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I simply CANNOT cook fish... please, can someone help me?

I did it again last night -- ruined two beautiful, expensive pieces of halibut. I was trying to make a pan-seared halibut with a pan sauce, but both sides of the fish stuck to the pan, so I had chunks of fish instead of nice fillets, and when it came time to deglaze the pan there were chunks of fish and skin that had to be scraped off the pan first, and in doing so, I'm sure I removed what little fond there was as well. The finished dish tasted okay, but looked like a real mess on the plate.

This happens to me not once in a while, but EVERY time I try to cook fish. And the thing is, I was sure I was doing everything right this time. There was a nice "sizzle" when I placed the fish in the saute pan, and I left the fillets undisturbed for 4 minutes thinking that this would ensure that a nice crust would develop and I'd be able to turn the fish easily.

I'm so tempted to use a nonstick pan for cooking fish, but I don't think I could get a good pan sauce if I do. I've got a nice variety of fairly decent pots and pans. Maybe I'm just using the wrong ones? FWIW, yesterday I used a 12" All-Clad saute pan (which truthfully, I've NEVER been happy with). Should I use a copper pan instead? Although I don't own a copper saute pan (just too heavy for me), I do have an 11" copper brazier/saute pan that would work just as well. I've also got a 12" nonstick saute pan (Calphalon, I think).

I need some guidance and direction; can anyone help me? Thanks!

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  1. Why do you need a pan sauce for fish?

    Anyway, I'd recommend you usinga non-stick until you get the hang of it, and then start using the regular frypan (I have All-Clad saute pans as well and don't use them for fish; frypan or French skillet).

    Your fish is dry and you're using oil/butter, right?

    1. I always use a non-stick pan for sautéing fish. Shaking the pan periodically without lifting the fish will ensure it's not sticking while still allowing the formation of a crust.

      If you use seasoned flour to coat the fish, some of it will end up browning into a usable fond, from which you can make a pan sauce. Or do as I usually do and make a sauce separately. My favorite is a sort of spicy remoulade, mayonnaise mixed with lemon juice, hot sauce, and chopped pickled jalapeños.

      1. Don't be afraid to use the non-stick pan. If you don't wish to use Teflon, try cast iron. I always blacken in a cast iron. Now for steel:

        1. Hot oil, ~380 - 400F
        2. Dry fish: rinse and pat the fish dry with paper towels.
        3. Skin-side-down first.
        4. Wiggle the pan for first 10 sec.
        5. Leave alone for 3-5 min depending on thickness, or until a golden crust forms on skin.
        6. Give pan a quick jerk to loosen fish. Wait 30 sec and repeat once or twice if necessary.
        7. Flip fish away from you with a wide spatula. You may need to pry a little with the spatula.
        8. Wiggle the pan for the first 10 sec.
        9. Leave alone until fish is almost done but not flaky.
        10. Remove from pan and serve.

        You should be using 1-2 Tbl fat in a 10" skillet for this. If you prefer butter, be sure to go 50/50 :: cooking oil/butter to increase the smoke point. Also, some fish are just difficult to pan fry. If all else fails, don't be afraid to dredge the fish in a light seafood breader before frying.

        note: I've used the above technique to prepare a parmesan crusted tilapia in an aluminum pan - it can be done.

        1. You may simply be using too much heat.
          For your practice sessions with your All-Clad (my favorite) try this method.
          Crumple up a piece of waxed paper and use it to spread some room temperature unsalted butter on the bottom of the pan while the pan is warming up but not yet hot.
          Oil the surfaces of the fillets using vegetable oil, not butter, to prepare them for the pan. Butter is 15% water and, if it's salted butter, it will exacerbate the sticking problem if yo coat the fish with it. Put the oil on your fish, not the pan, and heat the pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot enough to accept the fish (which is a temperature that will lightly brown not burn the butter, put the fish in the pan. Allow the fish to cook for about one minute, then shake the pan to prevent sticking. Shake the pan every minute or two until it's time to turn the fish over (fish cooks very quickly so that won't take very long) and use a spatula that is capable of supporting the entire body of the fillet to turn it. If you don't have a spatula large enough, raise one long side of the fillet with a spatula while holding the opposite side with another similar tool and roll the fillet over gently.
          Remember that the fat in fish is not the same as other fats you may be accustomed to working with in cooking - it will stick to just about anything (save for non-stick pans).
          If you want butter flavor in the fish, use a pat of butter to finish it when it's plated.

