Buttery, crispy, golden fish?
February 8, 2013 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Is there a secret to a perfect piece of fried (but non-breaded) fish?

I bought cod, as I often do, and what I want is a fish that is fried golden and buttery and COMES OUT OF THE PAN IN ONE PIECE.

Whenever I fry cod, I heat up my cast-iron pan with butter, or butter and olive oil, and then put the fish in. It usually sticks to the pan. Flipping it breaks it into pieces. I end up with fried fish hash. Not buttery, not a little crispy along the edges, just a pile of fish hash. Any ideas? (We don't use breading because we're gluten free.) I'm not a great cook so don't be afraid to talk down to me.

I've seen this question, as well as others, but those are not exactly my problems.
posted by Ollie to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: are you 1) using a skin on piece 2) getting the oil hot enough before putting the fish in the pan 3)letting it cook long enough on one side before flipping? Those are all reasons that would make it not flip in on piece easily. Also a sharp, curved fish spatula can do wonders. You might also want to try a non stick pan.
posted by JPD at 8:18 AM on February 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

Have you tried broiling instead?
posted by hmo at 8:20 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd suggest two things:

1. Use the hot pan/cold oil method of getting your pan up to temperature before adding oil, then adding in the oil immediately before putting the fish into the pan. Don't touch the fish at all until it loosens, and then when it does, flip it to give color to the other side (if you like), but only leave the other side in the pan for 1/4 to 1/3 of the time as the first side.

A fish spatula/slice is also a very good suggestion.

2. Watch the Rouxbe videos on pan-frying. (More videos are available through Rouxbe directly.)
posted by yellowcandy at 8:23 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also if your filet is thin enough you can usually cook it through by basting the top with hot fat from the pan. Alternately you could just shove the half cooked fish in the pan into a hot oven for a few minutes to finish w/o flipping.

BTW - your expectation of a golden brown crust on non-coated cod might not be realistic. Fish usually release some liquid when cooking, and that precludes an uncoated surface from cooking. The starch in a coating is much easier to get to brown. Could you use rice flour? (I know nothing about Gluten-Free eating)
posted by JPD at 8:25 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Regarding breading and being Gluten free, I am too and we bread out haddock using oatmeal flour. I just put some GF oatmeal in my magic bullet and blend it until it is a fine-ish powder. Dirt cheap and easy to do up. My fiance is NOT gluten free and generally wrinkles his nose at any of my GF substitutions, but he actually prefers the oatmeal flour breading to wheat flower because it crisps up SO NICELY in the pan and has nice flavour. He's a total convert.

Regarding it falling apart, make sure your spatula is big enough. We have a big plastic spatula for flipping fish (and pancakes), and have a smaller spatula to help the fish on to the spatula and to make the flip happen more gently. We also often cut our big haddock filets in two so that we have two smaller easier to flip pieces.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, you're going to need something to dredge the fish in. Rice flour? Whatever flour substitute you normally use. Get it, chuck some salt and pepper on it then dredge the fillets and shake the extra (flour) off. Use about a tablespoon of butter + oil to cook in. I've never had fish sticking this way.
posted by gaspode at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can make a lovely batter with a GF flour and GF beer. YUM!

I'm recently GF and it's maddening but I'm learning to adapt.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:30 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You will almost certainly have to dredge. Rice flour should work fine. And then you can't move it until the flour browns enough to let go, and then you need a very good sharp-edged spatula.

I would use nonstick as well. As long as you get it hot enough, and don't put the oil in until it is hot, you should get exactly the restaurant-quality crust you want.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:42 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rice flour should work fine
You may have better luck, but we just couldn't get rice flour to brown and crisp up nicely when we tried. It browned a little but there was no crispiness to be found. Oatmeal flour, though, is awesome.

okay, I'll stop going on about oatmeal flour now..

Also, before I went GF we'd always use pancake flour to dredge our fish in. There are some pretty good GF pancake flour mixes out there that I'd bet would be awesome as well.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:44 AM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: Here's what works for me:

-- Get the pan nice and hot before putting on the fish, heating the pan on medium-high until a drop of water beads and skitters on the surface and steams away quickly.

-- Add oil and let it heat until it shimmers. For cast iron or stainless steel I think it's important to heat the oil, so that it fills in all the microscopic holes in the surface and forms kind of a glaze.

-- Make sure to pat the fillets dry with a paper towel. You don't want the fillets to be wet when they hit the pan. Not sure why -- maybe because you want that exterior layer of flesh to start searing and crusting ASAP to prevent sticking, and a layer of water might interfere with that process.

