When you order fish in a restaurant, it is often presented with a crispy skin on top and perfectly cooked fish underneath. The crunchy, crackling skin is the perfect counterpoint for the soft, succulent flesh.
Making crispy-skinned fish is a real skill, but with the right tools, the right fish, my tips and a bit of confidence, it is very easy. Follow these steps and wow your guests at your next dinner party.
It starts with the right pan. Contrary to what you might think, a nonstick does not work well in this case. You cannot get a good crisp sear. A cast-iron or stainless-steel frying pan is best.
Next is buying the right fish. Grocery store fillets are often skinless, so visit a fishmonger, as their fish is usually sold with the skin on. Sea bass, sea bream, flounder, whiting, salmon trout, Arctic char and salmon are best.
The most important step is to make sure the skin is very dry. This ensures the crispness. Place your fish, skin side up and uncovered, in the refrigerator for an hour, then take it out and lay it on a piece of parchment, again skin side up. Drag the blunt edge of a chef’s knife across the length of the skin. Repeat a couple more times, wiping off the knife after each pass. When no more moisture sticks to the knife, the fish is dry. (This is an old chef’s trick.) If you have a large fillet and are going to portion it, dry the skin before dividing.
Pat the fish dry one last time with paper towels. Heat your frying pan for about 2 minutes on high heat, then add a couple tablespoons of grapeseed or other oil. Make sure the pan is completely covered with a thin film of oil. Heat the oil about 30 seconds or until very hot then lay in the fish fillet, skin side down. It will curl, so immediately press down with a spatula for about 30 seconds or until the fish lies straight. Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, or until the skin releases nicely and is browned and crisp. Turn and cook, flesh side down, for another minute or two or until the flesh is opaque.
With a large spatula, transfer the fish to a serving plate. If you want to make a quick sauce, pour out the oil, then add some butter to the pan. Cook until it turns a nut brown, add a squeeze of lemon juice and chopped hazelnuts, if desired, swirl together and pour around the fish. Some chefs make a purée of peas or a pesto and use that underneath the fish for added flavour and colour.
For thicker fish, I prefer the sear-to-oven method. Preheat the oven to 450 F. Slash the skin in the centre of the fillet to prevent curling. The cut should be about 1/8th inch (1/2 cm) deep. In an ovenproof skillet, sear the fish, skin side down, until the skin is crisp. Flip the fillet over, with skin side up then transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 2 to 5 minutes (depending on thickness) or until the flesh is lightly pink or opaque in the centre. Once cooked, make sure you eat the crispy skin, which is full of heart healthy omega-3s.
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