          1. You can try the following:

            1) Make sure the pan is heated through, it don't have to be rocket hot but I think it is worst to start cold as a lot of people mention that you need to heat steel pans enough to "open the pores" to take in the fat
            2) Make sure the fish is dry on the surface
            3) Set the fish and try not to move it too much. It take sometime before the proteins release itself from the pan.
            4) If you want try frying eggs on the pan 1st before wasting good fish. It is a lot cheaper and sticks just as much. If you can manage that then fish should be no problem.

            1 Reply
            1. re: snowpuppy

              I took the fish out of the fridge about 20 minutes before I began cooking it. I dried the fish with paper towels and salted and peppered it top and bottom. I heated the pan, then added 2 tablespoons of canola oil, let the oil heat, then I added the fish to the pan. The recipe said to put the fish into the pan "presentation side down." I chose to present the fish skin side down, so I put the fish in the pan skin side up. I let the fish set for 4 minutes before I tried to move it, but it was stuck.

            2. I second the lower frying temp. idea. Also, if you cook a e.g., salmon fillet put it skin side down and after a few minutes start poking it with a knife to see if the thickest part is just beginning to set. Then it is done. No need to turn it over, which should help to get it out of the pan in better shape.

              1. Make sure the pan is heated before adding your fish and has enough oil or butter and don't turn it up past medium, preferably (IMO) medium low....You can use a non stick skillet if that makes you feel better but no need to go out and buy a copper pan, you can do it with stainless.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Cherylptw

                  I used canola oil because of its high smoking point. I wouldn't go out and buy a copper pan for this; I already have a copper pan that I thought might work well, but decided to use the all-Clad pan instead.

                  1. re: CindyJ

                    Canola oil does not have a particularly high smoke point. If you want an oil that can tolerate high heat use grapeseed.

                2. I use a well-seasoned LeCruset fry pan and nothing sticks to it. At one point I was having a similar problem, but I re-seasoned the pan and now it's as good as non-stick. Also, I'd suggest you try to dry your fish as much as possible after rinsing. If you have time you might even air dry it on a rack in the refrigerator for a few hours.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: lawmann

                    I never thought of using a LC fry pan, which I do have -- although it's not "seasoned" and never has been. In fact, I've never heard of anyone having to season LC.

                    1. re: CindyJ

                      CindyJ--some LC pans have a cast iron interior, usually "pre [though not especially well]-seasoned" interior. The enamelled interiors don't need seasoning--but are pretty tricky for fish.

                      I had fish issues (fishues? fissues?) for a long time, too, was afraid to do anything but grill it outside (then I could blame DH for less-than-perfection :) DH did not like this arrangement). Finally figured it out.

                      Agree w/ posters on drying fish well, bringing to room temp (very important), having a nice slick of oil (I mix grapeseed and olive or just gs) on the pan (I use All-Clad SS french skillet or a well-seasoned cast iron), which I get very hot before putting in fish. I then turn down heat and let it sit untouched 3 or 4 minutes (depends on fish and thickness) and transfer it to oven (400F) to finish. When finished I season well that top side w/ whatever I want.

                      Depending on type of fish and whether i want a pan sauce, I may dredge it lightly in flour (or Wondra) before putting it into the pan. But often don't.

                      Good luck.

                  2. The only tip I didn't see mentioned is to have the fish as room temperature.

                    If you are not completely attached to pan frying, I find my students have better luck with baking. Broiling is the next easiest. Both methods are a bit more forgiving than the stove top.

