Get your sear on

How to cook restaurant-perfect fish

October 27, 2009

You know what I love? Perfectly cooked fish with a crisp crust, the kind you get in restaurants and rarely anywhere else. Today I’m going to teach you how to do it. Not to be smug, but you’re better off learning it from me than from Eric Ripert.

It’s not that I cook fish better than he does. If a cast-iron pan fell on Eric Ripert’s head and knocked him unconscious, he could cook better fish than me on the way to the hospital. I’m not a better teacher, either. But I just learned to do it, so I haven’t quite internalized the method to the point where I forget the specifics.

The best recipe in the world isn’t going to teach you to cook fish right on the first try. Think about what you’d do if you wanted to learn how to poach an egg. You’d get a dozen eggs and go to town. Want to learn to get a great crust on a fish fillet without over- or undercooking it? Same principle.

No, no, you don’t have to blow your week’s dinner budget on a dozen fillets and throw away the errors. Buy a couple of fillets and cut them into pieces. Cut down the center line and then across. You can easily cut a pair of tilapia or catfish fillets into 12 pieces. A few pieces in, you’re going to get the hang of it, and you can serve “medallions” of perfectly seared fish for dinner.

salmon with bok choy and shiitake mushrooms
Salmon with Greens and Shiitake Mushrooms

Choose the right fillet

You’re looking for a thickness of 1/3 to 1 inch. Too thin, and it’ll be difficult to get a good sear on the fish before it overcooks; think poaching or whole-roasting for the little guys. Fish that sear well include salmon, halibut, rockfish, mackerel, tilapia, sablefish, tuna, and catfish.

When searing fish, freshness is paramount, because if anything is funky about your fish, searing will amplify the funk (I know, in the music world this is a good thing!) and encourage it to hang around your house for several days.

How do you choose fresh fish? The usual advice involves looking the fish in the eye. But who buys whole fish anymore? Better to look a trustworthy fishmonger in the eye and buy whatever she says is fresh.

Searing thin fillets

Here’s what you do with fillets that are less than 2/3-inch thick.

  1. Season the fish liberally on both sides with salt and pepper and let it sit at room temperature while you heat the pan.
  2. Select a skillet with a thick bottom and a stainless-steel cooking surface — not nonstick. The bottom of the skillet shouldn’t be much larger than the burner.
  3. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and add a tablespoon or two of oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat until the oil begins to smoke.
  4. Add two or three pieces of fish to the pan and let it cook until well seared. This typically takes 2 to 3 minutes. If you try to peek at the bottom of the fillet and it’s stuck to the pan, it’s not seared yet. Flip the fish and continue cooking until the fish is done.
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How do you know when it’s done? Practice. Poke the fish with your finger as it cooks. Undercooked fish is mushy. You’ll feel the texture evolve. You want to take it out just before it becomes springy. I can’t tell you how long this will take, but after cooking two or three batches, you will know.

You don’t have to practice at dinnertime, either. For lunch today, I bought a catfish fillet, seared it, and served it on an English muffin with shredded napa cabbage, a squeeze of lime, and hot sauce. Cheap, sustainable fish, plus stuff I found around the house, equals a fabulous lunch.

Searing thicker fillets or steaks

Here’s what you do with fillets that are more than 2/3-inch thick.

Follow the instructions for searing thin fillets, but before you begin, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

After you flip the fish, slide the whole pan into the oven and check for doneness every minute or so. (In restaurant parlance, you are now pan-roasting. Congratulations.) Don’t be like me and touch the hot handle of the pan after you take it out of the oven.

Cooking crispy fish like this makes you a culinary rock star. After dinner, you’ll be invited to hang out with your local chefs, who will be eating what chefs always eat after hours: the opposite of crispy fish, otherwise known as sushi.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 15 comments on this item
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1. by rose on Oct 27, 2009 at 12:04 PM PDT

Great article! Very good tips on fish searing. Thank you :)

2. by anonymous on Oct 28, 2009 at 9:41 AM PDT

I find that the best way to sear fish/meat is to oil the surface of the meat, then put that side down. Too much oil and that smoking pan will set off your fire alarm.

