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Here’s How to Get Crispy Fish Skin When You Cook Fish Fillets

Also when you shouldn’t cook fish skin; our seafood expert explains all.

fish with tamarind sauce
Photography by: Bobbi Lin

Finfish in fillet form is our biggest seller at Mermaid’s Garden, and all around the country, fish fillets are the most popular way to cook and eat fish.  There are many fast, simple, and delicious ways to prepare fish fillets.

 

Often I am asked whether fish skin should be kept on for cooking (and eaten) or removed. Aside from personal preference, which ultimately is most important in this decision, I think the answer all comes down to cooking method.

 

If I’m going to keep the skin on my fish, I want it to be crispy. Soggy skin on a cooked fish fillet is not appealing to me. Pan-roasting or broiling will produce nicely browned and crunchy skin.

 

Get the Fish with Tamarind Sauce Recipe
salmon-nicoise-092-d112989.jpg
Photography by: Bryan Gardner

If you are pan-roasting skin-on, fillets here are a few pointers to help with the browning and crisping of the skin:

 

1. Make sure the fish is as dry as possible before cooking. Moisture is your enemy here. Pat the fish dry, especially the skin side, with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.

 

2. Season fish with salt and pepper just before cooking; the salt will draw moisture to the surface of the fish. 

 

3. Place the fish skin-side down into a hot pan that has some oil in it. Do this front to back, so if the hot oil splatters, it does so away from you. Do not crowd the pan; if there is too much fish in the pan, it will steam rather than roast.

 

4. Depending on the size and weight of the fillets, the fish may try to curl up; use a spatula to press the fish fillet flat to the pan. The fish will relax and lie flat after 10 to 20 seconds under the spatula.

 

5. Finally, you want to control your cooktop’s heat. If it’s too hot, the fish skin will burn. If it’s too low, the skin won’t get crispy. Start fish on high heat, then give the pan a bit of time to recover temperature after you add the fish. This usually takes 30 to 60 seconds depending on how much fish you have in the pan and the power of your cooktop. Lower the heat to medium-high and cook the fish to 75 percent of your preferred doneness. Flip the fish so the flesh side is down for the last 25 percent of cooking. When cooking thick fillets, you can continue with medium-high or medium heat. If you have thinner fillets, turn the heat down for this last bit of cooking time. Once you’ve flipped your fish, it’s nice to add a nub of butter to the pan, basting the skin with the butter as it browns.

Get the Salmon Nicoise with Caper Dressing Recipe
clams-bass-075-d110524.jpg
Photography by: Andrew Purcell

For cooking methods such as steaming, braising, baking and poaching, I prefer skinless fish fillets. Your fishmonger can remove the skin from fillets for you. I also prefer to remove the skin before grilling filleted fish, especially fishes with thicker skins. For example, the thick skins on striped bass or bluefish can become charred in some spots and soggy in others when grilled. I find I have more control over the lovely caramelization that grilling produces using skinless fillets. I do make an exception when I’m grilling a whole fish, then the skin stays on. Finally, even if you are a lover of fish skin, not all is delicious to eat. Fishes such as tuna, swordfish, and mahi mahi have tough leathery skin that should be removed, either before or after cooking.

 

Watch how to remove the skin from a fish fillet: