Crispy Pan-Fried Fish


If Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results then me pan-frying fish = insanity. For years, I’ve been consistently screwing it up, cooking it in such a way that the fillet sticks to the bottom of the skillet and turns into a sad, mangled mess when I try to remove it. I’ve made minor adjustments here and there hoping for a breakthrough: more oil, less oil, high heat, low heat. Every once in a blue moon I get lucky and achieve a beautifully golden, intact fillet but not often. And curiously enough, my go-to cookbooks, those penned by some of the world’s greatest chefs, don’t shed much light on a better way to cook it either. Their instructions for pan-frying fish are always some version of heat oil in pan, add fish, cook evenly on each side.

So I figured it was me. My skills. Or my equipment. I don’t own any nonstick skillets. Is everyone using nonstick skillets? Or what? What am I doing wrong?

A few weeks ago, I was pan-frying some tilapia for lunch — and I did what I always do and got what I always get: a beat-up piece of fish with the crispy, outer crust (the best part!) glued to the bottom of the skillet. I stared at the fillet on my plate, which was now staring back at me in separate, stringy pieces. Frustrated, I rose from my chair, stomped over to my computer and Googled, “How the $#%^#$& do you cook fish so it doesn’t #$&*^#$ stick to the bottom of the#@&$^*& pan?????”


And Google gave me an answer.

The pan needs to be hot before you add the oil.

Add the oil to a hot, dry pan THEN add the fish. Voilà! No more sticking! Golden, evenly-cooked fish with a crispy exterior. Perfect every time. #@$@#$! Thank you, internets.


Crispy Pan-Fried Fish

I prefer my fish lightly seasoned and with a lot of lemon, although I’ll occasionally dust the fillets with cajun seasoning before pan-frying.

With this method, I also prefer cooking the fish skin-side up first because I’ve found the crispiest outer crust forms during the initial stage of frying (and why waste that crispy goodness on the skin-side).


Fish fillet*
White pepper
Lemon wedges

* Personal favorites of the moment: cod, flounder and red snapper


Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Set aside. Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet (I use cast-iron) on high for four minutes. (If you have an overhead oven fan/hood, you’ll want to run it, as the kitchen tends to get a little smoky.) Add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the skillet. Add the fish, skin side up — carefully, as the oil may splatter. Cook for six minutes undisturbed on high heat. With a spatula, turn the fish over and, if the pan looks dry, add a little more oil. Turn the heat down to medium-high and cook for an additional 2-4 minutes, give or take a minute depending on the thickness of your fillet. Transfer to a serving plate and squeeze a lemon over the fish. Serve with additional lemon wedges. Enjoy immediately.

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