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Why You Should Butter-Baste Fish

By Steve Dunn Published

We break down this pro technique to produce flawless, flavorful fillets.

Want to know a secret? Even as a professional cook, I used to get a little nervous when it came time to sauté fish. Fish is expensive, and it can go from juicy to dry in a blink. And when you’re dealing with flaky types such as cod, there is a good chance that the fragile fillets will fall apart when flipped.

These days, however, I cook cod and similar fish with ease, and the results are outstanding. That’s because I butter‑baste—a technique that involves repeatedly spooning sizzling butter over food as it cooks. I’ll explain the mechanics in a bit, but first, a rundown on why it’s so effective.

Bathing fish in hot butter has multiple benefits. It encourages Maillard reactions that add complexity and help develop a golden crust. Maillard reactions also turn the milk solids in the butter nutty and sweet as it browns. Those flavors, along with aromatics added to the butter, enhance the lean, mild fish. Butter basting also cooks food from above and below—the hot fat cooks the top while the skillet cooks the bottom. This means you don’t have to flip the fish later on, when it is especially delicate.

A large oval spoon with a deep bowl works best for basting.

Butter basting can seem intimidating because things move quickly, and chefs often rely on touch and instinct alone to know when the fish is done. But I developed an approach that’s easy to master, and it even involves a few breaks along the way.

Associate Editor Steve Dunn bastes fish fillets as he prepares for an initial taste test.

Start by cooking two 1-inch-thick fillets in an oiled nonstick or carbon-steel skillet for 4 minutes. Turn the fillets over—this is the only flip in the process, and since it happens early, the fillets will still be firm enough to stay intact—and cook them for a minute on the second side before adding cubed butter. Once the butter is melted, the real fun begins. Tilt the skillet toward you to pool the fat, and use a deep spoon to pour the butter over the fish for 15 seconds. There’s no need to rush; just baste until the time is up. Now, take a break: Put the skillet flat on the burner and let the fish cook for 30 seconds. Baste again, and then take the temperature of the fish. This “on-off” method moderates the skillet’s heat, and tracking the fish’s temperature removes any guesswork about when it’s done.

When the fish registers 130 degrees, add thyme and garlic to the far side of the skillet to keep any spattering away from your hands; the fillets will keep the aromatics out of the butter as you baste. Continue to alternate between cooking and basting until the fish registers 140 degrees. As you work, the perfume of browned butter and aromatics will waft from the skillet, and when you’re done, the fish will be intact, golden, moist, and richly flavored. But that’s not the only reward. The other one comes in the final moments of cooking, when you feel like a rock-star chef.

Our approach calls for taking a break from basting every 15 seconds and letting the skillet sit flat on the burner.

Recipe Butter-Basted Fish Fillets with Garlic and Thyme

We break down this pro technique to produce flawless, flavorful fillets.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.