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pan-fried fish failure

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david kaplan Jul 22, 2007 01:52 PM

At the market this morning, sand dabs (a delicate white-fleshed fish, for those of you far from the Pacific) looked good, so I decided to make them -- my first time. I pan-fried them in a good amount of butter in a stainless pan. The skin stuck, tore off lots of the flesh when I turned them, and generally made a bit mess.

Is the right lesson that it is essential to use non-stick cookware when pan-frying delicate fish? Or could I have had the wrong amount of fat in the pan or the wrong temperature? Thanks.

  1. n
    niki rothman Jul 23, 2007 05:24 PM

    Hi David,

    I'll give you a tip that works for me when i choose to use my stainless pan for frying. I do sometimes because I don't like to use my nonstick at top heat - it ruins it in the long run and releases harmful toxins.

    To cut to the chase this trick works, I believe, because when something very how starts to cool, even a little bit it releases moisture. OK - so first fry very hot - use oil not butter for that. Butter burns. For a thin fish like a sand dab just a few minutes. Then, turn down to medium. After a couple of minutes only, attempt to turn the item with a large thin metal spatula. Could have been you used a thick or wood spat? (that would also have made turning more iffy). My theory is the lowering the heat once the meat or fish or whatever is seared at top heat releases steam which loosens it and allows easy turning. THEN once it's flipped, turn up all the way immediately. If you don't the fish will lose water and boil in its own juice - the ultimate horror.

    1. s
      Sherri Jul 23, 2007 04:51 PM

      I've read all the good advice so far and have only one thing to add: make certain that the fish is dry before putting it into the pan. Damp fish will stick. Promise.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Sherri
        c
        chrisinroch Jul 23, 2007 06:47 PM

        that is a very good tip. same with scallops, you want them as dry as possible

      2. e
        ebethsdad Jul 23, 2007 11:24 AM

        Stainless steel is a bit of a different animal than cast iron, anodized aluminium, or non-stick. I get great result by warming the pan on a moderately low heat until hot, adding the fat (agree with others that clarifed butter or butter and oil is the way to go), and then adding the fish. Also agree that dedging the fish is seasoned flour helps and adds a nice crispiness to the skin. I love sand dabs.

        1. Will Owen Jul 22, 2007 03:17 PM

          I do sand dabs and similar little flatfish like this: Season the fish and dredge in flour, shake off excess. Heat iron or CARBON steel pan to very hot, THEN add oil and/or butter. If butter, wait for sizzling to stop, then cook fish, just a couple of minutes per side. Deglazing pan with a bit of white wine makes a nice thing to pour over.

          Even with stainless steel, you'll get better results if you heat the pan before adding any fat. Teflon kind of muddies the issue for me; I usually heat it first, too, but I'm a little leery about that stuff getting too hot and giving us all tongue cancer or something.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Will Owen
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            chrisinroch Jul 22, 2007 03:31 PM

            I use inexpensive cast aluminum from a restaurant supply place and have good luck. There are a few tips that I would pass along....
            1) make sure the pan is fairly hot to start. I use a mixture of olive oil and butter.
            2) the more flour or other coating that you add, the trickier it gets. You'll need more heat to creat the crust with a thicker batter and the more you will lose to the pan.
            3) Once it hits the pan, you can back off the heat a bit. Dont futz with it. Let the crust form.
            4) Give the pan a shake to see if the crust has formed and its separated
            5) If you are really struggling, don't force it....just finish it in the broiler

            1. re: Will Owen
              c
              chrisinroch Jul 22, 2007 03:34 PM

              I don't cook much of anything with teflon anymore because of the heath questions. Dying birds seems like a good warning to me to stay away. If I do for eggs or omelette, I keep the heat low.

              1. re: Will Owen
                Sophia. Jul 23, 2007 11:58 AM

                I used to watch the Frugal Gourmet when I was a kid, and this post reminded me of his proverbial "Hot wok, cold oil, food won't stick!" easy and true.

                1. re: Will Owen
                  pilotgirl210 Jul 23, 2007 04:42 PM

                  Hey Will.......good to see Ya :--) If the Frugal Gourmet taught me anything, it's to always get the frying pan hot before adding anything....fish, veggies, potstickers, et al. Works like a charm.

                2. MikeG Jul 22, 2007 02:05 PM

                  "Is the right lesson that it is essential to use non-stick cookware when pan-frying delicate fish?"

                  Not necessarily at all, though it's an easy out if you're not too worried about getting ideal color on whatever you're cooking, browning things properly can be tricky with n/s.

                  "Or could I have had the wrong amount of fat in the pan or the wrong temperature?"

                  Yes. You want the pan pretty hot at least to start, and clarified butter or a mixture of butter and oil (or just oil) might have made things a little easier. (At the very least, heat the butter until it just starts to foam up - when most of the water has cooked off - and then add the food. And most of all, when you're searing something, do NOT "scrape" it up off the pan. With the right heat and enough fat, it'll shake loose (or move easily with spatula). Adjust the heat if it's not searing/browning fast enough or too fast, but resist the urge to rush the process by moving it prematurely.

                  1. chocabot Jul 22, 2007 01:57 PM

                    i'm sure it's possible to use stainless, but for fish, eggs and tofu i've never been brave enough to go without the teflon. my best guess is your heat was too high. also, frying with a bit of oil and butter would prevent the butter from burning at least.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: chocabot
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                      tonicart Jul 22, 2007 02:01 PM

                      Yea, I usually add an equal amount of olive oil as butter in order to raise the cooking temperature of the butter when cooking things in a pan. I think the key may be to keep the pan hot, but to be careful as to not burn the butter. Non-stick definitely helps, but it's not necessary. Also, avoid the urge to move the fish/meat around too much -- it should release on its own without too much coaxing when it is ready. Good luck!

                      1. re: tonicart
                        Enorah Jul 22, 2007 02:11 PM

                        That bit about being patient, letting the fish do its thing, waiting until it moves easily is a great tip.

                        1. re: Enorah
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                          holy chow Jul 23, 2007 12:17 AM

                          Start hot and cool a bit, too hot and you will burn or stick.

                          Let the protien do its thing and release once to color.

                          Change your oil selection to a combo of butter and olive oil to raise smoke point.

                          The meal is your guide, you don't guide it.

                    2. Candy Jul 22, 2007 01:56 PM

                      I would use either well seasoned cast iron or non-stick. Amazing as it seems stainless is actually a bit soft and prone to getting fine scratches on the surface. Those scratches are just waiting for you to put something delicate in there and then hang on to it and not let go.

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