Growing up in a Catholic household, Fridays meant fish for dinner—and that meant canned salmon or fish sticks. Shrimp and crab were not in the budget unless Grandma Fogarty was treating. While easy to make, these dishes were (thankfully) left behind as my chef skills improved and I realized how good a sear-roasted fish fillet could be. Now, 30 years later, it’s a snap for me to cook beautiful fish that has a delicate crust and is still moist inside—and you can, too, by learning to sear-roast.
This restaurant technique starts by browning the fillet on one side in a sauté pan and then flipping and finishing the cooking in a hot oven. The result is a nicely browned fillet that’s also perfectly done. Nothing gives you a gorgeous, flavorful sear like a heavy pan over a hot burner. But if you flip the fish and finish cooking it over that burner, you will need to give it all your attention and more than a little finesse. You’ll have to keep adjusting the heat of the burner and watching your fish very carefully; otherwise, you may brown the outside too much before the fish is done inside. On the other hand, if you finish it in the oven, the heat will envelop your fillet and cook it more evenly, giving you more control over the doneness.
Sear-roasting works well for many types of fish, such as salmon (not the canned fish from my childhood), halibut, cod, tuna, and swordfish. Solid, meaty fillets work best with this technique, rather than fragile fillets like a thin piece of sole.
A heavy-duty ovenproof skillet is vital to pulling off this technique, as it helps create the browned crust. Size is also important; for cooking four fish fillets, a 12-inch skillet is perfect. If you crowd the pan, you run the risk that the fillets will steam instead of sear. Work in batches or use more than one skillet if you want more than four servings.
Be sure to start by heating the skillet and your oven. The pan must be hot or you won’t develop a flavorful crust. And because the searing takes only a few minutes, you don’t want to wait for your oven to heat up to 425ºF.
Once you add your fish to the pan, let it be. I know it’s tempting to nudge and rearrange the fillets, but fussing with the fish will prevent the crust from forming—and that crust translates into flavor. Resist the urge to start checking the fish for about two minutes, when you can gently lift a corner with a spatula to see if the bottom is browned (see the photo at left). If it is, you’re ready to flip the fillets and then put the pan in the oven to finish cooking.
Several factors determine how long your fish will take to finish cooking in the oven: the heat of your burner and how long you sear the fillets, the actual temperature of your oven, the thickness of the fillets, and the type of fish. To judge if your fish is fully cooked, make a small cut with a paring knife to see if the flesh has turned from translucent to opaque.
To get the most from this simple and fast cooking method, it’s important to season your fish well. Sometimes I like to pat on a spice rub before searing, to add color and flavor. If you’re not using a spice rub, season the fish well with salt and pepper before searing. I also like to brighten the richness of sear-roasted fish with a crisp, fresh-tasting salad or pickle. For each of these recipes, I’ve paired the fish with an intensely flavored vegetable mixture that can be served atop the fillet.