How to Make the Crispiest Fish (with Tabasco Compound Butter)
How do you make the crispiest fish–the kind your order at restaurants? And what do you put on that fish to preserve its simplicity but also make it exciting?
Those are the two pressing questions we’re answering in today’s post.
I’ve been searching for a couple years for a consistent way to make the best simple fish. I love a good fish stew, a pot of steamed mussels, a skillet of salmon roasted on greens. But to get crispy skin and a perfectly cooked interior on today’s fresh catch from Mermaid’s Garden without leaving delish detritus in the pan: that’s harder. I’ve tried cornmeal. I’ve tried dusting with Wondra flour. At last, I’ve settled on nothing but high heat, thanks to a tiny tip from one of this winter’s editions of Bon Appetit.
The kind of heat you need will probably make you uncomfortable. The pan will grow dark and brownish before you start. The oil will smoke. The fish will crackle loudly. You’ll have to open your windows and close your bedroom door. You’ll want to turn your fan around so it faces out, not in. But the cooking takes all of 5 minutes, after which the smoke will clear and the scent will diffuse, and you’ll sit down to perfectly cooked fish filets that have remarkably crispy skin and very juicy flesh.
And then what? You don’t want to sauce your fish with anything goopy, out of fear of softening that hard-earned crispy crust and diminishing the subtle flavor.
A compound butter is answer. Compound butter is just butter that’s been mixed with flavorings. You don’t need much of it to do a lot of seasoning work, so serve with a dollop. (But if you keep the bowl on the table, like we did, you’ll probably end up garnishing every bite with a new smear of butter, especially once your palate acclimates to the heat.)
Tabasco sauce–the original flavor–adds that heat, as well as the acidity that seafood craves. You use a big quantity of the hot sauce here: 3 tablespoons for the 1/2 cup of butter. Put in another tablespoon if you’re serious about heat. At first, when you sample the butter, you’ll think even 3 tablespoons was too much. But next to the crispy hot sear of the fish, you’ll find that hot butter is just what you want. The butter starts off solid but soon melts to become a balanced sauce, just the pairing your perfect filets were looking for.
If you’re wondering what’s below the fish, that’s the kind of hodgepodge I cook up on weeknights based on what’s in the fridge and pantry. For this one, I simmered about a cup of farro in salty water and sautéed sweet potatoes, onions, and kale in a skillet. I combined the two together and seasoned with some leftover shallot vinaigrette.
This post is sponsored by Tabasco as part of TABASCO® Tastemakers program. If you missed the first of the four Tabasco/BGSK recipes–Chipotle Pecans–get at it now. All opinions, as always, are my own. Thanks for supporting the sponsors who keep BGSK delicious!
- 1 stick unsalted butter, softened (like, really softened: leave it out for a few hours)
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
- a few dashes Worcestershire
- 2 cloves garlic, grated or super duper finely minced
- 2 tablespoons minced chives
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
- ¾ pound Black Bass fillets, or any skin-on white fish that you like
- Oil (I use olive or safflower, but if you're concerned about smoke points, choose safflower or coconut)
- Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. If you're worried about the heat, just use 2 tablespoons Tabasco. Stir well to combine, as the liquid sauce won't want to integrate with the butter at first, but it will. Set aside until ready to use. If you're making this in advance, you can scoop the butter into a square of plastic wrap and then roll it up into a little tube, sealing the edges. Store in the fridge, then cut slices when you're ready to use.
- Set a skillet large enough to fit all your fish over highest heat. I use a stainless steel one, but if you have a huge cast-iron pan, that'd be great too. Leave the pan to heat for 5 minutes until it's ridiculously hot. While it's heating, blot your fish dry with paper towels and season the flesh side with salt. When the pan is ready, quickly film with with oil the immediately drape all the fillets into the pan, skin side down. Grab a spatula and press them firmly down into the pan, since the heat makes them want to pucker up. Now, turn the heat down just slightly and watch the fish turn opaque. When just the top centimeter of each fillet is still translucent, flip the fish, turn off the heat, and let cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, just until you can lift them