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The Secrets to Successfully Sautéed Fish

By Barton Seaver

Golden brown fillets drizzled with a bright, seasonal sauce are an approachable and attractive way for home cooks to get a fish dinner loaded with heart-healthy fats on the table quickly.

The trick to sautéing fish is to cook the fillets slowly. We normally think of sautéing as involving high heat, high spatter and aroma, and high drama. But allowing 1/2-inch fish fillets cook over medium heat without flipping them keeps splatter to a minimum, doesn’t vaporize the oils, and yields a moist fillet with a satisfyingly crispy skin. Nearly any species of fish will work well; think Arctic char, barramundi, black sea bass, bluefish, cod, mackerel, Pacific rockfish, salmon, and snapper. Seasoning fish with salt 15-20 minutes before cooking it firms up the flesh and focuses the flavor.

When sautéing skin-on fillets over any level of heat, they are prone to curling because connective tissues just beneath the skin arch away from the heat. To prevent curling, score the skin with shallow slashes about every inch or so prior to cooking.

With sautéing, as with most cooking methods, it’s best to keep your hands in check. That means no fiddling! It’s the fish’s contact with the pan that cooks it, not impatient pokes and prods from the cook. Put the fish in the pan skin-side down and let it cook undisturbed 90% of the way through. Fat just under the skin melts to baste the fillet, crisp the skin evenly and decrease the chance the fish will stick to the pan.

A seared lemon wedge is the easiest accompaniment to a piece of sautéed fish. But sautéed fish can be complemented by both pan sauces (link to recipe) made in minutes in the same skillet used to cook the fish or by a lively vinaigrette or pesto you have sitting in your refrigerator.

Moderate heat sautéing is a technique that helps cooks get more healthy seafood on the table more often. Please take the pledge to eat #Seafood2xWk at seafoodnutrition.org.

Sautéed Striped Bass with Brown Butter and Orange
Serves 4

Ingredients:

4, 5 ounce skin-on portions striped bass (either hybrid striped bass or wild)
Kosher salt
6 tablespoons butter
2 oranges, segmented

Instructions:

  1. Use a sharp knife to score the skin with shallow slashes about every inch or so. Season fillets with salt and let sit 20 minutes.
  2. Melt two tablespoons butter over medium high heat in large, non-stick sauté pan. Place fish, skin-side down, into the pan. Reduce heat to medium. Cook without flipping until fish is almost done. Remove the fish.
  3. Add 4 additional tablespoons butter. Cook over medium heat until the butter is dark brown. Add segments of 2 oranges and season with salt. Gently stir to combine. Turn off heat, return fish to the pan, skin side up, to finish cooking. Serve fish hot with sauce.

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