Sautéing Made Simple
Six steps to the perfect pan fish
Written by Lia Grabowski | Photos by Jonathan Boncek
Sometimes the simplest recipes can be the most challenging. Sautéed fish may seem deceptively straightforward, but it requires proper tools and technique for best results. The right materials are key: a shallow layer of fat, a nonstick or cast-iron pan, and a fish spatula. Use any fat that will stand up to high heat, like peanut or coconut oil. If you prefer butter, watch carefully so that it doesn’t burn. (Olive oil isn’t the best choice for frying; save it for a finishing drizzle.) When choosing a fish, almost any thin, skinless fillet will do—local, fresh ingredients taste best. Possibly the most important step to attaining a perfectly sautéed fillet: Ensure the fish is completely dry. Moisture, like cold, will reduce heat and compromise the hard work you’re doing for a perfect sear. After the fish is patted dry, dredging it in rice flour can help dry the surface even more. When the fat is shimmering—but not smoking—add the fillets with plenty of room around them, working in batches if necessary. Overcrowding the pan creates steam, and again, moisture is the enemy of crispiness. Fish fillets can be fragile; once you set them down in the pan, resist the urge to poke and prod them. (Food does not improve from being handled.) When you start to see the edges browning, flip it—and then return to restraining yourself. A fish spatula is a worthy kitchen tool investment. The thin profile can slide under the fish without too much disturbance and its extra length helps support the fish during flipping. Once the fish is done, the sauce is a breeze. The basis is a balance of fat, acid, and salt, so add whatever’s on hand (olives, tomatoes, herbs) to the pan fat, and brighten with lemon or vinegar.
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