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
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
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.