Crispy fish, sans recipeBy day, Carla Lalli Music edits food features for Bon Appetit, but at home she shuns instructions. Here’s how she feeds her friends and family while Cooking Without Recipes.
People avoid cooking fish for lots of reasons, including the irrational fear that it will stink up the house. But the main reason people don’t cook fish is because they don’t know how. There’s something to that. A fillet of fish, unlike a piece of meat, is delicate. But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable.
I used to be a cook in a fancy French restaurant, where I stood elbow-to-elbow with the fish chef, six nights a week. From watching her, I learned how to prepare fish with crisp skin and just-cooked-through flesh–and 15 years later she’s in my head every time I slide a fillet into a skillet. There’s no recipe, of course, but here are the rules:
USE A HOT PAN: Use a heavy-bottomed pan and get it very hot–let it sit over medium-high heat for several minutes before you start cooking. I usually use a black steel pan or my trusty cast iron, depending on the size of the fillets, but a quality stainless steel pan will work, too. A nonstick pan will guarantee that the skin won’t stick, but you’ll never get the skin to brown as well. Almost any fish that’s sold with the skin on suits this technique–try salmon, bass, branzino, or red snapper.
DRY THE SKIN: Fish skin sticks to skillets for two reasons–either the pan isn’t hot enough or the skin isn’t dry. Pat the skin with paper towel before seasoning it. And remember to season the flip side of the fillet as well.
COAT WITH OIL: Use a neutral oil, like canola or grapeseed, and make sure there’s an even coating on the pan. It should be just smoking when you add the fish.
PRESS ONCE FOR CRISP SKIN: Add the fish to the pan, skin side down. The proteins will immediately contract, and the fillet will contract and curve upwards. When this happens, the skin is only in contact on the outside edges. Take a flexible spatula and press on the flesh until the fillet flattens out–a matter of seconds. This ensures the skin remains touching the pan and will give you crisp results.
FLIP AT THE END: Let the fish cook. Don’t mess with it. Don’t flip it back and forth. Just let it go. When you can see a nice golden brown color on the edge of the skin, gently slide the spatula under and turn it over. The fish is most likely to flake and fall apart when it’s cooked, so be nice to it. At this point, it is about 70 percent cooked through and only needs a couple of minutes on the second side. Admire the brown skin while you wait.
That’s it. Serve the fillets over a bed of lentils–or any other cooked bean for that matter. Or with a dollop of yogurt seasoned with olive oil, salt, pepper, and maybe some grated cucumber, radish, and garlic. Perch it on a bed of greens with an assertive vinaigrette. Pair it with sautéed Swiss chard, kale, bok choy, spinach, or Napa cabbage. Serve alongside roasted potatoes, squash, or peppers. With a tomato and onion salad. With couscous or herbed rice. You get the idea. And to my fish mentor, Max Hussong, if you’re out there–thanks for showing me how it’s done.