Chefs of MeFi - Why are our fish dishes coming out dry?
January 30, 2012 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Chefs of MeFi - Why are our fish dishes coming out dry?

After a long vegetarianism, we've started eating fish.

I go to the fancy market and buy the beautiful, platonic ideal of fresh fish (usually ono, mahi, salmon, opah, or halibut).

Mrs. Sisquoc15 pan fries this fish in some good olive oil (enough to discourage sticking to the non-stick pan) and a little salt and pepper, flipping once or twice until the the center reaches 145 degrees. Temperature is checked with a reliable meat thermometer.

Other seasonings and a very light dusting of flour are sometimes used.

When compared to restaurant versions of the same dishes our fish is a bit dry.

Is this a necessary outcome of cooking to the recommended temperature?

The frying results in the outer portions of the fish getting up to 165 in order to heat the middle to 145, so I suspect the cooking technique might be the problem.
posted by sisquoc15 to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you are going to good restaurants, their fish may be "sashimi-grade" (as they say), so they don't have to get the temperature that high.
posted by goethean at 11:01 AM on January 30, 2012

In the fish-cooking kitchen where I used to work, they basically followed these instructions.

Key bits you may be missing:
1) letting the fish come up to room temp before cooking.
2) turning it once, and generallt touching it as little as possible.
3) letting 2/3 of the cooking happen before turning (checking the sides for whiteness that indicates the flesh is cooked and using time rather than a temp as your guide).
posted by gauche at 11:06 AM on January 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

Frying is very unforgiving. You could bake it in foil -- which is really going to hold that moisture in.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:07 AM on January 30, 2012

Hmmm. This is an unorthodox answer, but --maybe the problem is actually your thermometer.

I'm not kidding -- I had a similar problem, where I was cooking something to a certain temperature, the way I was supposed to, but it was coming out over-done. I also started noticing that it was hovering at a lower temperature for a long period, and even LOOKED done at that point, but it still wasn't at the proper temperature so I let it keep cooking. Finally I checked the thermometer -- and learned my thermometer itself was about four degrees off.

It's easy to check a thermometer too - just bring a pot of water to a full boil, and then take the temperature. If your thermometer says ANYTHING other than 212 degrees, then that means the problem's been your thermometer all along. (It's fine to keep using it, though -- just make a note that your thermometer is however many degrees off, so that you're waiting for the internal temperature to only get to 141 rather than 145, or however many degrees off it is.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:13 AM on January 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

I usually sear it quickly in olive oil and salt (literally 30 seconds per side on high heat), add a splash of tasty liquid to quickly cool the pan and make it moist, put a lid on it, turn the heat WAY down and let it hit 125-130. Flip it once. Move the fish to a warm plate, cover with foil (or your saute pan's lid), reduce the liquid, whisk in some butter and pour it over the fish.

145F is too hot, IMO. Unless you're using a thermapen or other high end thermometer, you really need to go on how it feels or looks when cut. The tips on most probes are neither small nor quick reacting enough. Almost guaranteed that you're cooking to more like 160F.
posted by pjaust at 11:19 AM on January 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

You should always stop cooking a good 5 degrees lower, as the food will continue to cook after it comes out of the pan (some of that 165 degree heat on the outer edges of the fish is going to continue to penetrate inwards).

In addition, you should remember that FDA-recommended internal temperatures prioritize safety over edibility.

I would recommend cooking to 135 and resting off-heat to 140 and see if that's better.
posted by bcwinters at 11:21 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

My guess? Higher heat, let the pan come up to temp (a bit of water should bead and run around the pan), take it off sooner. The inside will continue to cook once it's out of the pan unless you eat it IMMEDIATELY. Unless you're cooking inch-thick steaks, ditch the thermometer sooner rather than later. Figure out what the texture should be like when it's done by poking and flaking.

