How do chefs get that fish perfectly cooked with a crispy skin on top? Cooking fish properly is all about precision and details. Let's not mistake this for complexity. In other words, it's quite simple as long as you develop a very close relationship with your cooking vessel, your heat source and most importantly the piece of fish or seafood you'll be cooking.
Start with Fresh Fish
To say that I'm a bit of freak when it comes to freshness and sustainability would be accurate. I believe very firmly that even the best chefs on the planet, even those screaming ones, cannot revive a rotten piece of fish. Forget smothering it in wallpaper paste to hide all the visual and flavour flaws. I keep it clean and simple. I get to know my fish mongers and what days certain fish arrives in my city and I always interrogate the person at the fish counter. In my birthplace Greece, buying fish is a lively undertaking and there's a ton of yelling and investigative work that all happens at the local fish market. So, I use similar, albeit less insane, tactics here, rather than getting home with a nasty piece of fish to stink up my kitchen and throw out food.
As far as sustainability goes, I know we are all strapped for time and confused about what to buy, so little steps are important. If you know, for example, that wild sockeye salmon season has started, look out for it and expect to pay a higher price. We have reduced our portion sizes in lieu of eating farmed salmon year round at $3.99/ lb . I'm ranting...
So now you have your fresh piece of fish. What's next? That vessel or pan is critical. You know that beaten up non-stick pan that's scratched up but stored between sheets of paper towel to protect it? Don't use it . What? Non-stick cannot take the high heat required to get that perfect sear on a piece of fish and you'll end up steaming it instead of pan roasting it. I love cast iron or a good aluminum pan with stainless steel inside with heat proof handles. When cast iron is seasoned properly, it's the perfect pan for pan roasting. For sauteeing, a 3 ply aluminum with stainless steel inside saute pan with sloped sides for steam to escape, is my pick. Again that high heat is essential.
To properly pan roast a piece of fish, I heat up my seasoned cast iron pan dry on high until when you hover your hand over top of it you can feel lots of heat rising up. Then I oil my fish , season it with course salt and pepper , herbs etc. and lay it very gently skin side down into the dry pan. I press gently with a fish spatula( a slotted, flexible tool especially designed for fish) to create that crust for about 2 minutes on high. Then I transfer the pan to the oven and finish it by roasting , depending on the thickness at 375 D. That's the beauty of the pan roast. This is a great technique for a thicker piece of fish that would burn on the outside by the time the inside is cooked.
For Sauteeing , again the high heat is paramount. This method is suited to shrimp, calamari or any mixed seafood that require quick cooking and can jump or sautee in the pan. Instead of starting with onions, garlic etc, that might burn, I heat the dry pan on high for less time than the cast iron. I season my shrimp and then add some olive oil to the pan and it will immediately start streaking. Add the seafood and toss gently for about 1 minute. It's important not to overcrowd the pan or they will steam. Remove with tongs and reserve for later. I add a bit more oil and then continue with the rest of the ingredients and only add the shrimp back at the end to finish cooking for a minute or until opaque and curled.
Now to master the bbq, your grill has to be ultra clean. I crank the bbq on high and let it heat for at least 10 minutes until my neighbours are wondering what all the smoke's about. Then I brush off all and I mean every little crumb of debris and oil the grill very thoroughly. Still with heat blasting I begin the grilling ritual. I love grilling whole sides of moderately fatty fish, like that beautiful sockeye salmon you see above. I oil the fish well and season with salt and pepper and my favourite herbs etc. I lay the fish, skin side down in the middle of the smoking grill and close the lid for 1 minute. I then reduce the burners below it to low, creating a convection and preventing it from burning. I don't turn this fish. For smaller whole fish, I like scoring them and grilling on direct heat at medium high setting and turning the fish once. This takes a bit of practice and getting to know your grill.
One last thing that every chef does to perfect their fish cooking skills is practice! Have fun, be creative and let me know how it works for you.