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Yielding the perfect Crispy Fish Skin

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So I have decided that every now and again, when something springs to mind, I would share some of the stuff I have learnt about seafood – whether it is purchasing, cooking or presenting. I have received quite a few emails about cooking fish, so why not share some of my responses with everyone, rather than just a single person!

Anyone that reads this blog knows that I am pretty nutty about fish. Lets face it, it’s fantastic. I can think of no other protein that has so many different flavors and textures, and can be presented in so many different ways.

Cooking the great striped bass this weekend made me think about the technique of cooking really good crispy fish skin. Most people really shy away from cooking fish with skin on, and I can understand why..

Often enough the skin ends up kinda soft and flabby, and really not that appetizing at all. Not only does this turn people off fish skin, but also off fish in general. Nutty, nutty stuff. When done right, fish skin can develop and amazing crispy quality that is just incredible to eat. An added bonus? Well a lot of the great Omega3 fats in fish is located just below the skin, and removing the skin from your fillets removes quite a bit of this.

I have worked a while at different techniques for getting great crispy skin on fish. I have had a bunch of failures, and also developed a technique over time that gives really great results.

The skinny on cooking skin on fish

A quickie on buying fish

Lets start at the beginning. The fish. You really need to start with the freshest fish you can find. I typically avoid buying fish in a grocery store. Go to a decent quality independent fishmonger, and you will be amazed at the difference in quality.

So how do you tell if a fish is fresh? Three things really – sight, smell, and touch.

A fillet should look bright, never dull. The flesh should look translucent and alive. The skin shouldn’t look dried up. It should look moist and fresh.

Next up is smell. Fish should smell of the ocean, not a really pungent old fish smell.

Touch is a little more dicey – Not too many fishmongers will let you poke fish.. But try and get them to if you are unsure. The flesh or skin should spring back, if it doesn’t, it is pretty old.

Talk to your fishmonger. Any decent fishmonger will tell you what is fresh, what is good at that moment, and what is a great buy. If you get the standard Whole Foods “Yep, it is fresh today” – just walk away.. who knows what that means.

For this kind of presentation I like to buy thick fillets. Avoid tail end cuts, which are thinner. If the fillet is too thin, then the fish will cook through completely before the skin has had time to get crispy. The fillet should be at least an inch thick, preferably more. Trim off any of the belly flap that is less than 1/2” thick – that is just going to burn and taste bad.

Storing fish – Keep whole fish on ice in your fridge. You can do the same with fillets, but make sure you drain the water out of the ice pan often. Your fish shouldn’t have been filleted more than 24hours before you buying and cooking it. Ask your fishmonger when he broke the fish down.

Oh – where to buy fish if you live in Seattle. I absolutely love Mutual Fish, down on Rainier Ave. These guys are completely awesome. They really know their fish, they are completely honest about their product, and don’t stock anything that isn’t fresh. Their shellfish is just awesome too. Completely avoid the muppets that throw fish at Pikes Market. A complete tourist attraction.

Preparing your amazingly fresh fish

Next up is preparing the fish for cooking. It makes sense that if there is any moisture in the skin then it is going to be pretty hard for the skin to get crispy. First off, dry the skin and flesh with a paper towel. The next thing we want to do is gently press any remaining water out of the skin. Run the back of a knife along the skin. Take a look at the blade – you should see some watery gunk collected on the blade, and some on the skin. Wipe this off with a paper towel. Keep doing this until no more water comes out.

Now salt the skin the side. Let it sit for a bit (15 minutes). The salt will do two things – season (duh), and also help draw out any more moisture. If you see little beads of water on the surface of the skin, wipe the skin again with a paper towel, and reapply the salt.

Finally – make sure the fish is up to room temperature before cooking. Take the fish out, and let it sit at room temp for 15 minutes or so before cooking (depending on the temperature of your house).

Cooking! Yay!!!

I have found the best way to get crispy skin is to saute it, then oven roast it. Start by preheating your oven to 375F. Now for pan selection. I like to use a decent stainless steel pan for doing crispy skin. If done right, the fish doesn’t stick. Done right means regulating the temperature, and having a bit of faith. Once the protein in the skin has cooked through, the fish should release itself pretty well from the pan. You just have to have a bit of faith that it will do so – and no prod it after 30 seconds!

A lot of people hate cooking fish in a pan, because they think it is going to stink out your kitchen. If you kitchen ends up smelling like old fish, then your fish wasn’t fresh, it wasn’t fresh at all.

If you don’t want to use a stainless steel pan, then a good quality non-stick pan will work fine. I am not a huge fan of non-stick for anything other than cooking eggs. Teflon is pretty crappy at high temperatures, where it can break down, and flake off into food. YUM. It scratches easily too.. which means plastic tools, which I personally hate. If you do really want a good quality non-stick pan – look at the two following brands:

Swiss Diamond

Scanpan

Personally I like Swiss Diamond. Sounds like a gimmick, but they have ground up diamonds in their coating. This does make it super tough – so much so that you can use metal tools in the pan. I have had a swiss diamond pan for years, and it still looks and works like new. Before that I got through regular non-stick pans every few months.

