Fish are frightening. Unlike beef or chicken—no brainers you can rub down, sauce up, and toss on a hot grill—fish seem to require finesse and delicacy to cook properly. Add to that the vast number of options at your local seafood market, and it takes balls to bypass the pork tenderloin and strip steak in favor of sea bass or snapper.
“People are scared of cooking fish, and I don’t understand why,” says Mike Stollenwerk, the award-winning seafood chef in charge of Philadelphia’s 26 North.
Of course, our collective fear of preparing food with fins isn’t a bad thing for Stollenwerk’s business. It doesn’t make much sense to drop $40 on a steakhouse filet when you can make a mean one at home for less than half the price.
But perfectly crusted skate wing with truffled speatzle and melted leaks? A lot of diners are happy to fork over $29 to Stollenwerk in exchange for his intricate (and fucking delicious) signature entrée. “I try to make dishes people couldn’t make at home,” he says.
While you’d have to apprentice with him or spend time in culinary school to put together a complete dish like that skate wing, nailing the fish portion requires only some basic knowledge and the right tools, Stollenwerk says.
SHOPPING FOR FISH
First of all, don’t worry about whether a fish is in season. “If it weren’t, you wouldn’t see it at your market,” Stollenwerk says.
When it comes to assessing the freshness of fish fillets, you want to watch out for gaps or separation in the flesh. If you see those, steer clear.
In terms of whole fish, look for specimens with bright, unclouded eyes, Stollenwerk says. “You also want to look at the gills,” he says. “They should be bright red, not dull or brown.”
Finally, poke the fish with your finger. Its flesh should be nice and supple, and spring back as though you’d never touched it. If your finger leaves an indentation, pass.
THE ONE TOOL YOU’LL PROBABLY HAVE TO BUY
At least half of the restaurant meals you’ve eaten in your life—including many you’d get at Stollenwerk’s place—are prepared in a piece of equipment few home cooks have in their arsenal: a seasoned carbon steel pan.
Forget stainless steel or expensive copper cookware. Stollenwerk says carbon steel is cheap, simple to maintain, and easy to use.
You could drop $50 on this option at Amazon, which took home top honors from Cook’s Illustrated. Or you could pick up something similar at your local restaurant supply store for about $12, Stollenwerk says.
Clean it thoroughly, coat it with a layer of canola oil and kosher salt, and put it on a burner cranked up to high for about 15 minutes. It’ll smoke like a son of a bitch, and turn nearly black. But that’s what you want.
Let it cool, and then wipe away the salt with a rag dipped in canola oil, Stollenwerk says. You now own a pan that will perfectly brown fish with little-to-no risk of it sticking.
“Just never let water touch that pan, or it’ll lose its non-stick,” he says. “If it gets really dirty, just put it on high heat for a few minutes and then wipe it down with oil.”
THE SIMPLEST WAY TO PREPARE WHAT YOU PURCHASED
We’ll get to the nitty gritty of preparing whole fish and some trickier types in a minute. But now that you’ve got your seasoned carbon steel pan, you’ve got a tool you can use to cook scallops or pretty much any type of fish fillet—from sea bass and salmon to halibut, Stollenwerk says.
Start the pan over medium-high heat. Add some canola oil. While that’s heating up, remove your fish from the refrigerator.
“It’s not like steak that you’d want to bring up to room temperature,” he says. “You really want fish to go from your fridge to your pan to your plate without sitting around in between.”
Pat the fish dry with paper towel to prevent it from sticking or messing with your pan’s coating. Season both sides, then start it cooking skin side down. After three minutes, turn the heat down to medium, Stollenwerk says.
Keep an eye on the sides of the filet. Starting near the pan’s surface, the fish will gradually darken and lose its translucence as it cooks. When you see that it has cooked a little more than half way through, flip it over and keep it going for about half the time it has already been in the pan.
Pull it off and plate it skin side up. “If you plate it skin side down, the juices will make the skin soggy and ruin that nice crust you put on it,” he says.
COOKING THE TRICKIER TYPES
As popular as it is, salmon is one of the hardest fish to cook properly, Stollenwerk says. “It cooks very fast, and it’ll keep cooking even when you pull it off the heat,” he says. He recommends the pan searing method just outlined, with just 3-4 minutes on the skin side and half that time once it’s flipped.
Again, you’re going to pan sear tuna steaks. But you just want to crisp the outside while leaving the middle more or less raw, he says. Let your pan sit over high heat, then sear each side of the tuna steak for just 30 seconds.
Grill these bad boys for about three minutes per side over medium-high heat. “If you go to flip it and it’s sticking, just leave it alone,” Stollenwerk says. Try again in a minute, and they should come up easily. Just make sure to spray your grill grate with canola oil beforehand.
Again, grilling is an easy option. Give this fish about five minutes on each side, again over medium-high heat.
Whether it’s halibut or orange roughy, most white fish do well in a mixture of white wine and butter, Stollenwerk says. Stick that in the oven at 375 for four to nine minutes, depending on the thickness of the cut, he says.
“I’d butterfly it and bake it, flesh side up,” Stollenwerk says. Crank your oven to 475 and bake the trout for about eight minutes. Another option: If you have a topside broiler, it’ll only take you 3 minutes and you can put a nice crust on it. Just make sure the trout’s flesh is positioned six inches from the flames.
OTHER WHOLE FISH
Whether it’s branzino or red snapper, Stollenwerk suggests starting the fish skin side down in your carbon steel pan over high heat. Once you’ve got a good crust on one side, flip it into an oven-safe pan coated with canola oil and cook it at 375 degrees for another five to 10 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the fish.
Like cooking anything else, Stollenwerk says nailing a fish’s doneness requires practice and feel. Keep in mind: “If it’s underdone, you can always cook it more,” he says. But there’s no fix for overcooked fish.