Perfect Seared Fish

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There is nothing quite so wonderful as a piece of perfectly seared fish: Crispy crust on one side,  just-barely-done meat in the center. It is one of the great tastes of the world, and it is my go-to method for cooking most any fish. Here’s how to do it perfectly. 

pan seared grouper on a plate
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

I was primarily a seafood cook for 15 years before I ever touched a piece of wild game. Fishing is in my DNA, and I am proud to say my parents taught me well how to catch all sorts of sea creatures. I did not learn this technique from them, however. I learned how to sear a fish when I was a line cook years ago. Pan-searing is a classic restaurant method of cooking fish.

The technique works on any thick fillet or fish steak. I am using striped bass in the process shots below, but most fish will do; grouper is in the photo above.

I’ve made pan seared fish with dozens of species, from salmon and tuna to catfish, snapper, mahi mahi, lingcod and seabass. The only fish that don’t respond well to searing are those with lots of bones, like shad; very small fish, like sardines; or very thin fillets, like sole or small walleye.

Searing fish is not hard to master, but there are some tips and tricks you need to know.

(I seared fish for the TV news in Alabama recently, which shows the technique really well. Here’s that video.)

Skinless or Skin On? 

A few things first. Most fish have very tasty skin if it is cooked properly

Some, like triggerfish or sturgeon or swordfish, have skin so thick or rubbery that it’s essentially leather. Others, like mackerel, have skin so thin you can’t get a decent crisp on it. But ye olde fish, such as bass, perch, salmon, flounder, snapper or rock cod, have excellent skin that crisps nicely. Be sure to scale the fish (or have your fishmonger do it), but leave the skin on the fillet.

I wrote a whole article on which fish have tasty skin, and why, for the most part, it’s a good idea to eat more fish skin here

But I get it. Some people don’t like fish skin. You can absolutely make seared fish with skinless fish, too. Just sear the side the skin used to be on first. The grouper photo up top is skinless.

Seared salmon with cucumber sauce
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Oil for Seared Fish

I almost always use two sources of oil or fat for seared fish: A very high smoke point oil, or sometimes clarified butter, and then either regular butter or a flavorful finishing oil right at the end. 

The reason is because you sear fish at high temperatures, and regular butter will burn and turn bitter. God choices for searing oil include avocado and refined safflower oil, which have smoke points above 500°F. Other options would be canola oil, rice bran oil, refined peanut oil or refined sunflower oil. Clarified butter or beef tallow also work well. 

The finishing oil or fat is just for flavor. I almost always just use a knob of butter, but toasted sesame oil is good for a Japanese touch, or a high quality olive oil works for a Mediterranean flair. 

Seared Fish Step by Step

Here’s how I sear fish, step by step. Take your fish out 20 minutes before cooking and sprinkle a little salt on both sides. If it is a very thick piece of fish, like swordfish, let it rest at room temperature 30 minutes.

Salting a fillet of striped bass.
Photo by Andrew Nixon

When you are ready to start cooking, set a cast iron or steel pan (don’t use non-stick, because you can’t cook with these pans over high heat) over high heat until it is roaring hot.

While the pan is heating up, take a butter knife and scrape down the skin of the fish fillet to remove any excess moisture. (If there is no skin, skip this part.) Either way, pat the whole fish fillet dry with a paper towel.

Scraping moisture off the skin of a bass fillet.
Photo by Andrew Nixon

Pour the oil into the center of the hot pan. Swirl to coat the pan and let it get hot. If it starts to smoke, take the pan off the heat until it stops. Place the fish fillets skin side down. If there is no skin on the fish, lay it down on the side the skin used to be on. The moment the fillets hit the pan, jiggle it so the fish doesn’t stick. This is a very important step! 

Turn the heat down to medium-high; medium if it is a thick fillet. You want it to sound like sizzling bacon. 

Using a bacon press or a metal spatula, press down on each fillet for 30 to 60 seconds. Fish tends to arc when it’s seared like this, and you want the skin side to brown evenly.

