The Best Trick for Cooking Fish, According to a Pro Chef

published Sep 19, 2023
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cooked halibut with garnish on plate
Credit: Grace Elkus

If I’m cooking seafood at home, I tend to make one of two things: shrimp or salmon. Sure, I like the taste of them, but they’re mostly in heavy rotation because it’s easy to tell when they’re done; the shrimp curl and turn pink, and the salmon becomes opaque and flakes easily with a fork

I was content with this routine until I traveled to Alaska, where I (unsurprisingly) ate the best halibut of my life. I also caught a halibut — which was sent to my house in Pittsburgh — and quickly realized I needed to learn how to cook it. 

Luckily, as part of my trip, I had the privilege of taking a cooking class from Chef Amara Enciso, the chef and owner of BRAVA Food. It was during this class that Enciso, who specializes in preparing Alaskan seafood, filled us in on her tried-and-true methods. 

“Cooking fish on a daily basis over the past six years, I have tested a variety of different cooking oils and fat combinations to achieve the optimal sear,” she said.

Ultimately, she landed on a homemade 80/20 cooking oil blend: 80 percent high-smoke-point oil and 20 percent high-fat oil. The high-smoke-point oil lets her cook fish quickly over high heat without it burning (crucial for halibut, which is easy to overcook), while the high-fat oil creates an even sear and crispy surface — and adds a rich flavor.

Credit: Grace Elkus

Cooking Fish with 80/20 Oil 

Making the blend is simple: Fill a large squeeze bottle (or similar container) 80 percent of the way with the high-smoke-point oil, such as vegetable, peanut, or canola, then fill it the rest of the way with the high-fat oil, such as olive, palm, or coconut. Because the viscosity level for oil is the same across the board, the blend never separates. 

Next, source your fish — any variety will work with this technique. “The quality of the fish is 90 percent of enjoying a great meal with fish,” Enciso says. She recommends seeking out a local fishmonger or quality butcher that supplies high-quality, sustainable fish.

When you’re ready to cook, pat an 8-ounce fillet (or two 4-ounce fillets) dry with a paper towel. (Either skinless or skin-on will work). Rub the fish with 1 teaspoon of the 80/20 blend plus any desired seasonings until it forms a moistened paste. 

Heat a seasoned cast iron skillet with 2 tablespoons of the 80/20 blend and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (use a European-style one with a higher butterfat percentage if you have it). Add the fish (skin-side down, if applicable) to the hot pan and cook until the underside is golden-brown. Flip and continue cooking, reducing the heat as necessary, until the fish flakes easily.

Credit: Grace Elkus

Putting It to the Test 

While I was pleasantly surprised by how easy Enciso’s method seemed, I’ll admit I was nervous about using my cast iron pan. Shouldn’t newbies like me play it safe and use nonstick? But I trusted the process and was not disappointed: The fish developed a gorgeous golden-brown sear (although next time, I’ll crank the heat higher for even better color), cooked quickly, and, to my delight, released easily from the pan. When I finished it off with a simple lemon caper sauce, I swear the final dish looked like it came from a fancy restaurant.