Table of Contents Forums Dictionary Recommended Reading Marketplace Giftshop What I Ate Michael's Blog
Latest Post on Michael's Blog: Fall Television Season 2018 Grid
Recipe File

Pan Fried Fish Fillets

Normal view
Next »
« Prev
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. oilheatpan fry
Fish filletsseason

Pan frying time
Fillet ThicknessCooking Time on each sideFat
Thick - 1 inch5 minutes1 Tbs. olive oil
Medium - 3/4 inch4 minutes1/2 Tbs. olive oil & 1/2 Tbs. butter
Thin - 1/2 inch3 minutes1 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.
Next »
« Prev
Written by Michael Chu
Published on
36 comments on Pan Fried Fish Fillets:(Post a comment)

On September 13, 2005 at 06:46 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Thanks for your detailed account. I have no problem using a "traditional pan". Maybe my fish are more suited: Red Snapper / Sole? I don't get "golden brown" though.

I recommend you should use less or more oil, and reduce the temperature; please report back if you can.

Also, the splattering can be dealt with: there are lids for that.

On September 13, 2005 at 06:47 PM, Alec (guest) said...
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 ...

On September 13, 2005 at 06:48 PM, Michael Chu said...
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. :)

On September 13, 2005 at 06:49 PM, an anonymous reader said...
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.

On September 13, 2005 at 06:49 PM, jon (guest) said...
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.

On September 13, 2005 at 06:49 PM, supergood (guest) said...
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.

On September 13, 2005 at 06:52 PM, Michael Chu said...
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.

On September 13, 2005 at 06:52 PM, Sid (guest) said...
I LOVE my splatter guard. I got mine at Linens and Things, and they send out 20% off coupons all the time. It's worth the $18 bucks to save the splatter. I use it all the time...

On September 13, 2005 at 06:52 PM, su2u (guest) said...
come on splatter screen...$6.99...priceless!

On September 13, 2005 at 06:53 PM, an anonymous reader said...
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!

On September 13, 2005 at 06:53 PM, an anonymous reader said...
P.S. I cooked the sole in an electric skillet with a non-stick finish.

On September 13, 2005 at 06:54 PM, franksplace2_repost (guest) said...
I use a cast iron frypan, vegetable oil, corn flour (a.k.a Zaterains Fish Fry) and a beer and yellow mustard wash. Also Blackened Redfish Magic spice. Works great every time!

I never use a cover because there is too much steam but keep a dish rag handy and wipe the stove regularly.


On September 13, 2005 at 06:54 PM, an anonymous reader said...
I batter the fish in flour, egg, and panko, then into a non stick pan. Use the splatter screen and all is well.


On September 13, 2005 at 06:54 PM, an anonymous reader said...
is it good to use clarified butter for pan frying or when you saute' fish?

On September 13, 2005 at 06:55 PM, Michael Chu said...
Anonymous wrote:
is it good to use clarified butter for pan frying or when you saute' fish?

Sure, clarified butter is an excellent fat to pan fry fish in.

On November 27, 2005 at 08:27 AM, ORVET (guest) said...
Frying fish in an iron skillet works best for me.
My question is, when cooking a large quantity of fish, how do you keep
it hot and crisp until you are ready to serve it all?

On November 27, 2005 at 08:01 PM, Michael Chu said...
Subject: Re: FRIED FISH
ORVET wrote:
My question is, when cooking a large quantity of fish, how do you keep it hot and crisp until you are ready to serve it all?

I suggest keeping it in the oven at the lowest setting (200°F or less) to keep it warm and crispy.

On November 27, 2005 at 08:35 PM, eltonyo said...
Subject: Re: FRIED FISH
Michael Chu wrote:
ORVET wrote:
My question is, when cooking a large quantity of fish, how do you keep it hot and crisp until you are ready to serve it all?

I suggest keeping it in the oven at the lowest setting (200F or less) to keep it warm and crispy.

... and place the fish on a rack over a cookie-sheet or foil, and put the fish rack on an oven sahelf that is above the mid-point of the oven. you want lots of air circulation around the fish, and just warm enough to keep it from cooking more.

On February 15, 2006 at 05:26 PM, an anonymous reader said...
This may be a bit cheap but it works great for me.... I use an inverted paper plate over the fish while cooking. It blocks most of the splatter while allowing most of the excess moisture to escape.

On February 20, 2006 at 12:34 PM, Dolcevita (guest) said...
Subject: Tips for crispy fish?
I love pan-fried fish, especially if done right (crispy outside, flaky inside). However, the last few times I've done it, I'd get it crispy and when I go to serve the fillets a few moments later, the crust has turned soggy. What gives? I usually use tilapia, patted dry, sprinkled with salt/pepper/garlic powder, dredge in beaten egg, then dredged in regular flour. I fry in nonstick skillet with 1/4 inch or more of canola oil. I don't move the fillets while cooking, don't put a lid on. In your blog, you don't use flour but yet still get crispy fish? Any tips? Thanks! Great site!

