Article Digest: Last week I roasted a four pound cross rib roast (instead of a standing rib roast because I was too cheap to by prime rib just for an article). Well, I finally finished eating the roast. (After the initial feast, I sliced the roast into steaks and then reheated on a skillet for a couple minutes on each side with some onion powder and celery salt to produce a tender medium to medium-well steak dinner.) After eating steak (and grilled beef of several varieties because of the July 4th weekend), Tina decided she would like some fish.
We had some fairly thick fillets (about one inch) of catfish that I decided to pan fry (or saute, but I usually reserve this word for food that will actually be constantly moved on the pan). I always use a large non-stick skillet whenever I want to pan fry fish, but I had four fillets of catfish. I decided to do an experiment and cook all four at the same time - two on my non-stick skillet and two on my traditional saute pan.
My main concern was that the fish would stick to the stainless steel bottom of the traditional pan. After doing some research, it seemed that the Editors of Cook's Illustrated (in The Best Recipe) believed that heating a traditional pan enough prior to cooking would allow the fish to not stick to the stainless steel. I thought it was worth a try.
I heated both pans at medium-high heat. While the pans were heating, I seasoned the four fillets simply with salt and pepper. I poured about a tablespoon of oil in both pans and watched the oil until it shimmered. Then I placed two fillets in the non-stick pan and two fillets in the traditional pan. I started with the skin side up.
Since the fillets were about an inch in thickness, I set my timer for 5 minutes. I let the fish sit there and cook, splattering oil everywhere for the duration before attempting to dislodge them. The non-stick was pretty straightforward. I picked up the pan byt he handle and gave it a firm jerk. The fish fillets slide about an inch on the pan. Then I flipped them over with a spatula and started another timer for five minutes. I then moved over to the traditional pan and gave it the same jerk. No movement. I prodded a little with my spatula and it seemed like the fish was pretty much sealed to the pan. I dribbled a little more oil in and let it cook for an additional thirty seconds. Then I tried the jerk again. Nothing. Not wanting to over cook the fish, I went in with my spatula and carefully wedged teh edge of the spatula under the fish. Working my way around the fillet, I managed to release it and flip it over. I did the same with the second. What surprised me was that the color of the fish on the traditional pan was a rich golden brown while the non-stick pan gave me a darker brown crust. It was kind of a pain to scrape the fish off the traditional pan without destroying the fillet though. I started a second timer for the traditional pan - also at 5 minutes.
Once the five minutes were up for each of the pans, I removed them promptly onto a serving plate. In both cases, the fish were perfectly cooked - crispy exterior with almost flaking (but not quite flaky) interior. Also, the color from the traditional pan was a little better than the non-stick (although I couldn't discern a difference while tasting). However, the non-stick pan provides that extra insurance that a flip will be quick, easy, and efficient. In addition, the extra oil used in the traditional pan made for a bigger mess to clean up. When I usually use a non-stick pan, I will actually brush the oil onto the fish fillet and then pan fry without additional oil. This creates very little sizzle or splatter and makes for quick kitchen cleanup.
Pan Fried Fish Fillets
1 Tbs. oil
Pan frying time
<th>Fillet Thickness</th><th>Cooking Time on each side</th><th>Fat</th>
Thick - 1 inch
1 Tbs. olive oil
Medium - 3/4 inch
1/2 Tbs. olive oil & 1/2 Tbs. butter
Thin - 1/2 inch
1 Tbs. butter
Copyright Michael Chu 2004
The olive oil should have a high smoke point - use either high quality extra virgin olive oil for more flavor or light olive oil.
Update: Some people have mentioned that you should never sear meat with extra virgin olive oil because of the low smoke point. This is generally true, but high quality extra virgin olive oil typically has a lower acidity than regular extra virgin olive oil. As one example, Bertolli brand extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 406°F. I would not use a supermarket brand extra virgin olive oil for any type of cooking because it would be too easy to exceed the oil's smoke point.
If you put a lid on the pan you will probably affect the fish because 1) Moisture is retained in the pan during cooking and 2) It keeps the heat in so the fish either cooks faster or overcooks.
I have seen for sale a spatter guard. Basically a fine wire mesh in a circular hoop that is designed to release more of the moisture and heat but keep the fat or oil in. It does help keep the spatter in the pan, but I have not experimented with the affect on cooking.
The spatter issue is one the reasons I prefer to cook outside on the BBQ :-). Although that requires a good climate ...
Joined: 10 May 2005 Posts: 1603 Location: Austin, TX (USA)
Posted: Tue Sep 13, 2005 10:48 pm Post subject:
My splatter guard is smaller than the traditional pan that I use for cooking fish. I don't want to pay close to $20 for a guard from a specialty store, and the restaurant supply store is open only when I'm at work, so I have yet to pick a large one up. I will probably go get one the next time I have a day off.
As to testing different amounts of oil, I will do that - but you'll have to wait until the next time my wife is in the mood for pan fried fish.
In the restaurant I used to work in, we would pan-fry (this is the correct terminology there...) catfish fillets. The pan we used was a cast-iron that sat at the back of the oven, and generally had much more than a tbs of oil...perhaps 1/2 in. deep? (Hence frying...)
This tended to ensure the fish did not stick. IIRC, we sometimes breaded the whole filet in a very light "blackened seasoning" (a mix of paprika, black & white pepper, kosher or sea salt, and several others. Various recipes for blackened seasoning are out there, and it's up to you. But this, I believe, may have also helped with preventing the fish from sticking. And with a fish that is not so delicate (like catfish) it adds fantastic flavor. Something like salmon, however, I wouldn't try like this.
I've done a bit of pan-frying on cast iron pans, which usually don't cause much sticking at all. Just make sure the pan is well seasoned. It also helps to add a little extra olive oil, and depending on the fish, some sort of juice (usually lemon).
I think it might be best to start skin-side down, possibly because it has a higher fat content.
There's good salmon recipe I use, if there's a place for me to post it.
I'd recommend starting skin-side down if the skin was left on the fillet, but in all honesty im not sure its a big deal if there's no skin. Rule of thumb is presentation side always goes down first.
Also, in my experience stainless steel pans are terrible to cook fish on - perhaps there's a reaction that happens, im not sure, but I would go with a well seasoned plain old steel pan myself. I find they rust less than cast-iron.
Oh, and you're right about not using the word saute too, when I went to school we were taught that it meant to toss over heat in butter.
Joined: 10 May 2005 Posts: 1603 Location: Austin, TX (USA)
Posted: Tue Sep 13, 2005 10:52 pm Post subject:
Yeah, when researching this topic, I found many recipes calling it "sauteed fish fillets" because pan fried sounds like too much oil and the amount of oil used is closer to a saute. However, no movement = no saute in my book. I don't associate any particular fat to saute, but I use either butter or olive oil.
Interesting reading. Before I saw this site, I prepared fish tonight in the way my Mom used to do it:
Filet of sole, breaded with corn meal and pan-fried in a small amount of Crisco, with Mrs. Dash, salt and pepper. It was wonderful!