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