-- Don't turn the fillets until they're ready. They should release on their own at the proper time. If your fish is overcooking before that time, maybe your pan isn't hot enough.

-- A slotted fish spatula helps quite a bit, especially with those thin, delicate fillets. It slides completely under the fillet so you minimize your chances of having it break in half when lifting.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:45 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Browned butter and a hot pan is the key. You're on the right track. Mine always turns out perfect using a non stick pan and fish seasoned with Old Bay blackening spice after drying with a paper towel. The secret is to quickly brown the first side then flip it *before* it starts to get tender, then after flipping turn the gas off and let it cook just until it starts to flake, not more. Then, if you like the flavor of the buttery Old Bay, add a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and make a little a jus.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 8:47 AM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: The pan needs to be as hot as you can get it. Put it on high heat and let it heat up for a good 5 minutes before you add the oil and fish. Then add oil and immediately add the fish. Let it go for a minute or two before checking to see if you can flip it. Don't flip until it loosens from the pan!! This is important. The fish will tell you when it's ready to flip.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:48 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seriously, the broiler.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:00 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dry as much as possible, hot pan plus oil, and a little sugar mixed in with the salt (like half as much sugar as salt) helps to get you to crispy brownness faster.

Also it's easier if you don't try to cook for the same amount of time on both sides. Only one side needs to be pretty so you can do like four minutes on one side and two on the other.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:07 AM on February 8, 2013

I'm terrible cooking any sort of animal flesh, but my husband fries our fish in coconut oil and it is DIVINE. It does not add a coconut flavor. But often, he uses the broiler instead of the frying pan and it comes out lovely.
posted by upatree at 9:15 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm assuming you're talking about pan frying here. Deep frying would be easy, just make a batter and go. Tempura, beer batter, that sort of thing. If you're deep frying and the fish is entirely covered in oil then you need to dredge. If you're just pan frying than you don't technically have to dredge but it comes out a lot better if you do.

For pan frying the 2 big mistakes are not letting the pan/oil get hot enough, and flipping before the meat is ready to flip.

Cast iron takes a while to heat up. Seriously, put the pan on the heat and then start to get other stuff ready. In the kitchen obviously because we don't want to burn anything down.

Once the pan is hot put the oil/butter in. Again, sit back and let that heat up. This one probably won't take as long since cast iron is awesome at holding onto heat.

Put the fish in. If you're really pan frying the oil will go up around 1/2 way up the fish. A little bit of oil (enough to coat the pan) is sauteing. In the middle is either saute with too much oil or frying with not enough. Neither gets good results.

Let the fish do its thing. The problem I see most people have in pans is wanting to mess with the ingredients too soon/too much. If you're constantly moving the stuff in the pan it will take longer to cook.

With meat, if it doesn't come up easily it's not ready to get flipped. This also goes for meat on the grill/flat top. The only other thing that makes it stick is if your cooking surface is really dirty. But that's another issue altogether.

Butter will generally get you better coloring that oil. A flour/corn starch mix gets a really nice light brown color instead of the dark brown that straight flour gives you. Not sure what color rice flour or oatmeal would give you, but if you want it lighter try corn starch. It doesn't change the flavor much at all.
posted by theichibun at 9:27 AM on February 8, 2013

Potato starch, cornstarch and rice flour are your breading options unless you are willing to grind your own, like oatmeal.

For ease of cooking, be generous of the lubricant and use teflon.
posted by jadepearl at 9:38 AM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: Drying the fish well is really, really key. This is how I do it when I want crispy skin (in no order):

Pat dry with at least 3 changes of paper towels

Sprinkle skin with salt (I don't find skinless fillets worth the trouble)

Using the back of a butter knife and firm scrape out moisture in the direction of the scales. You'll be surprised how much comes out. Pat dry.

Sprinkle skin with salt, put in fridge on a plate, uncovered. However, bring to room temperature before cooking.

Hot pan/ cold oil, and don't move it till it's ready to release.

I use a steel pan not cast iron, but it wasn't till I started cooking in it with goose fat (I don't do pork so the usual bacon recommendation is out for me) that it got seasoned enough to work with delicate white fleshed fish.

