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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.

              2. No, use oil and butter and then leave the fish and heat as is skin side down. Wait...wait...wait. The fish WILL release itself from the pan, then turn it over for a bit.

                This is odd...I always await YOUR sound advice.

                1. Wondra Flour works very well for dusting... when cooking fish, especially if it has skin, cook most of the time with the skin side down, I think that ratio is 70/30 or 80/20.. this makes the skin really crispy and gives different layers of "doneness" inside. As stated several times above, the fish will stick and then release after a few minutes of cooking.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: harryharry

                    You don't really need flour. I like the cleaner flavor without--little garlic, salt, pepper, lime juice!

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Sam is exactly right. The skin-side down doubles your chances, because the fish will release from its skin as well, in the event the skin sticks. Patience! And put oil or butter on the fish AND the pan.

                      1. re: Veggo

                        As I mentioned above, this particular recipe called for skinless fillets. Maybe it was doomed from the beginning.

                        1. re: CindyJ

                          Sorry, didn't notice the skinless requirement. You need just a bit more oil and butter; make sure the fillet is patted dry with paper towels and that the heat is high. You should still get a Maillard reaction that will allow the fillet to come free in just a bit. Often with fish, it is waiting a bit. Having said that and liking fish that is in no way over done, use thick fillets--the result will include a bit of a layer of more cooked, flavorful fish, and other ever more deilcious layers done to perfection.

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            "Maillard reaction" -- That's a new one in my book. I'll bet you KNEW you couldn't just slip that in without someone sitting up and taking notice. Yes, I looked it up! Ya learn something new every day. I LOVE Chowhound -- and I even love the subtle challenges I find here. :)

                  2. CindyJ: For years I just couldn't nail fish. It made me nuts, as I was a good cook and seemed to catch on to everything else. I just stopped trying, and ordered fish whenever I ate out. Then a friend gave me "Fish & Shellfish" by James Peterson. And ever since, I've been cooking fish at home, beautifully. In short order, my cooking buddies got that book and we all have sworn by it for years now.

                    While it's full of good recipes, the real value in this book (and all the others I have by Peterson, for that matter), is that he teaches you the right techniques. And what techniques are best with different types of fish. Once you nail those, you can wing your own recipes if you're so inclined. Or, as I did for quite a while, check fish recipes from other sources against Peterson for technique. If you love fish and want to cook it regularly at home, this book will be worth every penny.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Old Spice

                      As a matter of fact, I have Peterson's "Fish & Shellfish" sitting on a shelf in the kitchen. I've also got his "Vegetables" book, and I rarely use either. A quick perusal through "Fish..." shows I've tried a few recipes and left some commentary as I often do in my cookbooks. On p. 81, next to the recipe for Round Fish Fillets a la Milanaise, my notes say: "Saute ONLY in a non-stick pan..." Looks like I had a sticking problem then, too. On the other hand, the recipe for Panfried Whole Fish with Thai Ginger Sauce on p. 79 gets a "Great" from me. Looks like it's time to revisit this book, particularly with regard to "Panfrying" techniques.

                      1. re: CindyJ

                        Just a note, I read the recipe link you posted and see that it says "about 4 minutes per side" key word being 'about'. I think the 1T of butter would be plenty, but these recipes are tested in kitchens with much more powerful stovetops than the typical home cook has, so it might take 8 minutes or so to sear the first side, depending on your stove. I find the same thing when a recipe says "gently simmer to reduce to X amount; about 5 minutes" Usually takes 20 minutes (or more) at a gentle simmer for me.

                        1. re: CindyJ

                          Do hope you find Peterson's book as helpful as I have upon a revisiting. One thing I picked up on when I first got it: it's important to read the sidebars and the informative paragraphs he inserts between recipes. Good info there.

                          There's an easy-to-overlook recipe that you might want to experiment with. It's for Saute-Steamed Striped Bass on page 108. Must have had the book for a couple of years before I tried it, at a friend's urging. It is so simple, quick, and delicious that it makes 30-Minute Meals sound like a production. And definitely suitable for company. I use a bit more wine than Peterson suggests, and also cut it with a bit of chicken stock. (My friends like a little more sauce.) Chives or tarragon are my herbs of choice for this dish, but that's a personal thing. You can control the amount of butter you whisk in at the end, if you're looking to limit fat or calorie intake.

                          I've used any number of fillets, beyond those JP recommends, with good results. It's not pan-fried, but a nice easy dish to have in your recipe file, especially when you have impeccably fresh fish.

