The Food Lab: The Easiest Foolproof Crispy Pan-Seared Fish You'll Ever Make

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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A crisp panko coating on one side of the fish not only keeps it from sticking to the pan with minimal heat, but adds textural contrast as well. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

How many of you have ruined a delicate fish filet by trying to pry it off the pan that it's fused itself to? Yeah, I thought so.

You know the real reason why I don't get as much fish in my diet as I'd like to? It's not because I don't like fish—I love it. It's not because I don't have access to good fish—I used to get fantastic Atlantic fish back in New York and I can get terrific Pacific fish now in San Francisco. It's not because of health reasons (I've never heard a doctor tell me I'm eating too much of it).

No, it's for one reason, and I'm guessing that it's the same reason many of you don't eat as much fish as you'd like: It's kind of a pain in the butt to cook. Even the simplest fish recipes tend to be trickier than, say, cooking chicken or standing in front of the fridge eating pickles and mayonnaise seasoned with a bit of shame.

Sure, there are ways around it. If you whip out the deep fryer, fried fish is surprisingly easy, provided that whole health thing doesn't bother you much. If your fish is sufficiently fatty, like, say, salmon or Chilean sea bass, this five-minute miso-glazed toaster oven fish recipe couldn't be easier.

But for tender, meaty skinless filets or steaks of white fish like halibut, cod, striped bass, or swordfish, pan-searing is the every-day way to go, and it comes with its own set of problems, namely, sticking. Fish is notorious for falling apart in the skillet. This is because when cold proteins are put in contact with metal and heated, they form chemical bonds with the metal that are extremely tough to break. With a steak or a piece of chicken, this is not such a big deal: the meat is tough enough that it'd rather stick to itself than the pan. With tender flaky fish, however, the bond between the surface of the fish and the pan is more powerful than the bonds holding the filet together. You end up leaving part of the fish behind in the skillet.

To solve this, normally, you'd want to blast the fish with heat at the start. High heat can get the fish's proteins to curl up and denature before they get a chance to bond with the metal. But you better be prepared to use a fan and not mind your apartment smelling like fish for a day or two.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a method that let you get perfectly tender, moist, and flaky fish with some nice textural contrast and absolutely no chance of sticking, all without ever turning the heat above medium?

That's precisely what this method—a technique I learned back when I was a line cook at Ken Oringer's Clio in Boston—delivers. By breading just one side of the fish in panko-style breadcrumbs, you kill two birds with one stone: It has zero risk of sticking to the pan (even when you use moderate heat), and it insulates the fish underneath, ensuring that the fish cooks gently while still developing a nice crisp crust.

(P.S. It also works wonders with crab cakes.)

Ready to see how it's done? Here we go!

Step 1: Season

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For best flavor, you want to season everything in layers, starting with the actual fish. Season generously with salt and pepper (you can use white pepper if you don't like the look of those black specks on your fish; I don't care much about looks and prefer the flavor of the black here).

Step 2: Dredge

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Carefully pick up the fish filet in one hand and dip it into all-purpose flour that you've seasoned gently with salt and pepper. You want to be dipping it with the presentation-side facing down. Generally, that's the side that used to have the skin on it, but whichever side looks nicer is the way to go.

Step 3: Dip

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Next up in our standard breading: egg. You want to make sure the egg is very well beaten and homogenous to get an even layer of coating.

Step 4: Coat

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Finally, a dip into panko-style breadcrumbs. It's essential that the fish gets a good thick layer of them, so press down firmly (but not so firmly as to destroy the fish). If even after that there are any bare spots in the coating, give them a second go: dip them back in the egg and back into the breadcrumbs. Two coats should definitely be enough.

Step 5: Rest

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This is the kind of coat that protects from heat, not cold. The panko coating will insulate the fish from the direct heat of the pan, allowing it to cook more gently and keeping it nice and tender.

Step 6: Add to Pan Gently

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Bring a fair amount of oil—enough to form a thin coat across the bottom of your skillet—to a shimmer over medium heat. No need to blast it! Just remember: hot fat can sense fear. You want to very gently lower the fish down, letting your hands get right up close to the bottom of the pan. Getting scared and dropping the fish in from too high is a surefire way to splash hot oil across your kitchen, or worse, yourself.*

*I learned the hard way why the Naked Chef does not actually cook naked.

Step 7: Cook and Rotate

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Let the fish gently bubble away in the oil, rotating the filets and swirling the pan gently so that the bread crumbs cook evenly.

Step 8: Peek

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After a few moments, gently lift a filet with a flexible fish spatula and check to see how it's coming along. This one is not quite there yet. Deep golden brown is what we're after.

Step 9: Lift

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That looks about right. Very gently lift up the fish with the spatula and your hand and carefully tip it over. And don't worry—the second side will not stick either. The bits of bread crumbs and other debris that invariably get left in the bottom of the pan will keep it from making full contact with the hot metal.

Step 10: Flip

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The filets are ready on the first side, but not quite cooked through yet. Time for the oven.

Step 11: Transfer to Oven

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Transfer the whole skillet to the oven's center rack. I use a very moderate oven (around 300°F), so as to continue cooking the fish as gently as possible. Just as with steak or chicken, overcooked fish can come out dry and tough.

Step 12: Take Temperature

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And, just as with steak or chicken, the best way to take the temperature is with a good instant-read thermometer, like the Splashproof Thermapen. Around 140°F is what you're aiming for (I was a little off, but a little is ok).

Don't have a thermometer? Don't worry: the fish has a built-in indicator. The thin protein membranes that separate each layer of flaky flesh break down right around 140°F. Push a needle or a cake tester through the fish. If you feel the tester puncturing through distinct layers of membrane, then your fish is not ready yet. Keep cooking until it passes through without any resistance—an indication that those membranes have broken down.

Step 13: Serve

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As soon as the fish is done, I pick it up with the fish spatula, lift it, and blot if on paper towels just to get rid of any excess fat on the bottom. Serve it with some lemon wedges and tartar sauce.

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Doesn't that look moist, crisp, and delicious? And to think: all of this could be yours, and you don't even have to stink up your apartment with hot fishy oil in the process.