Don’t touch the fish. Let it cook undisturbed for at least a minute, possibly as many as 7 to 10 minutes, depending on whether you have a bass fillet or a sturgeon steak. The key here is to let 2/3 of the cooking occur on the skin side. That is what crisps the skin. The thicker the fillet, the longer the cooking time, and the lower the heat.

To Turn or Not to Turn

When to turn your seared fish? Sometimes never. Normal fillets, like on walleye, small striped bass, black seabass, Pacific rockfish — basically any smallish fillet — you can cook through without turning. You cook the exposed side of the fish by constantly spooning the hot oil over it until the meat turns opaque. This trick works very, very well with delicate or smaller fillets.

On thick cuts, like a block of salmon, swordfish, tuna or a really large jack or bass, look at the side of the fish where it meets the pan and you will see the cooked portion climb up the sides; when the fish has a solid ring of browned goodness around the sides, turn.

A good test is to shake the pan — if the fillet moves, you can flip. Use a metal spatula to do this flipping. Be prepared to scrape the skin off the bottom, as if it were stuck. If you have done this properly it will not be stuck entirely, but a few spots might be anyway. This is a critical step.

It is vital that if the fish is really stuck to the pan to let it keep cooking! Be patient. It will release when the sear is perfect. Once you have the fish dislodged, turn it with the help of your free hand stabilizing the fillet on the uncooked side. Gently turn.

How long now? Again, depends on the width of the fish. But remember you did 2/3 of the cooking on the other side, so give it at least a minute for a small bass, 3 to 5 minutes for other fish. In most cases, your pan will be very hot, so you can turn off the heat and let carryover heat finish the job.

Basting a fish fillet with butter.
Photo by Andrew Nixon

Add a tablespoon of butter to the pan and swirl it so it melts quickly. Tip the pan and use a spoon to baste the fish with the butter.

When the fish is done, serve at once: Unlike terrestrial meats, seared fish (other than swordfish and sturgeon) doesn’t like to rest. Oh, and that crispy, yummy skin? It goes on top. You worked hard for it, and you don’t want to ruin that crisp by exposing it to moisture. If you are using a sauce, it goes underneath the fish. Serve with a lemon or lime wedge on the side.

Seared fish on a plate with herbs and lemon.
4.94 from 33 votes

Pan Seared Fish

This method works best with boneless pieces of fish, either whole fillets or meaty portions of larger fish, skinless or not. This method works for many of the fish recipes on this site. And if you are looking specifically for salmon and trout recipes, click here.
Course: lunch, Main Course
Cuisine: American
Servings: 4 servings
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients 

  • 4 fish fillets, about 1 1/2 pounds
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed, safflower or peanut oil, or clarified butter
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Lemon or limes for garnish

Instructions 

  • Take the fish out of the fridge and salt both sides well. Let them come to room temperature for 20 minutes.
  • Near the end of that time, heat a large steel or cast iron sauté pan over high heat. When it's hot, add the oil and swirl it around. Pat the fish dry with paper towels, and if it has skin, use a butter knife to scrape the skin dry; there is often slime on it still.
  • Have a metal spatula or a bacon press handy. Set the fish fillets, skin side (or the side where the skin used to be) down, and the instant they hit the pan, jiggle it so they don't stick. Set the bacon press down on the fillets to flatten them, or press down with the spatula. Keep the pressure on for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Baste the exposed side of the fish with the hot oil by tipping the pan a little to collect the oil. Do this until the fish turns opaque, about 30 seconds to 1 minute, if the fish is thick.
  • Drop the heat to medium-high -- you want it to sound like bacon sizzling. Let the fish cook undisturbed until it wants to release from the pan, usually about 4 to 6 minutes. Jiggle the pan to see how it's going. With fish thinner than about 1 inch thick, you will not be flipping.
  • When the fish has mostly or completely released, use a metal spatula to flip thick fillets, which get cooked another 3 to 5 minutes, or to remove thinner fillets to serve. Set them skin side up and grind some pepper over them.