I second the suggestion of using coconut oil. Also the one about cooking one side (the first/ skin down side) longer.
posted by tavegyl at 9:50 AM on February 8, 2013

Generally, when protein sticks to a pan, it's because the pan isn't hot enough and/or because you've moved it too quickly.
posted by xingcat at 10:05 AM on February 8, 2013

Half potato flour, half oat flour (I like Bob's Red Mill for both) and the coconut oil.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:38 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Around here the standard delicious fish breading, regardless of whether or not one eats wheat, is Zatarain's fish fry. It is based on a flour made from corn, more finely ground than cornmeal and much more flavorful than cornstarch, and gluten-free. Available in both seasoned and unseasoned versions.
posted by Ery at 10:45 AM on February 8, 2013

Like tavegyl, I was going to suggest bringing the fish to room temp before frying. And also having the pan hot enough, and letting the first side do 3/4 of the cooking, without messing with it.
posted by MeiraV at 11:23 AM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: I always get a lovely golden crust on my fried fish. We always use a type of white fish called Basa. I know it doesn't work with sole. Basa is nice and firm. No coating at all, just a generous sprinking with ClubHouse Cajun seasoning. I think the factors are:

1. Setting the TEFLON pan to medium
2. LOTS of butter
3. Patting the fish with a paper towel to get excess water off
4. Letting it cook until it's nice and done on each side. This takes at least 6 minutes on the first side, a bit less on the second.

Who knows, it might just be the teflon. I actually can't imagine this working well in any other kind of pan, unless you use extra, extra butter (yum!).
posted by kitcat at 11:28 AM on February 8, 2013

Best answer: I use a seasoned gram (chickpea) flour to dredge and I fry the fish in ghee (clarified butter). Both are available in Asian food stores. The ghee allows the butter to reach a much higher temperature because the milk solids have been removed, so you get the buttery taste without the butter getting burned.

Use a non-stick pan (I use a Paula Deen skillet from Wal-Mart) and make sure the oil is shimmering hot before you put the fish in.

I pat the fish dry before dredging it in the seasoned flour and once it's in the pan I don't touch it for about five minutes until it's crusted. Then it should flip over, using a big spatula (which we call a fish slice in the UK), without breaking.

Once the fish is cooked, take it out of the pan, add a tablespoon of ordinary butter, let it brown then add the juice of half a lemon and a little chopped parsley, pour it over the fish - et voilà, Cod a la Meunière.
posted by essexjan at 3:55 PM on February 8, 2013

Response by poster: OK, I couldn't test all variables in one go, but I tested a bunch and the cod turned out MUCH BETTER than usual. In no particular order:
--I borrowed a teflon pan from a neighbor.
--I used an absurd amount of butter (1 stick, for 1 pound of cod)
--I brought the fish to room temp and dried it with several changes of paper towels.
--I dredged it in oat flour, the only flour we had, and salt and pepper.
--I let the pan get very hot, then the butter very hot, foamy and brown.
--I cooked it for about 6 minutes on one side, much longer than usual.
--I flipped it using my two crummy wooden spatulas, which was hairy, butter went everywhere and I burned myself, but it did go over in one piece.
--Second side cooked shorter amount of time.

Things I did not try this time but will next few times:
--a fish spatula (walking out in a storm to buy a fish spatula seemed...foolish/obsessive)
--skin on the fish
--coconut oil, different kinds of flour, no flour, Zatarain's
--hot pan/cold oil
--broiler (I don't like the broiler because it means hunching over, fish sticking to tin foil or broiler pan, sticky squeaking broiler drawer/door, burns, cursing. But will try anyway.)
--other niceties like lemon/parsley

Thanks all!
posted by Ollie at 5:23 PM on February 8, 2013

If you don't have a deep fryer, cod may not be the best choice of fish - it is naturally flaky. Batter dipped fish is best done in a deep fryer. For pan frying I get best results by dipping fish fillet in flour, then dipping it in beaten egg, then in flour again, then frying it in enough hot vegetable or sunflower oil. Try haddock or sole if you are pan frying.

The enemy of crispiness is moisture. Frozen fish usually has absorbed a lot of water - if you have to use frozen fish let the fillet sit under a weighted dinner plate for an hour or two to press out excess water.

And now: The Amazing Secret of Crispy Pan Fried Fish: add a shot of vodka to the eggs you use for dipping your fish in before the second flouring. It dilutes the egg (which is why so many people use beer or milk in the egg dip or batter) but it evaporates away almost immediately, leaving you with a nice crispy crust on a pan fried fillet. This neat little trick comes from British chef Heston Blumenthal and gets a full scientific discussion on Serious Eats, albeit in a fried chicken context.
posted by zaelic at 12:55 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Heh - one stick of butter for one filet is a little overkill. Just a nice big pat and a splodge of an oil that like high heat should get you what you need. The oil allows you to get a higher hear with out burning the solids in the butter.

Also for the flipping. It might require asbestos hands...but get one spatula underneath the fish and then support the top uncooked side with your hand and a napkin, turn the fish away from you and pull your hand away as you guide the fish down into the fat. That should help you minimize splattering.
posted by JPD at 6:45 AM on February 9, 2013

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