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Get your sear on

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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You know what I love? Perfectly cooked fish with a crisp crust, the kind you get in restaurants and rarely anywhere else. Today I'm going to teach you how to do it. Not to be smug, but you're better off learning it from me than from Eric Ripert.


h1.Featured recipes


It's not that I cook fish better than he does. If a cast-iron pan fell on Eric Ripert's head and knocked him unconscious, he could cook better fish than me on the way to the hospital. I'm not a better teacher, either. But I just learned to do it, so I haven't quite internalized the method to the point where I forget the specifics.

The best recipe in the world isn't going to teach you to cook fish right on the first try. Think about what you'd do if you wanted to learn how to poach an egg. You'd get a dozen eggs and go to town. Want to learn to get a great crust on a fish fillet without over- or undercooking it? Same principle.

No, no, you don't have to blow your week's dinner budget on a dozen fillets and throw away the errors. Buy a couple of fillets and cut them into pieces. Cut down the center line and then across. You can easily cut a pair of tilapia or catfish fillets into 12 pieces. A few pieces in, you're going to get the hang of it, and you can serve "medallions" of perfectly seared fish for dinner.

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h3. Choose the right fillet 

You're looking for a thickness of 1/3 to 1 inch. Too thin, and it’ll be difficult to get a good sear on the fish before it overcooks; think poaching or whole-roasting for the little guys. Fish that sear well include salmon, halibut, rockfish, mackerel, tilapia, sablefish, tuna, and catfish.

When searing fish, freshness is paramount, because if anything is funky about your fish, searing will amplify the funk (I know, in the music world this is a good thing!) and encourage it to hang around your house for several days. 

How do you choose fresh fish? The usual advice involves looking the fish in the eye. But who buys whole fish anymore? Better to look a trustworthy fishmonger in the eye and buy whatever she says is fresh.

h3. Searing thin fillets

Here’s what you do with fillets that are less than 2/3-inch thick.

# Season the fish liberally on both sides with salt and pepper and let it sit at room temperature while you heat the pan.
# Select a skillet with a thick bottom and a stainless-steel cooking surface — not nonstick. The bottom of the skillet shouldn't be much larger than the burner. 
# Place the skillet over medium-high heat and add a tablespoon or two of oil, enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat until the oil begins to smoke. 
# Add two or three pieces of fish to the pan and let it cook until well seared. This typically takes 2 to 3 minutes. If you try to peek at the bottom of the fillet and it's stuck to the pan, it's not seared yet. Flip the fish and continue cooking until the fish is done.


h1. Smokeout


Cooking fish over high heat releases three demons: fishy smell, grease, and smoke. 

Buying fresh fish helps to avoid fishy smell (albeit not completely). To tame grease, I use one of those cheap splatter screens. It works pretty well, although I still have to wash my glasses before dinner. 

As for smoke, if you having a working vent fan, I envy you. I open the back door and tape a plastic grocery bag over the smoke alarm. That way I always remember to reactivate the alarm after dinner, because there's an ugly plastic bag hanging from my ceiling.


How do you know when it's done? Practice. Poke the fish with your finger as it cooks. Undercooked fish is mushy. You'll feel the texture evolve. You want to take it out just before it becomes springy. I can't tell you how long this will take, but after cooking two or three batches, you will know.

You don't have to practice at dinnertime, either. For lunch today, I bought a catfish fillet, seared it, and served it on an English muffin with shredded napa cabbage, a squeeze of lime, and hot sauce. Cheap, sustainable fish, plus stuff I found around the house, equals a fabulous lunch.

h3. Searing thicker fillets or steaks

Here’s what you do with fillets that are more than 2/3-inch thick.

Follow the instructions for searing thin fillets, but before you begin, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. 

After you flip the fish, slide the whole pan into the oven and check for doneness every minute or so. (In restaurant parlance, you are now pan-roasting. Congratulations.) Don't be like me and touch the hot handle of the pan after you take it out of the oven.

Cooking crispy fish like this makes you a culinary rock star. After dinner, you'll be invited to hang out with your local chefs, who will be eating what chefs always eat after hours: the opposite of crispy fish, otherwise known as sushi.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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