                    1. Remember there are different types of fish just as there are meats. Halibut is very lean and chilean sea bass is much more oily. Halibut and regular pan is a fairly difficult task, so you should consider changing either the fish or the utensil. Jfood would recommend a non-stick if you want a pan start and finish in the oven or if you want to bake, then buy yourself some non-stick reynolds foil, outstanding. Or change the fish to a salmon or bass with more oils. Bring non-stick very hot, a little evoo skin side up for 2-3 minutes, flip and finish in a 400 degree oven. jfood adds diced veggies including peppers, brussel sprouts, ovens and mushrooms,m lemon and seasoning

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: jfood

                        Now that's something I hadn't considered -- that halibut is lean to begin with. Maybe I should have given the surfaces a light brush of olive oil or canola oil? My pan sauce had capers, scallions and halved cherry tomatoes -- all very tasty, if not pretty.

                      2. Try poaching it in a nonstick pan in broth, wine, and butter. It will reduce to form a nice glaze. Fish cooks more quickly than meat and does not HAVE to be seared in order to achieve optimum flavor and texture. It sounds to me like the temperature is the main culprit in the situation you describe.

                        My usual prep is to lay fillets over storebought seafood stuffing, or over cooked rice, then top with julienned vegetables stirred into some form of soy sauce, and bake at 350-375 in my toaster oven. The soy creates a nice brown glaze. Depending on thickness, usually 20-30 minutes.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: greygarious

                          Truthfully, poached fish doesn't appeal to me all that much. I've had some moderate success poaching fish, but I just don't like it as much as pan seared.

                        2. I've been afraid to cook fish at home and have usually just been eating it in restaurants. Last week, I gave it try with halibut. I used my All-Clad SS skillet, heated it up a little before I added grapeseed oil, waited a minute, added piece of fish (I did skin side up but maybe this is wrong -- but -- it came out GREAT so maybe not so wrong.)

                          I cooked it until it released and I could turn it over, just fine. After less than 1 minute, I put pan into a preheated (350) oven for 7 minutes (if you like more underdone, maybe 4-5 minutes would be better.)

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: walker

                            I'm beginning to wonder if I used too little oil. The recipe called for 2 tablespoons, and although I didn't measure, I'd say that was about the amount I used. It was little more than a thin film over the cooking surface. Maybe I should have used more..?

                            1. re: CindyJ

                              I did the same things you did, only used grapeseed oil -- it has a high smoke point and I like it and olive oil much better than canola oil. Maybe mine sauteed for 5 minutes -- I know it released easily, then, turned over and into oven. Fresh halibut, on counter about 20 minutes before sauteing.

                          2. Lots of replies, lots of differences. This is my technique I've used on the line in professional kitchens that has worked flawlessly.

                            1) Wondra flour. dry the fish, season and dust lightly in wondra flour on the surfaces that will be in the pan.

                            2) Oil and plenty of it- hot when you put the fish in.

                            3) LEAVE IT ALONE! Don't jiggle it, etc. It's called a Maillard Reation- low moisture, high heat, with the added carbohydrate (flour), and you will see the flour bind then release and brown, forming a thin crust.

                            The "leave it alone" thing was the #1 best tip I ever got about cooking.

                            12 Replies
                            1. re: cheesemonger

                              Jfood remembers watching a show where the Celebrity Chef said that the biggest difference between a prefessional cook and a home cook is the former knows, and has the confidence, to leave the meat on the heat long enough. Every time jfood is about to grab the handle he repeats that to himself.

                              1. re: jfood

                                Except when it's steak. Then the prof. cook has the guts to pull it off before it gets cremated/gray and nasty!

                                1. re: ChristinaMason

                                  Likewise the professional knows to preheat the pan and knows to get that puppy smoking hot for a nice crust outside and a beautiful medium rare inside. How many times have you seen people put a steak on a war grill or in a cool pan.