3. by molly on Nov 2, 2009 at 10:35 AM PST

Or sear a hunk of salmon coated on one side with seeds -- fennel, coriander, maybe some cumin or brown mustard -- plus salt and a pinch of brown sugar. (I think Mark Bittman taught me that one years ago.) Extra crunch, extra flavor, and a little extra buffer against sticking. Now if I could just get some decent salmon in Ohio...

4. by Vince on Nov 7, 2009 at 10:55 AM PST

Regarding searing and roasting thicker pieces of fish...I used to also have the oven cranked up around 400, but have found results are much better when the oven is relatively cool (250-300). It takes longer, but the outside layer of the fish doesn’t get dried out, the crust hardens more, and you have a much larger margin of error. I also prefer to season after searing, but that’s just a taste thing.

5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Nov 7, 2009 at 11:22 AM PST

Vince, I appreciate that, and I’ll definitely give it a try. thanks.

6. by anonymous on Jan 27, 2010 at 6:39 AM PST

Good tip is to pat the skin dry with paper towel and season right before putting in pan. Any moisture increases the chances of the fish sticking to the pan. Another good tip is to not flip the fish. Keep skin side down through the whole process and then serve crispy skin side up when plating.

7. by anonymous on Jan 27, 2010 at 6:39 AM PST

Good tip is to pat the skin dry with paper towel and season right before putting in pan. Any moisture increases the chances of the fish sticking to the pan. Another good tip is to not flip the fish. Keep skin side down through the whole process and then serve crispy skin side up when plating.

8. by Carrie Oliver on Jun 3, 2010 at 8:26 AM PDT

Matthew, this is helpful, for some reason I’m terrible at cooking fish. What kind of oil do you think works best? ps I like Molly’s suggestions for a season crust!

9. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 3, 2010 at 9:25 AM PDT

I love the herb or spice crust, too, Carrie. As for oil, any high-heat-compatible oil will work well...but let me put a vote in for lard. Fish and lard have an amazing and surprising affinity.

10. by anonymous on Apr 12, 2012 at 4:30 PM PDT

This is how I cook salmon and it comes out pretty good

11. by Lisa on Nov 1, 2012 at 4:42 AM PDT

Hello Matthew, How do you fry or grill restaurant style shrimp and fish? When I order grilled shrimp or fish, it uually comes lightly browned and it tastes so good. I have tried to re-create this at home and just can’t do it. I have tried adding sugar to the oil, using vanilla, tried brown butter, and a salt brine etc., and nothhing comes close.

12. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Nov 1, 2012 at 9:57 AM PDT

Lisa, I think the answer is just very high heat. I’m terribly inexperienced at grilling, so my advice there is probably no help, but for a restaurant-style sear on fish, you really need to crank the stove up all the way and let the pan preheat for several minutes. When you put oil in the pan, it will shimmer and start to smoke almost immediately. It’s very hard to burn fish, especially the flesh side, so turn on the fan, mute the smoke alarm, and go for it.

13. by Geri on Jan 30, 2013 at 11:10 AM PST

Two tablespoons of oil is too much. Tasted too oily and not much flavor. I used salmon steaks. Maybe works better for filets. :(

14. by anonymous on Oct 30, 2013 at 8:21 PM PDT

Perfect! 2 Tablespoons of oil (I’m sure that depends on the size of the pan you choose), salt and pepper, 3 minutes each side, into the oven at 450 for 3 minutes- and it’s better than the restaurant! Now..... can just tell me how to get the smoky haze out of my apartment! LOL

15. by Angela Stevens on Dec 5, 2013 at 10:42 AM PST

Wow! That was so super easy. I got it on the first try. I have a hard time cooking fish that I like at home. Now that I know how to do this I’m going to cook it all the time! And it doesn’t take long to do either!

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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