If at all possible, lose the non-stick. Clad or cast iron will give you better color on the outside without the need for cooking it as long.
posted by supercres at 11:23 AM on January 30, 2012

Agree that the thermometer is probably not useful, unless it's a fairly expensive digital instant-read model. Unlike a typical roast, it can be difficult or impossible to adequately bury a thermometer probe in the very center of a thin fillet or steak, and the heat absorbed and conducted by the thermometer itself can throw off the reading. Go by look and feel.
posted by jon1270 at 11:24 AM on January 30, 2012

just bring a pot of water to a full boil, and then take the temperature. If your thermometer says ANYTHING other than 212 degrees, then that means the problem's been your thermometer all along.

This is a great point, but keep in mind that you may have to adjust for elevation when calibrating your thermometer.
posted by gauche at 11:31 AM on January 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Frying? Nooooooo!

Lightly rub in olive oil and rub in some high quality salt (I'm currently on a smoked pink salt kick) and pepper (curently on black urfa kick) and let it come to room temp. Place on tin foil in a pyrex pan and wrap the top and sides shut but keep it loose. Toss in oven for 10 minutes at 350F. Check to see if baked to your liking (10 minutes at 350F will bake it rare) - it will come out super moist.

Personally, I love doing this with salmon but just use regular sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, mince fresh garlic, fresh dill and place on top of the fish once it's on the tin foil and in the pan, add a squirt of some fresh lemon, bake it and enter deliciousness.
posted by floweredfish at 11:46 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Microwaving fish works great! Wrap it in parchment paper after seasoning it and cook it in the microwave. Maybe some one else knows of some specific guidelines for time, etc. I just do it for a couple of minutes and check it, and estimate. Come out moist and flaky every time.
posted by mareli at 11:49 AM on January 30, 2012

Generally dry fish = overcooked.

You need to start using your eyes and fingers, not a thermometer (or at least what appears to be an inaccurate one - a perfect probe thermometer is a different story!).

Most fish flakes when properly cooked. You can actually see it relax. You should also feel the middle and it should be firm, not wobbly. It's not that different than other meat: feel your cheek=undercooked, feel your chin=about cooked, feel your forehead=overcooked. I know you don't eat meat so that may be new to you.

And my primary rule is that if I take it out too soon, I can always cook it some more. You can't cook it any less.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:52 AM on January 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I agree with bcwinters. The fish you are eating in a restaurant probably hasn't been brought up to the temp you are aiming for. Julia Child said if the fish flakes easily, it's overdone. In my experience, fish that flakes easily will be dry.

With long-cooking foods, a thermometer is a godsend but fish cooks so quickly that judging by sight is a must. You want any juices to be clear, a sign that the protein has denatured, but avoid cooking to the point where the fish easily comes apart in stringy flakes. The texture I seek is even a little bit gelatinous in the center, just turning opaque.

If you are having a hard time hitting your ideal texture, let the fish come to room temperature before you cook it and sacrifice a crusty exterior to a lovely interior by lowering the cooking temp. This will slow things down and give you a bigger window of success. And sacrifice beauty for a while - don't be afraid to put some peep holes in a fillet while you cook it. What you learn in technique will be worth a few ugly pieces of cooked fish.

Other fish tips: Pat dry before it hits the pan for decent searing on the outside. If you need to flip it, only flip it once. If the fish you prefer is firm and you can't seem to get a sear on it, try putting a very small amount of white sugar on the first side down in the pan. It's a cheater trick but, if done with a light hand, no one will ever know.

My favorite way to cook a fish fillet is to heat up something that can go in the oven, like my cast iron grille pan. Slap in a fish fillet then shove it under the broiler. Cooks from both sides, doesn't need to be flipped, and done in a flash.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:03 PM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also I think the fish you are choosing are firm fish that I would consider dry: mahi, halibut, opah. When I cook them, I try to leave them a little underdone. You may want to moister, soft fish like tilapia, black cod or sole.
posted by biscuits at 12:16 PM on January 30, 2012

I'd suggest higher heat, shorter cook time.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:26 PM on January 30, 2012

My father was a commercial fisherman and I pretty much grew up between his boat and my mom's kitchen. I think pan roasting is the easiest method for consistently cooking the types of fish you mentioned [salmon, wahoo (ono), halibut, mahi]. Here's what I would suggest trying:

First, temper your product by letting the fish come to room temperature. This usually takes anywhere from 15-45 minutes depending on the size and density of the fish.