On March 07, 2006 at 08:53 PM, Peter_Shortstack said...
Subject: Differences in Colour With Pans
I suspect the different in colours of the fish is related to the non-stick pan being black. Now, I haven't done any testing with temperatures/temperature changes for nonstick and traditional pans, but I do know cooking times are different for the two (even for baking with non stick/traditional cookie sheets).

On October 20, 2006 at 11:35 PM, Crimazine (guest) said...
Subject: Awesome recipe
Hello, I just wanted to say this recipe is excellent! I am a 25yr old web programmer with little cooking skills and using this recipe, my peice of Salmon came out great!

Ken Fischer

On December 01, 2006 at 04:00 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: Brining fish ?
Although i love fried fish, I've found that some fish if fried using minimal seasoning tastes well .. too fishy on the insides.

I have seen plenty of chicken recipes on the site which uses brining to give some flavor to the chicken. So barring marinades, has anyone ever tried brining their fish ?

On December 06, 2006 at 11:49 PM, Brave new cook (guest) said...
Subject: A fishy start for me...
Came across this forum because I've just bought uncooked salmon for the first time in my life and I am hoping to pan fry it. I am very scared of splattering oil and was intending to wear my mittens for added protection!! I like the idea given regarding coating the fish with a thin layer of oil and then putting it onto the non-stick pan without any further oil added on the pan. I hope this elminates the splatter - am I too optimistic to say it won't splatter at all? Here's hoping I come thru OK...

On January 28, 2007 at 03:52 PM, justin case (guest) said...
Subject: Pan-fried fish: stainless vs. nonstick
I make several fish recipes that use this technique, and tend to get good results with both my stainless and nonstick skillets. But, I prefer the stainless for overall color and appearance, plus it makes for better browned bits if subsequently making a sauce. To keep the fish from sticking in the stainless pan, I get the pan and oil hot (med-high) first, add the fish, and give the pan a quick wiggle after all of the filets have been added. I'm guessing that this allows the surface of the fish to cook a little, and then permits a little extra oil to get underneath. After that, the fish can be left to do its thing until ready to flip, at which time the process gets repeated. Perhaps this no longer counts as pan-frying, but I could care less. The results are delicious.

On July 31, 2007 at 07:19 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: Splatter Guard
I got my slatter guard at a local 99 cent store for, you guessed it....99 cents. Works great!

On January 22, 2008 at 02:42 PM, sleonhardt (guest) said...
Subject: pan fried fish
I just took a cooking class and we made pan fried catfish fillets in a "traditional" skillet. Our instructor insisted that if you cooked the fillets long enough that the fish would flip right over...and they did.
The key was keeping the oil at the right temp. It dropped when you put new fish in.
I can't wait to try it again. It was with bacon grease and canola oil and we topped the finished fish with bacon bits (real), fried parsley and lemon.

On February 22, 2008 at 01:38 PM, jenn (guest) said...
Hi Michael!

I have a few questions about this recipe (and seafood cooking techniques, in general)...

- What is the reason for placing fish either skin-side down or up?
- Should the fillet only be flipped once?
- Do you determine doneness using an internal meat thermometer or just by appearance?
- How do you choose a cooking method for different types of fish?

Thanks so much for this website. I am def not an engineer but I love that your methods are so simple and straightforward! I am a complete novice in the kitchen (first apartment!) and a microwave-chef extraordinare but your recipes and techniques and informative guides have encouraged me to branch out and try new things.

On March 01, 2008 at 10:01 AM, Michael Chu said...
jenn wrote:
- What is the reason for placing fish either skin-side down or up?
- Should the fillet only be flipped once?
- Do you determine doneness using an internal meat thermometer or just by appearance?
- How do you choose a cooking method for different types of fish?

There's are no easy answers to these questions. In the case of this particular article - I think I misfiled it under Recipe File when it should be Test Recipes. It is clearly a documentation of a particular attempt at pan frying fish and not a definitive recipe. Sorry about that. I'll move it to the correct category in a few days.

The skin side up or down doesn't make a difference except for timing. Crispy skin will usually require it to be the last step when preparing pan fried fish because if the skin side was cooked first then it could lose crispiness as it absorbed moisture while the other side was cooking.

Usually fillets are flipped only once to preserve the integrity of the fish. Some recipes call for double flipping - especially when glazing is involved.

For fish, I usually go by appearance and how the meat flakes (or in the case of salmon - is about to flake but hasn't yet)

Cooking technique for specific fish - I don't know... usually I choose by whatever sounds like a good idea at the time. It doesn't hurt to experiment, so go wild!