                      2. You could try seasoning (cleaning) your All-Clad pan w/ kosher salt. Cover your pan with salt and heat it slowly - don't let it brown or burn. Using a rag, scrub the salt in the pan vigorously - rub and rub. Take out the salt when the pan is clean. This will remove all the impurities from the pan, making it actually non-stick enough for omlettes.
                        I agree with all the above that a hot pan and patience is key. The oil should be just pre-smoking when you put in the fish. It does not matter if it is skin side or not.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: tbear

                          What is it that enables the salt to remove the impurities? I've never heard of this before.

                          1. re: CindyJ

                            I wish I could tell you that it works in the same way that salt works on a wine stained carpet - some sort of leaching process. I think it really works by being very abraisive, removing everything from the pan left from previous cooking. You will notice that the salt (kosher is key) will dis-color as you scrub, bringing the dirt with it. I have seen restaurant lines with multiple All-Clad pans on the stove "seasoning" before a busy brunch. I do not believe (as someone here has said) that All-Clads are known to be sticky. On the contrary, I have stopped using teflon (they smell funny when they smoke) and rely on stainlees for everything.

                            1. re: tbear

                              Should I allow the salt to cool before scrubbing, or do it while it's still hot?

                              1. re: CindyJ

                                Scrub while its hot, using a rag. Put elbow grease in it. You are not going to damage an all-clad. Let me know if it helps.

                        2. I probe around the edges with the spatula, as a fry cook once recommended (on the Johnny Carson show!). If there's a hint of sticking, I invert the spatula and just give a it a fairly forceful shove under the food to separate it from the pan. It's worked so far. Chefs often recommend heating a pan 2 to 3 minutes before adding oil to help prevent sticking.

                          1. I've learned from GQ (and elmomonster) that you should add enough oil, not just little amount. And jiggle the pan with the fish for about the first 10 seconds. I've always done it like this and it has never stuck to the pan, though it was only with salmon.

                            1. I agree with everyone.
                              I'm a big fan of
                              1) using a nonstick pan- even if you are...
                              2) ...dusting the fish with a bit of seasoned flour and...
                              3) ...using a combo of butter and an oil with a higher smoke point- you still have to...
                              4) ...let the pan get quite hot and...
                              5) ...not touch the fish until it's ready to be flipped (if the fish isn't too fragile, I jiggle the pan and wait for the fish to release itself)...
                              6) ...with a fish spatula: don't underestimate the tool!

                              As for other tidbits and pan sauce suggestions: I often pan sear skin on fillets boneside down to get a nice surface crust, then flip and cook the skin side for just a few minutes before shuttling the whole thing to the oven. I'm not actually a huge fan of most fish skins, especially salmon, so if the skin sticks- eh- I just use the thin edged fish spatula to carefully separate the flesh and leave the skins where they are in the pan.

                              Recipe suggestions- As I said, I'm a fan of seasoned flour. If you're feeling a little bolder, a simple eggwash will hold on a great crust of breadcrumbs and macadamia nuts, or pecans, or parsley and lemon zest... the great things about these crusts is they prevent the fish from actually touching the pan at all so as soon as the crust is done, it's ready to flip.
                              For fishes that need no crust (like say a swordfish steak or tuna) I re-emphasize the nonstick pan, heated over medium high heat for at least 3 minutes before adding a generous amount of oil, letting that heat until just smoking, then adding the fish (patted dry) and searing. The habit I had to break myself (and still working on my folks)- pan searing and drippy marinades just don't work- dry rubs are the way to go.

                              Pan sauces: more often than not, after pulling the pan from the oven, I add a dollup of oil (if needed, or I pour some out of the pan if its not) then toss in some minced shallots. As they begin to turn translucent, In goes the garlic, then deglaze with a white wine- obviosly, even with a crust, there isn't a lot of fond in a nonstick pan, bet every little bit has flavor! If I have any fish stock I'll add it when the wine has almost completely simmered away (au sec), then I often toss in a few rinsed capers, squirt on a lemon, remove from the heat and swirl in a knob of butter.
                              Don't forget, if you're going for a crusted fish, tarter sauce style dipping sauces are fun- go for a classic remoulade with tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chives in a dijon enhanced emulsion with cornichons and capers.

                              1. I have this problem sometimes with fish, too. here are my two cents:

                                1) stainless steel (as in an all-clad) is a surface that is known for sticking. cast iron works much better. so, if your sauce doesn't include wine or lemon or anything too acidic, use a cast iron pan if you have one.

                                2) if you have acidic ingredients and need to use all clad, use A LOT more oil than the recipe says. then leave the fish for a while before attempting to turn. pour excess oil off before making pan sauce.

                                1. saucewise, I still enjoy the classic brown butter/lemon juice/caper quick sauce, made in the same pan as the fish fried in.

                                  I disagree about skin-side-down first, though. Presentation side should always be cooked first. If there's enough fat in the pan and the heat is high, it should not stick.