During this time, preheat your oven to 275F.

When the fish is tempered, put a good non-stick pan (I have a well seasoned cast iron pan that I only use for fish) on the stove top over medium heat with a bit of olive oil or clarified butter. Season the fish to your preference. I'm usually just using kosher salt and fresh pepper.

When the oil or butter is hot (but not smoking), cook the fish with the "presentation side" down. Cook for just a minute or two. You really only want to give it some color and texture.

After it has some color on it and it releases from the pan, flip it and place the pan in the preheated oven.

Now cook it until the internal temp of the fish reaches 125F. I'm not going to tell you how long this takes because it is HIGHLY dependent on the density and thickness of the fish. Just take your time and keep a close eye on it. You're cooking it slowly at 275F so you'll have plenty of time to "catch it" at the temp you like. After you get accustomed to cooking fish via pan roasting, you can raise the oven temp to 350F or so for a much faster cook time. But for now, just go slow and get it right.

After the fish reaches 125F internally, remove the pan (remember, the handle of the pan is now HOT) from the oven, then move the fish to a lined plate. Let it rest for 2-4 minutes, then plate it.

I personally like salmon at 115-117F, halibut at 125F and mahi mahi at 130F. If you're unsure of your preferences, pull a small piece from the oven at a lower temp and see if you like it. If you don't, put it back in and cook it 5°F more. Repeat until you're happy with the texture and level of doneness.

Also, as others mentioned, please test your thermometer before relying on it. And if you can get your hands on Thermapen, you'll never use another thermometer. They're the best, and worth every dollar.
posted by joe vrrr at 12:32 PM on January 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

I've fried a lot of fresh and frozen halibut. What I do is I cut it into bite-sized pieces. I dip it in egg and then dredge it through panko or bread crumbs. I put it in the heated pan, which has enough oil to fry the fish, and let the pieces sit without disturbing them until they have a nice crust. Then I flip and cook the other side. It comes out moist and delicious. I've done this with catfish, as well.
posted by amodelcitizen at 12:35 PM on January 30, 2012

Biscuits is on to something. A fattier fish like black cod or salmon will give you more wiggle room.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:36 PM on January 30, 2012

Floweredfish gives great advice. I would add to this that I love baking fish with this basic method, with the addition of putting a layer of onion on the bottom of the pan, which helps give moisture while the fish is baking. Moisture = tenderness = deliciousness.
posted by ottergrrl at 12:39 PM on January 30, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions:

This is the thermometer. I'll calibrate it on boiling tonight, but it seems to get room temperature pretty well.

It sounds like, surprise, getting the core to 145 and the exterior well above that is causing the dryness and there are a number of strategies to avoid this. I'll try a few and report back.
posted by sisquoc15 at 1:04 PM on January 30, 2012

I am not a USDA representative but I do like fish. In my experience cooking fish above about 125-130 will make it dry and overcooked. In meat/fish cookery one has to make a decision about deliciousness and acceptable risk- though if you're using high-quality fish there is less to worry about.

A pro move for testing fish doneness is to insert a thin skewer into the fish for about 5 seconds and then touch the skewer to your lip [obviously, being VERY careful especially the first few times if you think it might be overcooked and thus burning-hot]. If the fish is nice and medium rare the skewer will be quite warm and significantly above body temperature but not burning-hot. Avec Eric and The River Cottage Fish Book both talk about the skewer test, too.
posted by zingiberene at 1:17 PM on January 30, 2012

You could also poach the fish, which would definitely resolve the dryness issue. White wine is traditional.
posted by judith at 1:36 PM on January 30, 2012

I never mastered pan-frying fish and getting it cooked through but not dry. Then I switched to baking it in the oven wrapped in parchment. I'm not gonna say I get it perfect every time, but this method is much, much more forgiving. In the pan I always felt like there was a 30-second window between "I don't feel safe eating this" and "cardboard school lunch fish."
posted by escabeche at 6:23 PM on January 30, 2012

Tray salt-baking the fish
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 8:57 PM on January 30, 2012

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