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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 filets are ready on the first side, but not quite cooked through yet. Time for the oven.
Step 11: Transfer to Oven
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
You can find panko-style breadcrumbs at well-stocked markets, Asian food stores, and online.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 15g||19%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||14%|
|Total Carbohydrate 40g||14%|
|Dietary Fiber 6g||22%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 89mg||445%|
|*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.|