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.
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.