There’s nothing quite as wonderful as a perfectly charred piece of fish beluga caviar: crispy crust on one side, barely done meat in the centre. It is one of the great flavours in the world, and it is my reference method for cooking almost any fish.
I was primarily a seafood cook for 15 years before playing a wild game. Fishing is in my DNA, and I’m proud to say that my parents taught me well how to catch all kinds of sea creatures. However, I did not learn this technique from them. I learned to brown a fish when I was a line cook years ago. Pan-searing is a classic restaurant method of cooking fish.
The technique works on any fillet or fish fillet. I’m using the striped bass here, but most of the fish will work. The only fish that do not respond well to abrasion are those with many bones, such as shad, or very small fish, such as sardines, or very thin fillets, such as sole.
Some things first. Most fish have very tasty skin if cooked properly. Some, such as trigger fish or sturgeon or swordfish, have skin so thick or rubbery that it is essentially leather. Others, like mackerel, have such thin skin that it can’t be crunchy enough. But old fish, such as sea bass, perch, salmon, flounder, snapper, or rock cod, have excellent skin that is very crispy. Be sure to scale the fish (or your fishmonger does), but leave the skin on the fillet.
Take out the fish fillets 20 minutes before cooking and sprinkle a little salt on them. If it is a very thick fish, such as swordfish, let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
When you’re ready to start cooking, place a cast iron or steel skillet (don’t use non-stick, because you can’t cook with these skillets over high heat) over high heat until very hot.
While the pan is heating, grab a butter knife and scrape the skin side of the fish fillet to remove excess moisture. If there is no skin, skip this part. Either way, pat the whole fish fillet dry with a paper towel.
Pour the oil into the center of the hot pan. Shake to cover the pan and let it heat. If you start smoking, remove the pan from the heat until it stops. Lay the fish fillets skin-side down. If there is no skin on the fish, place it on the side where it used to be. The moment the fillets hit the pan, shake it so the fish doesn’t stick.