Why It Works
- Cooking the fillets mostly on one side allows for good browning and flavor development without overcooking the delicate fish.
- A small amount of flour mashed into the butter builds a more emulsified, creamy sauce.
There are two kinds of lazy cooking. There's the "who cares" school, in which the cook has fully given up—whatever slop hits the plate is dinner, like it or not. Then there's the lazy approach, where the cook seeks efficiency and effortless invention. The cook still cares in this latter approach, but they also know that not every meal needs to be a baroque masterpiece. I've been both types of cooks in my private life and I feel no shame in that, but I'm at my happiest when I'm the second type because I'm cooking smarter, not harder, and the results speak for themselves.
This recipe for fish piccata, featuring pan-fried fillets in a lemony butter sauce with capers and parsley, is the perfect example. It's easy. So, so easy. But it also has a few key details that set it apart from most other recipes for fish piccata. Not overcomplicated details, just subtle attention paid to good technique here and there to make this recipe a showstopper with hardly any additional effort.
When I developed my chicken piccata recipe, I opted for a more robust breadcrumb coating, which diverges from the standard flour dredge but produces an excellent texture that made the dish more interesting to me. I took a different approach for this fish version, going with that more common flour dredge and focusing on nailing two key qualities: well-browned fish fillets and a perfectly emulsified lemon-butter sauce.
The Secret to Well-Browned Fish Fillets
Piccata is a one-skillet dish, and the protein, whether chicken or fish, is almost always a thin cutlet or fillet that cooks through quickly. The lean and flaky white-fleshed fish typically used for these kinds of recipes is particularly intolerant of being overcooked, which leads to a potential problem: How do you brown such a fish fillet deeply without overcooking it?
One answer is the flour dredge, which provides a dry, starchy exterior that browns more rapidly than the fish itself. But that alone isn't enough: Even with the flour, you're still at risk of either under-browning or overcooking the fish. The real answer is a technique called unilateral cooking, in which a protein is cooked either entirely or mostly on one side. Kenji has written about it before when discussing pan-seared salmon fillets, and it's a commonly used method for cooking duck breast, too.
Here, we fry the floured fish fillets starting on their presentation side first (that's usually the side that didn't have skin on it), and leave them there until well browned. By the time they're ready to flip, they should be almost entirely cooked through, with just a touch of rawness on top. Flip them carefully—two large spatulas come in handy here to gently flop them over without breaking them—then give them just long enough to finish cooking through, which shouldn't take more than an additional minute or so at the most.
For this recipe, I reached for a large nonstick skillet. It's not a requirement, but just a small insurance policy to prevent the fillets from sticking and breaking apart, which can happen easily with lean and flaky fish fillets. The one downside of using a nonstick skillet is you won't get much of a fond in the pan (that's just the fancy French word for stuck-on brown stuff that adds flavor to pan sauces). I don't think it's a huge loss here, since the browned stuff in this case is mostly plain white flour, which isn't exactly a source of great flavor.
If you're wondering what kind of fish to use, you have many options. The main thing is to choose a fish that's similar in size and shape to a veal or chicken cutlet (I mean, you could opt for a meatier piece of fish, like bass or cod or snapper, but the idea here really is for the protein to be done quick, quick, quick). The various species of sole to flounder, catfish, tilapia, hake, scrod, haddock, and skate could all work (though I personally tend to avoid the frequently muddy-tasting bottom feeders and farmed fish like catfish and tilapia).
Making a Good Emulsion
The second key to a great fish piccata is a perfectly emulsified sauce, which I accomplish by working a very small amount of flour into a tablespoon of butter (technically a beurre manié in French, but maybe that's too much French for this Italian recipe). I whisk the flour-butter paste into the pan sauce with even more tablespoons of plain butter to form a creamy, homogenous sauce. The additional flour helps to guarantee that the sauce emulsifies and stays that way.
Some may argue that the flour dredge on the fish is meant to provide all the starch needed to emulsify the sauce, but it's really not. With all the browning that happens to that flour dredge, its thickening and emulsifying power is greatly reduced, and there's also just not that much of it to begin with. Add in my use of a nonstick pan here to make sure the fish fillets stay whole, and whatever flour that might have been left behind in the pan comes right out with the fish.
And that's it. Between the beautifully browned fish fillets and the creamy butter sauce, this fish piccata rises above the rest. I'm assuming if you're here, you're the second kind of cook I described at the outset—just lazy enough to try this recipe and see if I'm right.
- All-purpose flour, for dredging (about 1/2 cup)
- Four 6-ounce (170g) thin boneless, skinless white-fleshed fish fillets, about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick, such as flounder, scrod, haddock, or branzino
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup (60ml) vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup (80ml) dry white wine
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (1/2 ounce; 15g) drained capers in vinegar
- 4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces, plus 1 tablespoon (15g) unsalted butter mashed into a paste with 1/4 teaspoon all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (1/4 ounce; 8g) minced flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
In a wide, shallow bowl, spread flour in an even layer. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Season fish fillets all over with salt and pepper. Working with one piece of fish at a time, dredge fillets in flour, shaking off excess. Transfer to prepared baking sheet.
In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches if necessary, add fish, presentation side down, and cook until well browned on on first side, 3 to 4 minutes (it's okay if the fillets are mostly cooked through at this point). Using two spatulas, if necessary, carefully flip each fillet and continue cooking until just cooked through and flesh is opaque throughout, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Carefully transfer fish, well-browned side up, to a serving platter and keep warm.
Wipe out skillet, then return to medium-high heat, add wine, and bring to a boil. Cook until alcohol smell has mostly cooked off and wine is reduced by about half, about 2 minutes. Add capers, the 4 tablespoons plain unsalted butter, and the butter-flour mixture and cook, whisking constantly, until butter has melted.
Lower heat to medium and continue to simmer while whisking until a creamy, emulsified sauce has formed; when ready, it should coat the back of a spoon and a finger dragged through it should leave a trail. If the sauce over-reduces and breaks at any point, whisk in cold water 1 tablespoon at a time to bring it back together. Whisk in lemon juice and parsley. Season with salt, then pour sauce over fish fillets and serve right away.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This recipe is, at its heart, an "à la minute" one-pan dish, meant to be made rapidly from start-to-finish right before serving. That said, it is possible to make the sauce in advance. Simply follow the sauce instructions using a skillet or 2- or 3-quart saucepan or saucier (no need for it to be nonstick), but avoid adding the parsley. Once formed, you will need to keep the sauce warm, but not so hot that it is at risk of breaking. The easiest way to do this is to set up a hot water bath with an immersion circulator set to about 140°F/60°C (you could also use a slow cooker filled with water and set to its lowest heat, or an Instant Pot's "sous vide" function); transfer the sauce to a metal container and set it in the hot water bath, keeping it covered to prevent evaporation that could lead to breaking over time. The sauce can be held like this for an hour or two before serving; stir in the parsley before serving.