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Pan hot, fish dried, but STILL sticking to pan

I just tried and failed again to sear some fish, and I'd love to know what I'm doing wrong. It develops a lovely, brown sear... that then mostly sticks to the pan.

The fish - I bought two 1.25-1.5" thick pieces of cod from a regular supermarket. It was previously frozen, but no longer frozen when I bought it. No skin. I patted the fish dry, sprinkled on a little salt and pepper, kept it at room temp for 30 minutes, and dried it again right before putting it in the pan. I've also tried leaving off the salt.

The pan - I heated a good quality stainless steel pan on high on our ceramic-top electric stove. In the past, I've also tried a scanpan. I don't have cast iron, and I don't think I'd get the brown sear I'm after with a nonstick.

The oil - I added a good pour of grapeseed oil, and waited until it started smoking. I've also tried adding the oil before heating the pan, and then still waiting for it to smoke.

Cooking - I placed the fish in the pan. Not crowded. If the smoke gets heavy, I turn it down to med-hi. I've tried not touching it at all, and I've tried prodding it a bit right at the start to try to prevent it from fastening to the pan and then leaving it alone. It starts to fasten instantly, so the latter doesn't work.

Flipping - When it's almost done, and has a gorgeous brown sear, it's almost completely stuck. I wait a little longer, hoping it will release. When it would start to overcook if I waited any longer, I try to pry it up with a spatula and lose 3/4 of the sear to the pan. I curse a little. The part that does come up is perfect and delicious. The rest comes up when I deglaze and scrape to salvage it as best I can.


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  1. I think this is the time to try a carbon steel pan.

    1. "I heated a good quality stainless steel pan on high...". Do you really mean you have the dial turned all the way up on your ceramic-top stove? That may be too hot. I make fish all the time on my smooth-top electric stove, and I set the dial to medium-high - six on a ten-point button. I heat the pan for about three minutes. The fish is usually seasoned and oiled and put into a bare non-stick skillet. It gets nicely browned - not completely browned like blackened, but browned. If I'm breading the fish, I'll use a couple tablespoons of peanut oil added to the preheated pan and heated til it shimmers.

      Stainless is notorious for sticking. Having never used a scanpan I can't comment on that. But I always use non-stick for fish, and stainless for other things. And stay mindful of the heat. High heat on an electric stove is really not to be used for cooking, it's primarily to bring liquids to a boil. (That's what my user's manual says.)

      1 Reply
      1. re: janniecooks

        Agreed about the heat. Preheat on medium to med-hi for a good 10 minutes before adding oil. To check when oil is the right heat, dip the end of a wooden skewer/toothpick into the oil. If it bubbles, you're there.
        Do not move the fish around AT ALL until it is ready to flip.
        Because you do not need high heat, you can use a nonstick if you wish. Yes, the fish will get the desired shade of brown.
        I do not think it is necessary to let the fish come to room temp. I never have. Nor would I salt it until just before cooking.
        That just draws water to the surface, which you don't need/want. Some chefs put salt in the hot, dry pan, then place a well-dried stak or chop onto the salt. Now, that's meat - but it might work if you oiled the fish before plopping it onto the salt.

      2. Stainless is not the best for fish. Aluminum, cast iron or carbon steel.

        1. I actually get a good brown sear using a non stick. I put my electric burner on 7 out of 10, let it pre heat, add some avocado oil and then cook it. I don't think you should let the oil start smoking. Once it's smoking you're past the smoke point and the oil is degraded. I do believe olive oil was shown to become carcinogenic after it's over heated. I know you used grapeseed oil but I still wouldn't heat the oil to smoking.

          1. restaurant sop is to cook fish from cold, not room temp. harder to over-cook and more wiggle room.

            agree that you need a different pan and your burner temp and oil are actually too hot. do not salt/season til putting it in the pan.

            1. Those of you saying to go for non-stick and lower the temp, do you mean the kind of brown seared crust that I do? More like the first photo than the the second? It's not a matter of darker color so much as it is of having a thick fish that stays mostly white, with one side deep-seared and crunchy.

              5 Replies
              1. re: fleenshop

                we're suggesting this to stop the fish from sticking.

                stainless conducts a fierce heat and smoking oil is degraded before you even add the protein.

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  Yes, I get that, and I believe you that it wouldn't stick that way, and that it gets brown. But what I'm asking is whether you mean brown the way I mean it.

                  1. re: fleenshop

                    I get a nice brown sear but I use cast iron and do not fiddle with it until it releases.

                    1. re: magiesmom

                      yup. i do use non-stick here and still use a generous amount of fat.

                2. re: fleenshop

                  Yes, you'll get there in a nonstick on lower heat. Just cook it longer.

                3. Pan too hot, oil to hot, use medium heat after heating the oil. The fish will cook slower and release without over cooking the fish.

                  1. Contrary to popular opinion, nonstick pans can sear just fine. Give it a try.

                    1. Your pan is too hot. Smoking should not happen.

                      1. So... get a cast iron pan? $15.

                        1. I've used both non-stick and cast iron with great results. I too like my fish really brown and crispy and get those results with a lower temperature, no sticking. I also am able to get fish with skin on to have nice crisp skin, since that's often my favorite part. Patience.

                          1. Get the fish dry as possible, swab surface with a thin coating of oil, season with salt, and pepper, then into the pan it goes. Press slightly to ensure the surface of the fish adheres to the pan. Fish will release from the pan no problem. Flexible fish spatula helps but a off-set spatula works as well.

                            1. Thank you for all the help... it took me a while, but I just tried again. Twice, in fact. First, successfully, and then... not. And I don't know what was different.

                              I decided to start with just one of the filets I had, so I could make any needed adjustments before cooking the other one.

                              I followed your suggestions and used a good nonstick pan and med-med hi heat. I had a mixture of olive oil, butter, and chicken fat left in a pan I'd just used for a different dish, so I poured some of it into the nonstick pan to use for the fish.

                              And... Success!

                              So, I wiped out the pan and cooked the second one as identically as I could, and... Not Success!

                              I didn't think to take a photo until afterwards, but the piece in the upper left is the successful one. Nice, substantial, crunchy sear.

                              When the same sear didn't develop on the second one, I I let it keep going another couple of minutes. So, it's even a bit darker, but has almost no crunchy sear - only a bit of the edge is a little crisp.

                              So, new diagnoses, anyone? SOMETHING must have changed between the two, but what?

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: fleenshop

                                did the second pan include the same mixture of olive oil, butter, and chicken fat? even if it kind of did, most likely the proportions were different.

                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                  That's definitely possible -- I had poured the mixture from a pan in which I'd previously browned chicken into a ramekin. I then poured half of it into the nonstick pan I used for the first piece of fish. After that one was done and I'd wiped out the pan, I poured in the second half to cook the second piece.

                                  If the fats had separated and that's what made the difference, I wonder which fat was the one that led to the crunchy sear.