So. Get the pan hot. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan well. I like to use olive oil here, or sesame oil. When the oil is hot, and moving freely, but not smoking, add the fish skin side down, and turn the heat down to medium. If the heat is too high, then your fish is going to stick to your pan.

Let this cook for about 5 minutes. Regulate the temperature – not too hot. Take it slowly and you will get a great browning. Too hot, and you get a lot of black. Chard nasty black. Afrter about five minutes, gently release the fish, and flip it flesh side down. Immediately put this into the oven. Let this cook for another few minutes to cook the flesh all the way through.

I am not going to give you a precise time – it depends on the density of your fishes flesh, and its thickness, and its fat level. After a few minutes take a look at it – The translucency should have just gone, and it should flake easily.

So that should be it. Really pretty simple. It just right down to decent prep work of the skin, and slow cooking.

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13 Responses to “Yielding the perfect Crispy Fish Skin”

  1. Nate says:

    Nice tutorial. Could you post a pic of that crispy skin after it’s come out of the oven?

  2. matt wright says:

    Hi Nate – sure take a look at the previous blog post on my site, the shot of the fish cooking is actually from that dish – the Striped bass with tomato sauce. I cooked this fish exactly as I described here.

    Link is here:
    http://mattikaarts.com/blog/?p=720

  3. What a great how to! I learned quite a lot from this post! Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the tips. We love fish! Hopefully, my fish will turn out better after reading your sage advice.

  5. Robin says:

    Great tips Matt. I’m the cook in my household, but my boyfriend’s claim to fame (and my heart) was his knowledge of how to cook fish in this way. Once you know this, you LOVE the skin on fish!

  6. Mrs Ergül says:

    Wah, it this outright useful! Can you also advise us on how to remove the ‘fishy’ taste than many people who condemn seafood says? I mean, I don’t feel that way about fish but I just wanna turn those people around to liking fish cuz it’s almost the greatest type of meat around!

  7. mattwright says:

    Hi Mrs Ergul – Ahh, the whole stinky fish thing. It comes down to how fresh your fish is really. If the fish is old, then it is going to stink. No way around it really. Make sure that the fish you get is from a really good fishmonger (generally avoid buying at a grocery store – if you have to though, Whole Foods is acceptable for all but mussels and clams). Fish should smell of the ocean, not of rotting fish.

    Some fish have a smell that is naturally stronger than others. Sardines and mackerel both can be a little stronger than others, especially if pan-frying them. Maybe save those for the grill outside – which happens to work great for them anyhow.

  8. I’ve gone through the torture of fish sticking to the pan while I was at culinary school a couple months ago. I’ve learned that, as you said, the perfect temperature of the oil is really key to making sure the skin gets crispy but does not burn or stick. I also find that flattening the fish with a fish spatula helps to get an even crispy skin and prevent the fish from curling in the pan.

    I loved reading your post, and I’m glad I discovered your site. Cooking fish is often underrated and it’s blog like yours that should remind everyone why fish and seafood are so versatile to cook with!

  9. mycookinghut says:

    What a good write up! Thank you for sharing all the tips! I totally agree with you regarding the 3 important things to look out for in choosing fresh fish – sight, smell, and touch.
    I went to wet market in Malaysia when I was really young with my mom and I remember when she bought whole fish, she looked out for those with clear eyes, no cloudiness.

  10. Michael says:

    What about using clarified butter for cooking instead of olive oil? I have used it in the past because of the higher smoke point. I’ve not been able to achieve the crisp skin on fish, it always turns out soggy and gross, so I am looking forward to trying your technique. Would using clarified butter screw up the technique, and should I stick to EVOO?

  11. matt wright says:

    Michael – In all honesty I have never tried this with clarifed butter. I don’t see that it wouldn’t work to be honest.

    The main secrets are really just simply temperature regulation, having enough self control to leave the fish well alone for 5 minutes, and making sure that you use good quality fresh fish.

    I find that if I use frozen fish, I don’t get quite the same results. Fresh always yields a better crispier skin.

  12. Chryss says:

    Hi Matt, I know I’m a couple of years too late but I just wanted to say how great a writer you are. You are obviously passionate about your subject and that really comes through in your writing. It’s refreshing. You obviously also know what you’re talking about as I’ve just cooked some crispy skin cod and it was DIVINE. Thank you very much. Cheers, Chryss.

  13. Mary Pat says:

    I always use clarified butter to cook crispy skinned fish. It helps to salt the fish and score the skin before dredging in flour and cooking in the hot clarified butter. Surround it with lemon buerre blanc… delicious!