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Pan frying fish? Falls apart

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
I've been buying whole fish lately, mainly snapper and I want to pan fry them so that the skin is crispy, but my fish always falls apart... Can anyone providesome tips? I'm using a reasonably well seasoned cast iron skillet with lots of oil. Thanks!
post #2 of 11
Hi Hugoshi, and welcome to Chef Talk.

I think it would help if you tell us what species of fish you're frying and if you put anything on the skin.
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post #3 of 11
Thread Starter 
red snapper, nothing on the skin except salt and pepper. Lots of oil in the pan. Should I just add more oil and deep fry it? Thx
post #4 of 11
Before seasoning the fish, make sure the skin is very dry. Damp skin will not crisp.

Before putting oil in the pan, make sure the pan is very hot. If the pan is still cool when the oil goes in, the pan is more likely to be sticky.

Before putting the fish in the oil, make sure the oil is very hot -- at least 350F for anything but olive oil. Oil that's not enough will steam the skin rather than crisp it.

When you put the fish in the pan, don't move the fish to try and keep it from sticking. After a minute (at least) shake the pan gently to see if the fish moves. If it does, use a fish spatula to gently turn the fish. If the fish won't move with gentle shaking, give it another 30 seconds before shaking. Check by shaking every thirty seconds until 3 minutes total have elapsed.

Then, if the fish will not move as a result of gently shaking the pan try and push it with the side of your spatula to get it moving. If you cannot push it free, only then (carefully) slide the spatula under the fish.

Be careful when you turn the fish. Use your fingertips to steady the fish on the spatula. When turning something as delicate as fish, two hands are much better than one.

Turn the fish and cook the second side roughly 20 to 45 seconds shorter than the first.

Keep track of the time. Fish which falls apart is generally overcooked. If you're overcooking, cook your next batch at the same heat, but for less time.

Crisp fish skin is not particularly easy. There's a learning curve to this. So be patient with yourself and keep at it.

Hope this helps,
BDL
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post #5 of 11
BDL is right about dry skin: you want it as dry as possible. Don't just blot it with towels; hold the blade of a knife at a right angle to the skin (straight up and down) and squeegee off any moisture. Keep doing that until nothing comes off on the edge of the knife.

He's also right about heating the pan before adding oil, about not touching the fish until it tells you that it's ready to move, and about being gentle when you turn it over.

But there are a few other things I will add:

First: after you have gotten the skin as dry as possible, very lightly cut a cross-hatch patter in the skin on both sides. This will help the fish cook more evenly all the way through. Then you won't have to cook it so long that the outside is overcooked for the inside to be done (I'm assuming your fish are bone-in. But even if they've been boned, this helps.)

Second: Your really don't need a lot of oil. Just film the pan lightly. If you score the skin, more of the fish will stay in contact with the pan surface, which will give you the crisp skin you want.

Third: Try dusting the fish lightly with Wondra flour. It helps make a crust. Just be careful that you don't have the heat so high that it burns.

Fourth: Don't try to get it all cooked on top of the stove. Sear it on one side, flip it (gently!), and then let it finish cooking in a 400-450F/200-230C oven. The heat surrounding the fish will again help it cook all the way through without overcooking part. (This is generally how it's done in restaurants.)

And finally: keep practicing, and keep eating lots of fish! :lips:
"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
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"Notorious stickler" -- The New York Times, January 4, 2004
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post #6 of 11
Thread Starter 
WOW

thank you so much, that is so enlightening. I can't wait to buy more fish, and i'll let you know how it goes.
post #7 of 11
When you add the oil to the pan there is no reason you can not just bring the oil up to temperature then add your fish.
You do not want to load your fish in a cold pan or cold oil.
The notion that your food may stick to the pan if you do not heat your pan first and then add the oil is little more than an old wives tale. Once the metal of your pan is hot and oiled it's hot and oiled irrespective of whether you heat the pan first or the oil and the pan together. If you load a hot pan with oil at home you may get an unnecessary mess or worse.
In professional kitchens this is done to save a little time but it can be very hard on some pans.
As others have said make sure your fish skin is dry. Dry the fish as well as you can with paper towels . You can then put your fish on paper towels in the fridge for a few hours before you cook it allowing it to completely dry. Change your paper towels if you need to.
Do not use a lot of oil. Just enough to coat the bottom of your pan with a bit more than a thin layer. Even less with some oily fish. You want to pan fry not deep fry.
If you can find a slotted spatula this may make things easier for you when you turn your fish as they are often wider than a standard spatula.
Flour does make a nice crust but it can also burn so if your starting out you may want to consider that.
As Suzanne mentioned finish it in the oven. This will help prevent over cooking and cook larger fish more evenly.
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I think the most wonderful thing in the world is another chef. I'm always excited about learning new things about food.
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post #8 of 11
If you have a pan with a lid, cover the pan so the fish doesn't need to be turned. It sounds to me like you are over cooking the fish in an effort to get the skin crisp. This method should work for you as the fish can stay on the skin side for the duration of the cooking.
post #9 of 11
Ok, This is just what I've been taught and I expect fallout feedback.

Never ever use flour. The skin will not crisp if frying Ie crispy skin on cod.

Pan fry swiftly and put in the oven. Med/high temp ( gas 7. Dont know electric equivalent) Don't attempt to turn the fish.
"If we're not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?" Jo Brand
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"If we're not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?" Jo Brand
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post #10 of 11
Fairly high heat to start off with and plenty of salt on the skin to draw out the fats when it cooks. Start off skin side down, turn and under a salamander.

Another thing to consider is whether the fish has been frozen.
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post #11 of 11
Gas mark 7 is about a 425 F ( 220 C ) oven.

I sort of remember an Iron Chef episode, perhaps Japan, perhaps America where Morimoto had a slab of salmon on a cedar plank which he held above his wok. The cooking method looked pretty tedious, not to mention hot. Basically he just kept ladling hot oil out of the wok onto the fish skin. The finished product looked REALLY good, with a dark, crisp skin and the flesh just barely cooked through, certainly not overdone.


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