How to Fry Fish

A good restaurant should serve you a beautifully fried fillet of fish with crisp, golden skin and mouthwateringly juicy flesh. It should be so delicious just on its own that you hesitate before you add any of the accompanying sauces or vegetables to your fork. Frying a fillet of fish is not actually very difficult, but there are a number of tricks and tips you need to observe and I have to say that most people just do it wrong, even in restaurants. I am talking about flat fillets of fish today, large chunks of cod, Chilean sea bass, monkfish or even tuna will require a different technique.

I once hired a new chef for one of our restaurants and on his first day at work I found a whole row of pre-fried fish being “kept warm” on the shelf above the range, to be quickly turned in the pan before being served to some unsuspecting customer. This had been the standard procedure at his previous place of employment, which incidentally was at a rather famous chef’s restaurant. Now let me be entirely clear: Pre-frying a fish fillet is a crime against humanity deserving of a tribunal at the Hague. It is all the more incomprehensible when you consider that the frying of a fish fillet takes less than five minutes!

Two beautifully trimmed fish fillets, ready salted for the pan.

If you are wondering what happened to this chef, he did the same thing again the next day in what was a clear act of insubordination (yes, a professional kitchen is like the army), so I threw the fish at him and the pan followed straight after. I don’t loose my temper all that often, but when I do it’s not a pretty sight. You can come to me and explain a new or better or easier system to me, show it and let me taste the result and I will be more than happy to change things. I am not the owner of the only truth and I believe in learning at any stage in your career. It’s the evolution of all crafts. You want the next generation to be better than the previous one, otherwise our craft is a dead one in which we still all cook “the original” whatever and excommunicate all and any who dare deviate from the true path. That is not knowledge, that is stupidity. But back to frying fish:

First rule; don’t buy ready cut fillets packed ready to cook on trays. Buy the whole fish and have the fish monger fillet it for you. Ask to keep the head and bones, which will make a good stock. At home, I usually freeze the bones until I have enough to boil up a whole batch of fish stock, which can then be frozen in portions. If your fish monger gives you fillets that are raggedy, torn or where the skin has been damaged, you need to change monger. I have yet to see anyone here in KL who gives you properly trimmed fillets, so you will have to do that yourself.

On the left is what my fish monger here gives me and on the right is the properly trimmed fillet. I first check the skin side for scales (there always are some left over ones), the meat side for stray bones and then I wash and dry my fillet before trimming it. Trimming is very clean work, so you don’t need to wash the fish again afterwards. Washing it before gives it a little time to dry in the air. Look at the fillet on the left. On its left hand side you see these little uneven flaps. These are the fin sides. Trim them off. You need to keep your hopefully really sharp knife at a slight angle away from the fish, as the fins extend a little under the meat on most fish. But you will see that when you do the job. Now trim off a little of the top of the belly side (that’s on the right of the untrimmed fillet above). What you are doing is removing some of the white belly membrane. If there are some bones in there, don’t bother to remove them, just cut under them to remove both membrane and bones. Now all you need to do is cut a little off the top and bottom to give your fillet a nicer shape. Cover your fish with cling film and put it back in the chiller immediately.

The five main points to remember for a successfully fried fish:

  • Be generous with the oil
  • Keep your fish cold
  • Keep you fish dry
  • Keep your oil hot
  • Don’t fuss!

Pour a very generous amount of oil (or animal fat!) into your pan. This should be less than deep frying, but probably a lot more than you normally use. You want the oil to lap at the edges of the fish, so to speak. Do not worry, your fish will not be oily as long as you temperature remains high. To achieve a consistently high temperature your pan needs to be big enough for each fillet to have ample space. If the fillets touch, not only will your temperature not be high enough, your fillets will also stick to each other.

A generous amount of oil and plenty of space in the pan.

We are going to fry this fish almost exclusively on the skin side, the meat side of the fish will tell us whether we will get a nice fish or not. If our fillets are not cold enough, the meat side will become opaque before the skin side is golden and the fish will be overcooked. Most people unfortunately keep their chillers far too warm. You should be running it at 1º-2ºC, not at 6ºC. Water should just, just, juuust not freeze when you stick it at the top shelf in the back, which is normally the coldest spot in your fridge.

You want to season your fish just before putting it into the pan! A wet fish will give you a lot of splatter and a soggy skin, so season as late as you can. Start by patting your fish dry one last time before salting it and make sure your plate, tray or board that you are salting on is dry as well. Do not use the plate you kept the fish on in the chiller. The cold will create condensation on the plate. Place the fillets skin side down on the board and lightly salt it. You should be using only half as much salt on the meat side as on on the skin side! Pepper and any other seasoning should go on the meat side only, so it does not burn in the longer frying of the skin. Now salt the skin side about twice as heavily as the meat side and leave the fillets skin side up.

Check that your oil is smoking hot and I mean smoking. If anyone tells you once the oil smokes it’s burnt, tell them not to talk nonsense. As soon as the oil is smoking, place your fillets skin side down in the pan. Now here’s an interesting thing: The more your fillets curl up, the older the fish. The more the skin shrinks, the older the fish. I don’t mean the fish’s actual age, of course, just the time it’s been out of the water and dead. If they curl a lot, gently press them down.

These fillets are finished on the skin side. Note how the meat is still slightly uncooked.

Lift the fish once, gently from each side to allow a little more oil to get under the skin and then don’t bother them again. Leave them until they start to become opaque around the edges and then leave them some more. You should be able to see a clear golden colour appear around the sides of the fillets, just like so:

That is your queue! You can now pick up your fish by its tail using your kitchen tongs and flip it on the meat side. You will be able to do this only if the meat is still uncooked and you will be able to do this only once. As soon as you have turned it, you will need a spatula or palette knife to pick up the fish. Try the tings again and the fillet will break into pieces.

Once you have turned your fillets on the meat side, count to ten. Then remove them from the pan, keeping them skin side up. You must NEVER put them on the skin side, or all your crisping work will be for naught. The idea is for the heat to just kiss the meat side and then remove the fish. And now take a rest. Your friend and also your enemy is residual heat. The heat you have given the fish will continue to cook it. If you were to cut into the middle of the fillet right after taking it out of the pan, it should be raw inside. But let it rest for just two minutes and the fish will be cooked, but running with juices.

Perfectly fried fish every time (the odd disaster excepted).

So here’s the trick: You are balancing the temperature of the fish, the temperature of the oil and the resting time. It seems difficult at first, but you will soon get the hang of it and people will b gobsmacked by your dexterity with fish.

P.S.: The insubordinate chef almost walked out before I could sack him, but the kitchen team convinced us both to make another go of it and I’m glad they did, because he stayed with us for a long time and proved to be an excellent addition to our team. He became a colleague and a friend and I’m glad to say that he never pre-cooked fish ever again.

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