The Easiest Crispy Pan-Seared Fish Recipe

A method for preparing crispy, evenly-cooked fillets that never stick to the pan.

A piece of pan-seared fish with a crispy crumb coating on top, sprinkled with chopped herbs.
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.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Why It Works

  • Breading the fish with a standard flour-egg-breadcrumb breading on one side ensures that it doesn't stick when you add it to the skillet.
  • The breading also insulates the surface of the fish, preventing it from drying out or turning tough as it cooks.
  • A crisp coating adds textural contrast to tender, moist, flaky fish underneath.

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.

"[When] cold proteins are put in contact with metal and heated, they form chemical bonds with the metal..."

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 now-shuttered restaurant 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

Two portion-sized pieces of white-fleshed fish fillet, arranged on a cutting board and showered with salt and pepper.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

Author pressing a seasoned fish fillet portion into a dish of flour.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

Author dips the floured side of a fish fillet portion into a bowl of beaten eggs.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

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

Two fillet portions are transferred to a plate with their floured, egg-dipped, and pank-coated side faced up.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

The fillet portions are added to shallow-fry in a cast iron skillet, breaded side down.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

Fish fillets frying in a cast iron skillet.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

A slotted fish turner lifts one of the frying fish fillets to reveal a golden brown breadcrumb crust.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

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

The fillet portions, frying in the cast iron skillet with their breadcrumb side facing up.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

Step 11: Transfer to Oven

The skillet is transferred to the oven so that the fish can cook through.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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

A digital thermometer checks the internal temperature of the fish. (Reading 143.3 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

And, just as with steak or chicken, the best way to take the temperature is with a good instant-read thermometer. 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

A plated fish fillet portion, panko crust facing up. The fish is sprinkled with minced chive, accompanied by lemon wedges, and positioned on a pool of tartar sauce.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

The fish fillet portion is cut into to reveal a tender, moist, and flaky interior.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

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.

Why It Works

Recipe Facts

4.7

(7)

Prep: 5 mins
Cook: 15 mins
Active: 30 mins
Total: 20 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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Ingredients

  • 4 thick white fish filets or steaks (such as halibut, striped bass, sea bass, or swordfish), 5 to 8 ounces each

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour

  • 1 large egg

  • 1 1/2 cups panko-style bread crumbs (see note)

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable, canola, or peanut oil

  • Lemon wedges or tartar sauce (either store-bought or homemade) for serving

Directions

  1. Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 300°F. Pat fish dry on paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper. Place flour, egg, and breadcrumbs in three separate shallow bowls or plates. Season each gently with salt and pepper. Working one piece at at time, lift fish and dip, presentation-side-down, in the flour, followed by the egg, followed by the breadcrumbs, pressing down firmly until a thick layer of breadcrumbs adheres. Place fish breaded-side-up on a clean plate and repeat with remaining fish.

    Pressing a fish fillet into a container of panko bread crumbs.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  2. Heat oil in a large non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add fish pieces, breaded-side-down and cook, swirling and rotating them around the pan until deep golden brown, about 5 minutes. Carefully flip fish and transfer to oven. Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the fish registers 140°F, about 5 minutes (a knife or a cake tester inserted into the fish should show no resistance). Serve immediately with lemon wedges or tartar sauce.

    Turning a piece of fish in a cast iron skillet with a fish spatula to show the crispy breaded side.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Special Equipment

Large cast iron skillet or nonstick skillet, instant-read thermometer, fish spatula (optional)

Notes

You can find panko-style breadcrumbs at well-stocked markets, Asian food stores, and online.

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
432 Calories
15g Fat
40g Carbs
39g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4
Amount per serving
Calories 432
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 15g 19%
Saturated Fat 3g 14%
Cholesterol 108mg 36%
Sodium 483mg 21%
Total Carbohydrate 40g 14%
Dietary Fiber 6g 22%
Total Sugars 6g
Protein 39g
Vitamin C 89mg 445%
Calcium 110mg 8%
Iron 3mg 17%
Potassium 1048mg 22%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)