On March 01, 2008 at 02:30 PM, Dilbert said...
I'd guess the majority of recipe directions say "skin side down"
- or perhaps more accurately, skin side toward the heat - many recipes for broiling start out with place skin side up

not many make any suggestions as to "why" - but here's some rationale I've stumbled over in passing:

- skin acts as a heat diffuser cooking the fish more evenly
- on the assumption above: fish should be 90% cooked skin side down, 10% after turning

- skin protects the flesh from drying out
which doesn't exactly agree with:
- cook skin side up because the skin on top helps keep the fish moist

- cook skin side up / skin side down so when you flip the fish you have the presentation side
(one presumes the specified "up" or "down" relates to how the cook intends to present the fish...)

- the entire issue gets more complex if you're cooking a whole fish - there's skin on both sides . . . go figger . . .

- cook skin side down to prevent curling
- slash the skin to prevent curling
- slash the skin to allow heat to penetrate

one reason that does makes sense:
- when grilling, skin side down so if it sticks the skin may tear but the flesh isn't torn up

so up or down may be a function of how the dish is to be presented - example trout - I usually do the whole fish, but sometimes can only get filets, but they are still served skin up.
I buy salmon skin on, but never serve it skin up.

my personal experience supports the "heat diffusion" theory . . .

On April 06, 2008 at 06:20 AM, Noam (guest) said...
Subject: Pan Fried Fish
This was great :)
I used a heavy stainless steal skillet (not non stick) and lowered the heat after preheating. The fish came out very moist and had a wonderful aroma.
The "mess" was mediocre because I used the second posting recomendation of rubbing oil directly on the fish rather than the pan.
I'll do it again

On November 19, 2008 at 01:31 PM, Mike Va (guest) said...
Subject: Freezing fish after frying
I fried some catfish with a batter mix, and I want toknow if I can now freeze it. What is the best way to do so if it is ok?

On December 31, 2009 at 10:55 AM, Stu (guest) said...
Subject: Pan frying fish
Once the fish is stuck to the pan adding more oil isn't going to break it loose. It's like pouring release agent around a joint after the adhesive is already cured. A bit of oil brushed on the fish with enough heat in the pan works great. I don't use any oil in the stainless pan other than a couple of drops to check the heat before putting the fish in. Never had a problem with sticking. Scallops on the other hand, are giving me some problems without a non-stick.

On May 13, 2010 at 02:45 PM, pghilard (guest) said...
Subject: fish help
Ok, been in the restaurant business for several years working at the family restaurant, all italian and french cooking.

Easiest way to make sure delicate fish doesn't stick - lightly flour the fish before placing in pan at FULL TEMPERATURE(not necessarily scorching) with enough oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan.

If you do not want to use flour at all, same procedure but make sure you lay the fish down very slowly, don't just toss it in.

Here's the science behind it - the idea is to keep the fish separate from the pan. You want the fish to almost INSTANTLY sear so that it does not become one with the pan. If the pan/oil isn't at full temperature, the fish and pan will come up to temperature together and fuse as one. The idea for turning the heat down as mentioned above is so that the pan does not continue to heat up with the fish in it - again, this would have both the fish and pan reach a higher temp together, FUSION.

The reason why lightly flour dredging works is because gluten protein is much more sensitive to heat than animal protein, therefor you get an immediate sear the second the fish touches the pan(or technically the flour).

The reason for laying the fish down slowly when you do not flour dredge is so that it has a better opportunity to sear from the hot oil before it touches the bottom of the pan.

If you follow these precautions and it still sticks a little bit just be patient, once it reaches 5-6 minutes, it will flip.

On September 17, 2010 at 03:37 PM, imakefishfresh (guest) said...
Subject: pakhtun tradition fish and mustard oil are made for eachothe
if you marinate the fish with a mixture of youghurt black pepper partially crushed red chilli peeper coriander and salt and leave to stand for 10 minutes only. than fry in mustard oil only in a non stick pan,,remmember the trick of taste in fish lies in the mustard oil try it once and i am sure you wud not like any other oil like olive corn soya sunflower dalda or butter oil..
the test of the pudding say the english lies in the eating....

On April 18, 2011 at 09:24 PM, elsa samson (guest) said...
Subject: Pan-frying technique
I honestly found reading all your comments about pan frying helpful. Other helpful tips to pan frying include: deep frying the fillets in vegetable oil if olive oil is too expensive to start with. The fire should be turned on moderate/medium heat specially after preheating the pan first then pouring the oil in a a deep fryer about 2-3 inches high. Of course we don't need to cover the pan because the retained moisture can cause the fish to be soggy and wet afterwards. Deep frying will minimize splattering the oil and cooks the fish evenly. It would be best to have a mesh wire inside the deep fryer because then this will make it easier for us to remove the fish fillets when they're done. Yes, we do not need to overcook the fish and dredging them with just a little salt and pepper will help keep the taste of the fish. Sometimes I try marinating the fish fillet with soysauce and kalamansi/lemon, pepper and some garlic but of course this will give us a different flavor although this might seem tasty but I still prefer cooking the fish simply and without too much preparations and work. :)

About CfE Contact User Agreement Privacy Policy FAQ's In the Press Write for CfE