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A New Way to Steam Fish

By Andrea Geary Published

Classic Chinese and French methods produce moist, flavorful steamed fish. We used the best of both and came up with an entirely new approach that’s easy and equally impressive.

I

f you’re not steaming fish, you should be. It’s a delicate method for cooking a delicate protein that leads to supremely moist, tender results. It’s fast enough to do on a weeknight but delivers company-worthy elegance. And when it’s done well, there’s a real flavor benefit—if you know how to season and dress the fish. 

Both Chinese and French cuisines have classic approaches to steaming. Cantonese cooks steam fish whole (typically sprinkled with aromatics such as garlic, ginger, and scallions) in a bamboo steamer set in a wok filled with a few inches of boiling water. Once cooked, the fish is transferred to a platter, doused with soy sauce and maybe a splash of rice wine, and garnished with fresh scallions. The final flourish is a drizzle of hot oil that sizzles as it hits the fish, releasing a cloud of delicate aromas into the air.

Cooking individual fillets (rather than a whole fish) makes it easier to serve each portion.

The French technique, called en papillote (“in paper”), calls for enclosing individual fillets in parchment or foil envelopes with vegetables, perhaps a bit of fat, and a splash of wine or broth and then baking the packets in the oven. Each diner then gets their own parcel of fish, vegetables, and steaming cooking liquid to open at the table.

There’s a lot to love about both approaches, but I’ve long wanted a mash-up that offers what I consider to be the best of each: the bold, fresh flavors and hot oil drizzle of the Chinese method and the convenient oven cooking and flavorful fish jus of the French method. Drawing inspiration from both and using easy-to-find fillets would lead to my ideal steamed fish.

Full Steam Ahead

Though the steaming would take place in the oven, crimping the fillets in individual packets was a labor of love that I’d save for another time—not to mention the fact that packets opened at the table would make it difficult to drizzle the cooked fillets with the hot oil.

Placing the delicate fillets on a foil sling makes it easy to lift them from the pan without breaking them. It also prevents the aromatics from sticking to the fish.

Instead, I decided to steam all the fillets together in a single makeshift packet: a foil-covered metal baking pan. I arranged four skinless cod fillets in the pan and topped them with some sliced garlic and neatly julienned scallions and ginger. Next I pondered the cooking liquid. Since the fillets would be sitting in the liquid rather than above it in a steamer, it made sense to follow the French method and use something more flavorful than plain water. As a starting point, I whisked together a few tablespoons of soy sauce, some rice wine, and a bit of nutty toasted sesame oil; poured it around the fillets; and then covered the pan tightly with foil. After about 15 minutes in a 450-degree oven, the fillets hit their target doneness temperature of 135 degrees.

I worked carefully to maneuver the tidy fillets onto the serving platter, but they flaked apart anyway. Then, when I finished them with sliced scallions and a splash of hot oil (which sent up an enticing aroma), the combined effect of carryover cooking and the oil caused them to overcook slightly. The presentation wasn’t great either: The now‑soggy aromatics clung to the top of the fish.

Sling It

I had an idea for keeping the fillets intact during transfer: Treat them like bar cookies and cook them on top of a foil sling. That way, I could gently lift all the fillets out of the pan at once and deposit them onto the serving platter with minimal disturbance. I folded an 18 by 12-inch piece of foil in half lengthwise to create a sling, sprayed it lightly with vegetable oil spray to prevent sticking, laid the sling in the pan, and placed the fillets on top.

Easy Transfer

Steaming the fillets on top of an aluminum foil sling allows us to easily transfer them from the baking pan to the serving platter without breaking them.

  • 1. Grasping both ends, carefully lift sling so that fillets slide to center and are cradled in middle. Place sling gently on serving platter.

  • 2. Place spatula at 1 end of fillets to hold in place. Carefully slide out sling from underneath fish.

I covered the pan with foil and placed it in the oven, but this time I made sure to take the fish out earlier, when it reached 125 degrees, trusting that the hot oil and carryover cooking would help it reach its target temperature. I then grasped each end of the foil sling and transferred the delicate fillets to the platter, carefully sliding the foil out from under them so that I didn’t dislodge a single flake. I poured the juices from the pan over and around the fish, topped it with scallions, and drizzled it with the hot oil.

Soy sauce, Chinese rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, salt, and white pepper make for a potent but balanced cooking liquid.
It's easy to pull back the foil cover and check for doneness. Bake until the fish registers from 125 to 130 degrees (about 12 to 14 minutes).

Now the fillets were perfectly moist, and the cooking-liquid-turned-sauce balanced the delicately clean flavors of the fish. Seasoning the cooking liquid with a little sugar, salt, and white pepper (more floral and delicate than black pepper) made those flavors pop even more, but it was a subtle tweak I made to the aromatics that really gave the sauce depth: Rather than place the garlic, ginger, and scallions on top of the fish, where they turned sadly limp, I laid them in the baking pan underneath the foil sling so that they could infuse the cooking liquid and wouldn’t cling to the cooked fillets. Once the fillets were safely deposited on the serving platter, I strained the spent aromatics and drizzled the flavorful liquid over the fish.

I scattered the fresh scallions over the fillets and was about to pour the oil over the fish when I realized that I could add even more sweet-spicy fragrance and texture to the dish by adding slivers of ginger to the hot oil, where they would turn aromatic, golden, and crisp. Paired with the sauce, this would make a fragrant dressing for the steamed rice I planned to serve on the side. Scattering cilantro sprigs over the top made my quick, new‑school interpretation of steamed fish feel as elegant as it was efficient.

Pouring hot ginger-infused oil over the fish just before serving adds fragrance and richness.

Oven-Steamed Fish with Scallions and Ginger

Classic Chinese and French methods produce moist, flavorful steamed fish. We used the best of both and came up with an entirely new approach that's easy and equally impressive.

Recipe Oven-Steamed Fish with Scallions and Ginger for Two

Classic Chinese and French methods produce moist, flavorful steamed fish. We used the best of both and came up with an entirely new approach that's easy and equally impressive.

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