How to Pan Roast Fish

We always hear that we should eat more fish because it is so good for us, but that can be intimidating for some. Here's a simple lesson on how to pan roast fish.

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Three raw fillets of salmon on brown parchment on a wooden cutting board.

How to buy fresh fish

Before you can pan roast a fish… you need to buy the fish! If you’re not in a coastal town and accustomed to buying fish, this can be a little intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be if you need to know what to look for. First of all, try to find a reputable fish market. Look for lots of clean crushed ice in the counter and a tidy and attractive presentation of fish. Then look to see if it has other customers. A frequent and rapid turn over of product is a sign that the market is constantly replenishing their counter with fresh fish. 

The very best way to know if fish is fresh is to smell it. Fresh fish should not smell fishy. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), few fish counters really let you get your nose that close to their products. So, look at the fish. If the fish is whole, it should have bright clear eyes and shiny skin. If you’re looking at fillets, the flesh should look taut and not damaged or with separating layers. White-fleshed fish should look almost translucent with a pinkish tint and colored fish like salmon should have a dense color. 

Sometimes, buying a whole side of fish is a good option. A whole side of fish has been handled much less than fillets and buy cutting the fish into fillets yourself, you can choose what shape and size of fillet you would like. Learn how to cut a side of salmon here or try cooking the whole side of fish whole with this baked salmon with horseradish crust.

If you can’t find good fresh fish, opt for frozen. Frozen fish should be well packaged – cryovak packaging is the best. Make sure there are no white freezer-burn spots and that the fish is less than 3 months old. Defrost the fish in the refrigerator overnight, or on the counter for an hour or so if you’re cooking right away.

Two fillets of salmon on a green plate with salt and pepper in the background.

Pre-heat your oven and your pan

Now that you have your fish home, it’s time to pan-roast it. Because we’ll be transferring the pan to the oven, make sure to pre-heat your oven to 400ºF first. I usually opt for a non-stick pan when cooking fish so that there is absolutely no worry about sticking. A stainless steel pan will give you a crispier finish, but you will probably need a little more oil to ensure it doesn’t stick. Whichever pan you use, make sure you pre-heat the pan well. Pre-heat the pan empty for at least a couple of minutes over medium-high heat.

Hands grinding pepper onto salmon fillets on a green plate.

Season the fish

I’m a firm believer in getting the very best fish you can and then doing as little to it as possible. If the fish is good, it won’t need much help in tasting good. Season well with salt and pepper while the pan is pre-heating. 

Presentation Side First

When it comes to putting the fish in the pan, add a little oil or butter to the pan first and then place the fish in the pan “presentation side” down first. The “presentation side” is the side that you want to present face up to your guest. Usually, this is the flesh side of fish as opposed to the skin side. The exception is if you are intending to crisp the skin and present the skin side up. Presentation side should go down into the pan first because the pan is crisp and clean and you will get the best browning on the first side that hits it. 

Two fillets of salmon in a non-stick pan with a pair of tongs, showing the first step in how to pan roast fish..

Transfer to the Oven

It won’t take more than a 2 to 3 minutes to get beautiful color on the fish. Then it’s time to flip it over and transfer it to the oven. Sending it to the oven frees up your stovetop for a few minutes so that you can prepare anything else you’re having with the fish. It won’t be in the oven for long however.

A fillet of pan roasted salmon on a white dinner plate with rice and salad greens.

How Long to Cook Fish

The rule of thumb for cooking fish is that a fillet of fish that is 1-inch thick, will take roughly 10 minutes at 400ºF or over medium-high heat. Because with this technique we’re doing both – cooking over medium-high heat and in a 400ºF oven – the total cooking time should be about 10 minutes. Break that down to 3 to 4 minutes on the stove and then another 6 to 7 minutes in the oven.

And that’s it! Once it’s out of the oven, press down on the fish gently with your finger. It should feel more firm to the touch with just a little give. The more well done you like your fish, the firmer it should feel. Squeeze a little lemon juice on top and add some fresh herbs if you like and you’ve just prepared beautiful fish for dinner.

For a recipe version of this cooking skill, click here

Quick Notes

  • Select whole fish with bright, clear eyes and shiny skin, or fillets with taut, undamaged flesh. White-fleshed fish should have a translucency and colored fish should have a dense color.
  • Pre-heat your pan. (hot pan = better sear and color)
  • Season your fish with salt and pepper.
  • Add oil or butter after the pan has pre-heated
  • Place the fish in the pan presentation side down first (flesh side down first)
  • Transfer the pan to a 400ºF oven.
  • Cooking time: 1 inch thick fillet of fish should take no more than 10 minutes at 400ºF or over medium-high heat 
  • No need to rest fish after cooking.

Quick Basic - Pan-Roasted Salmon

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