                                    1. re: ChristinaMason

                                      and add...do NOT use a spatula to push down on a burger. See all that liquid stuff come out of the bottom? That's called juice, just removed that succulence from your tongue. urghhh

                                        1. re: bayoucook

                                          There is a new place where jfood lives that cooks burgers in a giant foreman grill, probably a 2 foot square. They place the meat on the grill and bring the top down to compress the meat (bad move #1) they then push down on it through the process (bad move #2), then sometimes the remove the burger andplace on the flat-top and push with a spatual (bad move #3). When jfood pointed out that the burgers were dry they crucified him. Duh?

                                          1. re: jfood

                                            Horrifying. Most of the time I'd rather not eat a burger at all than to have one well-done and dry, especially if the meat is thick. McD's/Burger King I can forgive, because they don't aspire to be good.

                                            1. re: ChristinaMason

                                              They market it as hormone free organic...insert shking head

                                2. re: jfood

                                  Although confidence was certainly absent, I thought I was doing a good job of resisting the urge to move the fish. Do you think that was really my downfall -- trying to turn it before it was ready (as if you'd seen it and could know)? Would another minute have made a difference? I was afraid the fish would burn or overcook, and at $20/lb I didn't want that to happen. But I definitely understand what you're saying, JF; I've become fairly adept at waiting for meat to crust over when browning and I need to learn to do that with fish as well.

                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    I know that it was always my downfall before I learned of the Wondra + oil + a little patience. I set my kitchen timer for 2:22 for a side, and don't touch it at.all. Not a peek, not a corner, nothing. Med-high heat.

                                    1. re: CindyJ

                                      Jfood would not characterize anything in the kitchen as a "downfall", just a learning experience. Anyone who has never scraped fish off a regular pan is probably lying.

                                3. buy the cookbook Fish Without A Doubt - I had issues with fish, too - but not anymore!

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: bayoucook

                                    Second that recommendation. Best fish cookbook.

                                    If you do a search jfood thinks it was a COTM selection last year.

                                    1. re: jfood

                                      It was - that's why I bought it - that was a great decision on my part! I used to hate to cook it and/or screw it up, but not anymore. It's one of my most-used, best-loved cookbooks. The content from that COTM is on here for sure.

                                    2. re: bayoucook

                                      The library now has it on hold for me. I like to borrow and try before I buy.

                                    3. Cindy,

                                      I do salmon in a cold pan. First off, it is important that you take the fish out of the fridge long enough for the chill to come off. When you are ready to go, dry, oil and season the skin of the fish and brush a little oil in the cold pan. Put the fish in the pan and the pan on medium low to medium heat.

                                      Walk away and have a glass of wine.

                                      In about 6-8 minutes, you will find that the cooking sounds are now full-force and if you take a spatula, you should just be able to tease the fish from the pan surface. Leave it in place until it fully releases. Flip and let sear for a minute or two and you are there.

                                      With most fish, you can watch the flesh go from translucent to opalescent to opaque as it cooks. Wait until this opaque ring is 3/4 of the way up the sides and you should be in fine shape.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Ernie Diamond

                                        I think I'm turning Phishaphobic... no, no, I mean fishaphobic. I'm tempted to leave the fish cooking to the restaurants I frequent, except for salmon on the grill, which I've had some success with in the past.

                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                          Try the cold pan. You may be surprised.

                                          1. re: Ernie Diamond

                                            Or just use the non-stick. Seems simple enough. I don't have problems making good sauces in them.

                                            1. re: ChristinaMason

                                              And depending on the fish, even without a nonstick (I like enameled cast iron), there might no be any fond to have for a pan sauce. That's when shallots, white wine, and butter makes an appearance. :)

                                              CindyJ - the Ina Garten does a seared salmon that's very easy. Her method (at least for stove top - I don't do the move-into-oven step) works very well - oil, then salt on fish then add to hot pan.

                                      2. I just tried again tonight with my SS All-Clad -- used the tip of using some Wondra flour. Did not have grapeseed oil so used olive oil -- there was no sticking whatsoever. Had a piece of very fresh halibut, dried it with paper towel, S & P and Wondra, hot pan, added oil, then took turns on all 4 sides (about 3 minutes each side) then in 400 oven for 8 minutes.

                                        Perfect. There are different kinds of SS All-Clad -- could that be your problem?