                                  I use a teflon pan with fish that falls apart easily, like tilapia or sole.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: C70

                                    When the skin is left on the fish, I've always considered it to be edible and to be the "presentation side." Therefore, I'd cook the skin side first. Is this not right? That's the way it's usually served at restaurants, too.

                                      1. re: CindyJ

                                        blech. I just don't like the skin or looking at it.

                                        1. re: C70

                                          When it's cooked right, it's quite tasty. Took me awhile to appreciate it.

                                    1. Any other suggestions from Peterson? I have the cook book but am not quite sure how to dive in. Suggestions for other rather easy recipes would be appreciated.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: nance

                                        Nance: The recipe for Panfried Croaker With Porcini Dust and Chive Sauce on page 83 is quite good. Even though I'm coastal and have access to all kinds fresh fish, I've never used croaker...not sure I've ever seen it. I do this one with halibut, but Peterson suggests several options.

                                        I've made the sauce according to the recipe, using cream. Personally, seafood and dairy isn't my favorite combo, but I actually liked this one. But the sauce can also be made using some chicken stock and some whisked in butter instead of cream. BTW, once cooked, the porcini dust coating tastes quite subtle.

                                        Also, Honey & Mustard Glazed Swordfish Paves on page 85. Have made this a lot with tuna and, at the suggestion of my excellent fishmonger, mahi mahi.

                                        On page 173, you'll find a recipe for Lobster Medallions With Saffron, Tomatoes, Basil, & Thyme. I do this broth or sauce or whatever you call it with steamed mussels. (Much cheaper, plus I just love mussels.) Just delicious, and great bread sopping. (Of course, I can't resist some free-lancing. Always use garlic, which the recipe doesn't call for; rarely use thyme.)

                                        Just reading around the Panfrying section, I've come up with my own recipes for quick pan-fried fillets. Read the intro, the bits on breading techniques, and the sections on page 84 for "Adding Herb Flavoring" and "Adding Liquids to Sauteed Seafood," and the recipe for Blowfish Fillets A La Provencale on page 83. One of my favorite ways is with olives and capers and a persillade (covered in the "Adding Herbs" sidebar), in a white wine and butter pan sauce.

                                        Bouillabaisse on page 269. I usually use aioli instead of rouille, as friends I often make this for aren't wild about sweet peppers. Aioli is more authentically used with a bourride (page 272) but I love the fennel and Ricard accents of a bouillabaisse too much to be authentic.

                                        Roundfish Filets A La Milanaise on page 81.

                                        Sauteed Tuna Terikyaki, page 86.

                                        Happy fish cooking and eating.

                                        1. re: Old Spice

                                          Old Spice, thank you! I'll get started on the panfrying and the paves.

                                      2. Cindy- I'm going with a combo of the above suggestions, and it's worked beautifully for me:

                                        1. grapeseed oil. get it HOT
                                        2. salt/pepper/lightly dust with wondra flour. I like the crispy edge it provides.
                                        3. don't touch! let it release itself.

                                        1. At work we put salmon on a bed of kosher salt for one hour, then soak in water for ten minutes to remove salt. This semi-curing on one side( the pretty side ) results in a nice even browning. I like most of the tips given but avoid flour with salmon, and stress a long( two minutes or more) preheat of the pan. A briefly heated pan on high heat may be smoking hot in the center but hold less heat in total.

                                          1. a non stick pan can sear, if it has a heavy bottom and you get it very hot. Using olive oil to lubricate the surface a little before hand. Also, it helps a great deal when searing ANY food, to let the food rest out of the refrigerator for about 30 minutes so it is not so cold when it hits the pan. The closer to rom temperature it is the better. I know proper food handling rules say to keep food refrigerated till you use it, but 30 minutes really isn't a lot of time for bacteria to multiply like crazy, and besides you are about to introduce that bacteria to a very hot pan anyway, thus killing it.
                                            so, let the fish sit out at room temp for 30 minutes, blot off the moisture with paper towel, nd then put it into a very hot non stick skillet with a little olive oil. Butter will not work for searing it will just burn. Heck this technique works so well, you can almost blacken fish this way! Of course remember to turn the heat down after you sear each side.
                                            If that doesn't do the trick for you, then try a WELL seasoned cast iron skillet that you have rubbed oil into with paper towel prior to heating it. Don't go crazy with the heat or it will burn, not sear. Also-very importatnt with the cast iron, use a metal spatula and when ready to flip, make sure it is between the fish and the pan bypushing it down hard against the pan as you slide it under the fish. A little scraping action against the pan as you work the spatula under the fish should allow you to pick up the fish with all the nice searedness still stuck to the fish.

