Crispy Pan-Seared Fish with Piquillo Pepper Sauce
Why This Recipe Works
by Tim Chin
For a lot of cooks, it can feel like the difference between succulent, moist fish and dry, flaky pucks is a matter of seconds in the frying pan. At that point, why even try to do it yourself? But cooking a restaurant-worthy piece of seared fish at home doesn’t have to be hard. There are two secrets that make it a cinch.
The first? Salt your fish before you cook it. As with most other meats, pretreating the fish with salt accomplishes two things. One, salt seasons the flesh by diffusion, as it moves from an area of greater salt concentration to an area of lower concentration. Salt dissolves in the water in the flesh and moves inward, seasoning the fish deeply. Two, salt actually dissolves some of the proteins in the fish and forms a gel that can hold on to more moisture. In this short salting time, the effect is mostly contained to the exterior portions of the flesh—the very regions most likely to be overcooked. (Salting also drastically reduces the dreaded white band of coagulated albumin that appears when fish is seared). All that science lingo comes down to a simple process: Season sturdy whitefish filets with a mixture of salt and sugar (for balanced seasoning), let it hang out for a little less than an hour, and cook it.
The second secret is going low and slow. Instead of searing the fish hard and flipping it or even finishing it in the oven, opt for a gentler cooking method: Start in a hot pan and drop the flame to maintain an even, steady sear. Cooking the fish most of the way on the skin side—an old-school, fancy French technique dubbed “unilateral” cooking—ensures that the skin gets incredibly crispy while the flesh stays moist. After that, a gentle kiss of heat on the flesh side is all the fish needs to finish cooking. With a quick, tangy tomato-pepper sauce, this is a versatile dish you can whip up any night of the week to impress even the pickiest pescatarian.
Photography by Steve Klise