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Help with pan-seared fish

For reasons I may never understand, unless I make fish on the grill, it's always a disaster. I've just about given up even trying to cook fish at home. Last night I was once again tempted, and I found what looked like a tasty recipe for pan-seared salmon in a shallot/wine/cream sauce.

The result...? Well, the salmon stuck to the pan (All-Clad saute pan), so, before proceeding with the sauce I removed the larger "chunks" of stuck-on fish and skin from the bottom of the pan and continued from there. First I added a tablespoon of butter, sauteed some shallots, deglazed what was left in the pan with white wine, added 1/4 cup of cream, cooked it down for a few minutes, adjusted the seasoning and served it. It tasted good, but the fish didn't look so lovely.

My first question is -- what am I doing wrong? The fish always sticks to the pan. I'm pretty sure the pan is hot enough before I put the fish in. And I don't think the solution is to use a non-stick pan if I want those "brown bits" incorporated into the sauce.

My next question is -- is there a "generic" pan saucing recipe that will work well with most pan-seared fish? The sauce I made last night was good, but a bit rich, as you might imagine.

I'm usually not so perplexed when it comes to cooking, but fish throws me for a loop every time.

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  1. Did you use any oil or butter in the pan with the fish? Also, if it was hot enough and you used a little bit of oil, then my guess is you moved it too soon. The food will "tell you" when it's ready to turn because it will release easily. There are times when my fish sticks and every time, it's because I was too impatient. Depends on how hot the pan is/cold the fish is as to how long this will take.

    6 Replies
    1. re: gourmanda

      Yes, there was butter in the pan. I wondered whether I should have used a combination of olive oil and butter to enable a higher cooking temperature.

      As for the length of time I left it before turning -- I was following a recipe that said "...4 minutes per side."

      1. re: CindyJ

        It doesn't sound like your pan is hot enough. At the temperature you want, the butter would have burned.

        1. re: chowser

          I had that thought, too. I generally trust recipes I find on Epicurious, but this one just didn't meet my expectations. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/rec...

          1. re: CindyJ

            That's interesting and all the reviews were really good, too. Plus, everyone has said that the cooking time is too long--usually the fish doesn't release when it's not cooked enough.

            1. re: chowser

              And did you notice that the recipe calls for only ONE tablespoon of butter for sauteeing the fish? At medium-high heat, that's bound to burn. It also called for skinless fillets, which means that there's no skin-side to sear nicely before it's turned.

        2. re: CindyJ

          Use grape seed oil, you can get the pan very hot. Only use butter to finish or it will burn for sure.

      2. In my opinion the trick with fish is to give it time. If it has a skin side, start with that in the pan. The pan and oil should be fairly hot when the fish goes in, but then turn down the heat to a medium low and let it sit! Don't touch it! Wait... not yet... it's still not there....Ok, now you can go ahead and flip it. Of course the time you let it sit depends on the type of fish, thickness, temperature etc., but generally people always turn it too soon. And once you turn it, the other side should not stick as much.
        I have cooked many a fish this way and am usually quite satisfied with the result.

        Oh, and of course it helps to have a non-stick pan... but with the above described technique you can manage in just about any pan.
        Good luck!

        1 Reply
        1. re: jansm

          Turning down the heat is something I hadn't considered. And, can you really sear successfully in a non-stick pan?

        2. Well, if this helps at all, my other only eats fresh Walleye or frozen Tilapia. In both cases I heat a nonstick skillet with some olive oil and plugra butter. When it is warm, I add sliced garlic, let it cook for just a minute and remove it. I add a generous sprinkle of cajun dust over the butter/oil and lay the fish in. I add a LIGHT sprinkle of the cajun on the tops of the fillets. I cook on both sides and when it flakes, I hit it with fresh lime juice and a pat of COLD butter to make a cajun sauce. He loves it.

          1. Besides the excelent advice above a Fish Spatula is a great tool.

            1. No one mentions lightly dusting fish with flour? I was taught that fish is too wet to fry properly so should always be lightly dipped in flour. Now, to my surprise, I read that many people cook fish successfully without flour, but perhaps as you have trouble, Cindy, you could try with.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Fuffy

                That's a good idea. In fact, I have in my pantry a product called "pan searing flour" that I've never used. I'm making a note of that right now in my recipe files.