There are several dishes that are benchmarks between my life before cooking professionally and my life afterwards. Dishes that I didn’t understand and cooked badly and swore I would never go back to again. Pasta carbonara that turned into a gloppy mess of uncooked egg and droopy noodles. Free style chocolate chip cookies when I learned that wax paper was not the same as parchment paper.
Cooking fish also used to fill me with intense anxiety. Then when cooking for Skye Gyngell, she explained how to sear fish and it seemed so simple and has ever since.
This technique is the foundation for many a meal. Pair the fish with any sort of sauce, garnish, side dish and the meal feels different from the last time. Because the basic technique stays the same, there is continuity and control, both of which decrease cooking anxiety.
- Heat the oven to 350F
- Heat a frying pan until very hot. A lukewarm pan will result in soggy skin and sticking to the pan.
- Decide which side of the fish you want to sear. I keep the skin on fish as often as possible. It provides a crisp textural difference to the silky flesh and is the part of the fish most loaded with Omega 3s. If no skin, sear the most beautiful side of the fish, this is often the side without the blood line.
- Pat dry the fish, especially the side you will sear. The dryness combined with the hot pan ensures a crisp skin and is less likely to stick
- Add a glug of oil to the pan. Sprinkle the fish with salt and press the fish into the pan. I like to hold down the piece of fish with my hand to keep it from curling and ensure good contact with the hot metal. This will most likely lead to a couple of little splatter burns, but you get used to it. You can also use a spatula to achieve the same result with a bit of distance.
- Let the fish cook. Hold your nerve and don’t check it all the time, which will lead to breaking the filet apart and making a general mess.
- When the fish moves easily when nudged with a spatula the skin has been sufficiently cooked. The water in the searing side has been evaporated and there is a good crust that will lift freely from the pan.
- For a thick piece of fish, transfer to the oven and cook until desired doneness. For salmon, I cook to a medium. You’ll see the white goo coming out of the flesh around the edges but the center will still be darker pink.
- For a thin piece of fish, I don’t transfer to the oven in order to avoid over cooking.
- When the fish is cooked to your liking, add a knob of butter to the pan and with a spoon, gently baste the top of the fish. This does three things. One it adds delicious richness to a light protein. Two, the butter will grease the space between the fish and the pan giving extra protection against sticking. Three, the hot butter gently cooks the flesh that wasn’t seared ensuring even doneness.
- Lift the fish from the pan and serve seared side up with any sort of side or sauce.
Things to Know
- The seared side of the fish needs to be very dry. Excess moisture will cause the side to not steam and not caramelize properly, which also leads to sticking to the pan and a hot, disappointing mess.
- Don’t be scared! You have to cook it for awhile without fiddling to get it to really sear.
- The fish should move easily in the pan when nudged with a spatula.
- White gunk seeping from the muscle of the fish, is a sign that the protein is cooked through.
Hallmarks of Success
- A crispy, crispy crust on the side of your fish.
- A calm and confident cook knowing that the fish isn’t ready to be flipped just yet because it doesn’t move freely in the pan.
- Ohs and Ahs at the deliciousness of the fish set down on the table.
- A soggy not golden crust means your pan wasn’t hot enough to sear, that there was too much water on the searing side of the fish or that it didn’t sear for long enough.
- Burnt fish means that it cooked too long before being transferred to the oven or your pan isn’t heavy duty enough and there are hot spots that allowed for burning.