniques. Another novel harvest method involves divers hand spearing Grouper through the gill plate. We call this method “Day Boat Head Shots” due to their sashimi quality.

Buying high quality Grouper or any other fish involves a little bit of education and a whole lot of trust. Good luck.

Michael J. LaVecchia is Chief Fish Guy and Founder of He is a graduate of Johnson and Wales University-Culinary Arts and a twenty-year veteran of the seafood industry. Michael can be reached at [email protected] or toll-free 877-710-3467.

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