It all comes down to having a very hot, well-oiled skillet.
Variety of Fish Dinners
Credit: Ryan Liebe

We all know fish is packed with heart-healthy nutrients and is super versatile, but cooking fish can be a tricky endeavor. It's delicate, easy to overcook, and can be expensive. Still, it's worth your time to master the art of preparing fish at home, and that's in part because it's so flavorful. While grilled or poached fish are both delicious, one of the easiest and quickest ways to prepare a fillet of fish is by pan-searing it in a very hot skillet. "When cooking fish on the stovetop, you want to use a fat that has a high smoke point, such as avocado or canola oil. Sautéing requires a small amount of fat, just enough to lightly coat the pan with the oil," says Kate McCue, director of the school of recreational cooking at the Institute of Culinary Education. Below, we're sharing the essential steps to follow when cooking fish in a skillet.

How to Cook Fish on the Stovetop

Start by bringing the fish to room temperature about an hour before you plan to cook it. Adding a cold protein to a hot pan can cause the temperature of the pan to decrease and result in uneven cooking. Next, prep the fish by patting it dry with a paper towel to remove excess moisture; the moisture can decrease the temperature of your pan and cause your fish to steam rather than sear, says McCue. Season the fish thoroughly on both sides with kosher salt and black pepper, which helps to prevent it from sticking. "In addition to seasoning, the salt acts as a barrier between the fish and the fat and helps to firm up the protein, she says. Finally, be sure to use a very hot pan (McCue prefers cast iron or stainless steel, but adds that nonstick is great for beginner cooks, too).

"Heating your pan properly is a key factor for keeping your fish from sticking and will give you a flavorful crust. Heat your pan on a medium-high heat, then add a small amount of oil or clarified butter. When the fat is shimmering, the pan is hot enough to add your protein. Your fish should sizzle when added to the pan," McCue explains.

Achieving Crispy Skin

Having a well-seasoned fillet and hot pan, and only flipping the fish once, will help you ensure crispy skin, says McCue. Repeatedly turning it over in the pan can damage the fish and prevent the skin from getting crispy. "When the fish is ready to be flipped, it will naturally release from the pan with minimal sticking. Use a fish spatula, which is a thin, slotted, flexible spatula that can easily slip under your delicate piece of fish. Once you can easily lift a corner of the fish without sticking, you can flip and finish cooking on the stovetop or oven," she says.

How to Cook Fish on a Baking Sheet

If you're baking or roasting fish in the oven, you'll need a baking sheet and either parchment paper or aluminum foil, which make for easier clean-up and help to prevent sticking, says McCue. Before placing the fish on the baking sheet, brush the paper or foil with neutral oil for an instant nonstick surface. McCue is also a fan of steaming fish inside a packet of parchment paper in the oven—a French technique known as en papillote. "When cooking en papillote, the fish, along with vegetables, herbs, and seasonings are included in the packet and cooked on a baking sheet in the oven," says McCue—and nothing sticks to the pan!


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