Fish has a reputation for being hard to cook, but it’s easier to deal with than a lot of other proteins, especially if you consider speed to be a benefit. The main concerns when cooking fish are overcooking it and, if it has skin, getting the skin to crisp, and not tearing the skin when removing fish from the pan. There are a few gimmicky ways you can take care of these — but you don’t need really need them. All you need is a sufficiently hot pan and plenty of oil.
About those crispy fish skin gimmicks
Recently, while scrolling Instagram, I saw a video where a man claimed that parchment paper was the key toa the “crispiest fish skin ever.” I did a little Googling to see if I could find the reasoning behind this claim and method, but all I found was information on how the parchment helped crisp up the skin without it sticking to the pan. That made sense, but I still wasn’t convinced it was necessary, so I bought some skin-on steelhead fillets, dry-cured them for 15 minutes, then rinsed and dried them as thoroughly as possible with paper towels. (This is important; wet fish will sputter and splatter, and excess water can cause your fish to steam rather than sear.) I then cooked three portions three different ways: In a nonstick pan after rubbing oil on the fish, in a stainless steel pan with a piece of parchment paper and a little bit of olive oil, and in a hot stainless steel pan with plenty of olive oil.
Method #1: Cooking in a nonstick pan
There’s no point in adding a lot of oil to a nonstick pan (at least in this instance), so for my first test, I rubbed both sides of the fish with a little olive oil. Seeing as my nonstick pan has a Teflon coating, I didn’t want to heat it too high (my electric burns get wildly hot), so I set the heat to medium-high, then added the fish, skin side down, and pressed gently on the top to help the skin make contact with the pan and prevent it from curling. Once the edges of the skin were well-browned and the fish was mostly opaque, I flipped and let it cook for another minute, then plated.
Method #2: Cooking in a stainless steel pan with a piece of parchment paper
Next, I tried the parchment paper method, as describe in the Instagram video above. I added a little oil to my stainless steel pan, placed a sheet of parchment on top of the oil, rubbed a little olive oil on the parchment, and fried the fish over medium-high heat in pretty much the same way I fried the first two, making sure to press down in the first half minute to keep the skin from curling and shrinking. Once the edges of the skin were well-browned and the fish was mostly opaque, I flipped and let it cook for another minute, then plated.
Method #3: Cooking in a hot stainless steel pan with plenty of oil
Finally, I used Daniel Gritzer’s technique, and added enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a stainless steel pan. As with any protein, the key to combating stick-age lies in getting the pan hot enough and leaving the food alone for a bit. Raw meat bonds with the metal in your pan, and delicate fish can tear if you try to move it before it has cooked long enough to form a crust. But if you get add enough oil, and get that oil hot enough, the outer layer of proteins will cook so fast, they won’t have time stick:
Once cooked, though, the proteins are much less inclined to bond to the metal. The key, then, is to cook those surface proteins so rapidly that they’re fully transformed before the fish touches the pan. As thin as a layer of oil in the pan is, if it’s hot enough, it’ll do just that.
Gritzer also has a cool trick for testing your oil. It should be shimmering, and just on the edge of smoking, but that can be hard to judge if you’re not used to looking for these visual clues. In addition to looking at the oil for shimmers and wisps, you can test it with a piece of fish:
I like to test the waters first…or, I guess I should say, I like to test the oils. Without letting go of the fillet, I drag the fish across the surface of the pan, feeling for whether it’s sticking or not. If the pan and oil are hot enough (and, in the case of cast iron and carbon steel, if the pan is well seasoned enough), the fish should glide across like a skater on ice.
If the fish sticks, let the oil heat a little more and try again. When it slides and glides, you’re ready. Once my oil was sufficiently hot, I added the fish to the pan, skin side down, moving away from my body so as not to splatter myself. I gently pressed the top of the fish with a spatula for about 30 seconds to keep the skin from shrinking and curling during initial contact, then reduced the heat to medium-low, and let it cook, undisturbed, until the edges of the skin were well-browned and the fish was mostly opaque. I flipped and let it cook for another minute, then plated.
All three methods resulted in crispy fish
I won’t bury the lede: As you can see from the photo above, all the fish crisped up just fine. Visually, the skin cooked with the piece of parchment was the most inconsistent. It had puckered and bubbled in places, which I suspect was due to heating inconsistencies caused by the parchment; even with the oil underneath, the paper did not make consistent contact with the pan, which means the fish skin did not make consistent contact with the pan. The fish cooked in the nonstick pan was a little darker than the one cooked in stainless, but I did have a harder time regulating the temperature of the nonstick without the visual cues provided by the oil.
Once the fish and its skin was in my mouth, however, I could not tell the difference. All of the skins were crispy and all of the fish was tender and moist. If I were to pick a favourite method, it would be the classic, parchment-less stainless steel. Nonstick worked fine, but it was harder to test the temperature, which wasn’t a problem when cooking one piece of fish but could be an issue if you have to batch cook several. I liked having the oil as an indicator, and cooking fish in pan without any safety nets or training wheels made me feel wildly proficient. I would never begrudge someone using a nonstick pan, but knowing how to cook without one will make you much more confident in the kitchen.
As far as the parchment method goes, I just don’t see the point. As long as your oil is hot enough — and you verify it with Gritzer’s test as described above — your fish is in no danger of sticking, and adding a sheet of parchment into the mix just means you have to get rid of a greasy sheet of parchment. It didn’t result in fish that was noticeably crispier than the other two methods.
So toss the paper, give your fish a quick cure, and reach for a stainless steel pan and a bottle of olive oil. As long as your fish is dry, your oil is hot, and your hand is steady, you’ll be turning out restaurant-worthy filets with crispy skin without the need for Teflon or gimmicks.