Discover more from Anchovy Trove
A quick how-to on my fish searing method
I recently procured a nice piece of cod from a local fishmonger (er, Eataly) and gave it the old sear-and-baste method, to be paired with some lentils and greens; I posted this on Instagram and got a fair amount of questions about my technique. It truly is simple, although like most simple things, it requires a bit of finesse. Once you start successfully employing this method, it’ll become a go-to approach for virtually any fish, skin or no skin. (The cod here is skinless, of course, but this sear can really crisp up some skin.)
The process is thus: salt the fish ahead of time if you can, which will help to induce flavor and concentrate moisture, as with any piece of meat. Pat it very dry — like, multiple rounds of paper towels dry — and add a good amount of coarsely-ground black pepper. Bring a pan (stainless or carbon steel, or cast iron, although I prefer the former for fish) up to seriously high heat. It should be clearly smoking. Add a generous amount of oil (high-quality and high smoke point ideally, like grapeseed). You’ll want the fish to essentially shallow-fry to develop that incredible crust. Press it down with a fish spatula and let it go, uninterrupted, until you can see the crust forming on the sides of the fish. Add a big squeeze of lemon to help release it from the pan, flip, and baste with butter.
The only real trick here, aside from the prep, is letting the fish do its thing when it’s in the pan. Giving the Maillard reaction enough breathing room to fully develop is critical. And don’t be afraid of the fish sticking; I find that this fear often smothers the dish in its cradle, with the anxious home cook poking, prodding, and eventually tearing the fish from its precious crust. It will naturally release from the pan once the caramelization is fully formed, and the lemon (or wine, or any liquid, really) will do wonders in lifting it from the surface. Only then should you firmly but carefully pry it off and flip.
1 pound filet of any large fish (cod, salmon, etc.), cut into individual portions
2 lemon wedges (you can also use wine or water)
Grapeseed oil, or any high-quality oil that can withstand high heat
2-3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
Salt the fish ~2 hours ahead of time, leaving it uncovered in the fridge.
Set a stainless steel pan over high heat. Pat the fish filets as dry as possible, and add a generous amount of cracked black pepper.
Add about 1/2 inch of oil to the pan once the pan is smoking.
Once the oil is shimmering, carefully add the fish, directing the filet away from you to avoid backsplash.
With a fish spatula, firmly press down on the filets to make ample contact with the pan.
Let the fish cook uninterrupted until you can clearly see a brown crust on the edges of the fish. If the pan is smoking too much, turn down the heat a bit (but not off). With the spatula, carefully take a peek to check on the browning.
Once you’ve confirmed that the crust is good, add a squeeze of lemon from one of the wedges. The pan will emit a massive of steam, most likely, which is good. Turn the heat down to low (or off entirely), and flip the fish.
Add the butter and begin basting the top of the fish with a spoon. This will aid in the browning. Baste for 3-4 minutes; the fish will be fully cooked through in this time, and you don’t want to baste too long, to avoid burning the butter.
Remove from the pan and immediately add a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of flaky salt.