                                            1. As mentioned below, hot pan and dusting with flour helps. The fish will move easily when it is ready. If it doesn't move, don't try. One thing I did not see mentioned below is to get the pan hot first, THEN add the oil. Hot pan, cold oil, don't rush it. I do pan seared fish of all kinds frequently and this always works for me!

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: kcunning

                                                really happy that kcunning was reading this in 2010 and posted some more comments. Last weekend I had a pan seared halibut fillet that had an almond and gremolata crust (top side only). It was outstanding, but I was wondering how they did it...sear it first and then finish it in the oven? I can't think of any other way because the almond crust on top was firmly placed on the fish, I doubt that they flipped the fish fillet as all that gorgeous topping would have come off. This was finished with a browned butter and lemon sauce, with a touch of tarragon...out of this world.

                                              2. Make sure the fish is bone dry...I let it sit on a paper towel and also put a paper towel on top of it for 5 mins or so.
                                                For non-oily fish, I shake some Wondra flour on it. I think I first heard Eric Ripert talk about this and have made skate wing and redfish with it recently, and it gives this great little crust.
                                                Don't move the fish in the pan for 5 mins.
                                                When you get the fish out of the pan, drop in some butter, let it brown, squeeze a lemon, add some capers and some parsley, and pour over the fish.

                                                1. I too always had a problem with fish sticking, and for awhile only baked fish. I am not a fan of smoking oils (don't like the smell or the splatter). Last night I made perfect moist-inside tilapia (inexpensive store-brand frozen fillets). Inspired by Bourdain's steak au poivre using stovetop and oven and an oven-safe frypan (completely metal handle), preheat a 425 F oven. Prepare 3 dipping pans (I use the round take-out containers), and use flour or a seafood breader in #1, an egg whisked with dill, parsley and pepper in #2, and plain panko crumbs in #3.

                                                  Heat freshly-ground pepper in all-clad frypan on medium-high (you can smell the pepper when the pan heats the pepper's oils). As the pan is heating rinse/dab dry each fillet (filletrs can still be shiny/moist). Dip both sides of fillet in pan 1, then pan 2, and pan 3 (you can leave it in pan 3 until the frypan is ready. Continue your assembly line so your next fillet is waiting in pan 2, and any third fillet is waiting in pan 1.

                                                  When your frypan is ready, add olive oil to the pan and let it heat through for a few seconds (you don't need a lot of oil; start with 1 or 2 teaspoonsful and rotate the pan to spread the oil). Remove the fillet from the panko crumbs and put it in the frypan. Continue dipping the remaining fillets so they get all 3 coatings and add to the frypan. Watch your frypan as the oil will be absorbed and add more just a squirt/dash at a time so the pan continues to have a thin coating of oil on the bottom. There should be no splatter. After 3 minutes, lift the edge of the pan, nudge the fish with a spatula if necessary, and you will discover it isn't sticking; after 4 minutes you will notice a nice brown color on the outer buttom edge of the fillets. Turn over the fillets and fry for another 4 minutes.

                                                  Move the frypan to the preheated oven; a small fillet will reach an internal temperature of 180 degrees in about 4 minutes, but adjust the oven time based upon the thickness of your fillet and your personal preference for doneness. Be careful handling the pan's handle! Since the fish is ready to serve, I do not use the remaining bits in the pan, but it is a very easy cleanup with Barkeepers Friend.

                                                  I make this "eco friendly" by using my 425-depree oven, at the same time, for oven roasted potatoes and carrots (sliced in lengths, oiled and sprinkled with pepper, approx 30 minutes oven time, be sure to flip/stir; don't start the fish until the vegetables are cooked/golden brown on the bottom side).

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: astersmom

                                                    Correction to the amount of oil used. I probably started with 2 Tbsp of oil, and squirted more between the fillets as it was absorbed.

                                                  2. what temperature was your fish when you started cooking?

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: ROCKLES

                                                      I'd say about 65 degrees. Let me explain. Fish is so easy to freeze and to thaw. If I buy it fresh, I freeze 2-3 rinsed fillets in quart storage bags with cold water, it doesn't need to be bulging, just enough to protect the fish from freezer burn, so maybe a cup of water, and I flatten the bag and let all the air out for freezing. Sometimes though I get the individually vacuum packed frozen tilapia fillets. In either case, take the bags out of the freezer maybe 20-30 minutes before cooking, and let cool water thaw the fish (still in the bag). By the time the water has thawed the fish (so any ice melts and you can bend the fish), it should be 20-30 minutes. When you take it out of the bag you can rinse it and it should be fully thawed and just slightly cool to touch (you can rinse water over it if its still not thawed). I want to start prepping it before it reaches room temperature to avoid spoilage.