Notes

Keep in mind this method is far harder to pull off with fragile fillets that are either very soft or very thin. Some examples would be sardines, small flounder, small walleye or trout. 

Nutrition

Calories: 88kcal | Carbohydrates: 0.003g | Protein: 0.2g | Fat: 10g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 5g | Monounsaturated Fat: 2g | Trans Fat: 0.1g | Cholesterol: 8mg | Sodium: 1mg | Potassium: 5mg | Sugar: 0.003g | Vitamin A: 88IU | Calcium: 1mg | Iron: 0.003mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

 

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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61 Comments

  1. Made this on the spur of the moment tonight. Used Orange Roughy fillets from my favorite grocery store. Will make again! Finished with white wine to deglaze the pan, capers, and butter. Yummo!

  2. Excellent article; thank you so much.

    How many fillets can I cook at once (assuming the pan is not “crowded”). If I am cooking for guests, can I cook four at once? Will they get hot enough, and cook and release properly??? Thank you in advance for any advice!.

  3. Thank you! This was a really great read. I’ve never taken the time to explore this, but I chose the right post! Great photos too 🙂

  4. Thanks Hank. Great video…..nice tip about the type of oil to use and the trick about using the butterknife to help reduce the moisture.

  5. Hank,

    Do I need to worry about scales or anything else on rainbow trout before searing it? I know there skin is different, similar to salmon, but not sure if scaling is required.

    Thanks,
    Luke

  6. Thanks for the tips, Hank. I cooked walleye for the first time last night, nervous because I was using my mom’s electric stove and feeding nine. I ran the knife over the skin and dried it as you suggested, and seared the fish skin side down with just a little time with it flipped. Served it with lemon juice and a dill and butter sauce. Turned out great, lots of compliments.

  7. Hi,

    will your guide work on Cod fish? I’ve tried to pan sear a Cod fish without its skin (the fish I bought are cut like steak). I wanted to make the surface of the fish solid and crips. would it be possible? any help on how to sear cod fish is welcome.

    1. Adrian: Fresh cod flakes very easily, so it’s a hard one. But you just want to sear the one side only — don’t flip it ever. Baste the side that isn’t on the pan with lots of hot oil from the pan, and you’ll get a good result. When the fish unsticks itself from the pan naturally, you’re ready.

  8. I’ve done this three times now, with yellowtail snapper most recently. It’s always been perfect. Thanks!

  9. First time pan searing fish, turned out really good. I didn’t have the suggested oil so I used coconut oil. My fish of choice catfish. Delicious!!! It stuck some so I have some perfecting to do!!! Will definitely so this again,,,, and regularly!!!!

  10. Interesting method and a 180 from the conventional. Usually the fish is seared on the flash side and finished on the skin side. I have never seen a restaurant sear the skin and blanch the flesh sides of fish but there is a first for everything. Most would pan roast a thick piece of fish and griddle a thin piece.

  11. Thank you for these tips! I used them with some thick Striper filets recently and they turned out amazing.

    I had a quick question: how do you time this for a party of 4? Two pans going at once? Or do 2 in one pan and then keep them warm (or let them finish out the cooking) in an oven? Thanks!

  12. FINALLY I found the details never found in most cookbooks nor passed down from Mama and Grandma who only deep fried…but it was incredibly GOOD fried, crispy fish. Can’t wait to try it myself. Thanks

  13. Hi Hank,
    I’ve attempted to pan-sear fish many times, and have a chance to observe the technique of some of the top chefs in New York in open kitchens. Until I saw your video and blog, I had mixed results, to say the least. Today I got a piece of wild striper at the Lobster Place in NYC, and put your technique to the test. I knew about “milking” the skin and some of the other things you demonstrated, but you showed the steps with such clarity and simplicity that it really made a difference—especially with regard to when you apply seasoning, and the use of butter at the end of the process. Even with some mistakes on my part, I have to say that the results were exquisite, easily one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever had. Skin adhered, and had the consistency your described, and added immeasurably to the taste. And the fish was done perfectly. Thanks so much for sharing it with us, and next time I’m going to to it even better!