Published March 1, 2010.
Tough crusts and overcooked interiors plague most pan-roasted fish fillets. To produce beautiful slabs of moist fish, we started by searing just one side.
Pan-roasted fish recipes require keen attention to detail and a practiced hand, which is why they’re such popular entrées—in restaurants. Anything less results in the stringy, overbaked fillets that most of us serve at home.
We set out to develop a foolproof, point-and-shoot recipe for producing succulent, well-browned, thick-cut fish fillets.
From an initial round of testing, we knew we needed thick fillets; skinnier pieces end up overcooked by the time they’ve achieved a serious sear.
After experimenting with a few techniques that produced dried-out interiors or pale excuses for crusts, we saw potential in adapting a common restaurant method for the home kitchen: Sear the fillet in a hot pan, flip, then transfer it to a hot oven to finish cooking. The technique was sound, but we quickly ran into a problem: the heat of the pan. If the pan was too hot, the crust formed but the meat overcooked in the oven, and if the pan was too cool, the fish stayed tender but failed to develop a crust. We needed a way to get plenty of flavorful browning on the fillet’s exterior before the heat ruined the meat’s texture.
Part of the solution might be to increase the rate of browning, but what if we also insulated the fish at the same time, to protect it against drying out? We tried dusting the fillet with flour and other starches, but they lent a pasty texture to the crust. Thinking back to an old recipe we’d developed for searing pork chops, we remembered an odd ingredient choice: Sugar sprinkled over the chop before searing. The idea is that sugar commingles with exuded juices from the chop, accelerating browning and giving the meat a rich color and deep flavor that’s anything but sweet. We dusted a few fillets with a touch of granulated sugar and placed them in a hot skillet. Sure enough, a well-browned crust formed almost immediately, leaving no time for the interior to dry out. We transferred the fish to a hot oven and waited until its center was only a touch translucent. (We found it best to err on the side of undercooking to preserve as much moisture as possible.) Sure enough, the well-browned, flavorful fish was tender and moist, and best of all, not one taster detected any sweetness.list of recipes