Searing the fish fillets in a pan cooks the thin fillets quickly without a lingering fishy smell most home cooks fear. I pair the fish with a simple lemon butter sauce made in the pan.
With this recipe, and some tips for variations, you can serve an easy, yet impressive healthy dinner in no time. Pair the lean fish recipe with your favorite chilled, dry white wine and some of the recommended sides below for a balanced meal.
If the fish is sticking to the sauté pan and doesn’t easily release, then it’s not done cooking! Leave it for a little longer and try again. You can skip this issue by using a non-stick pan. I don’t typically use a cast iron skillet for this dish though it can be done.
White fish – This is just an overarching term for mildly flavored, flakey and typically fairly inexpensive white-colored fish. Popular types of white fish are tilapia, cod, halibut, snapper, bass, grouper and haddock. They are great because they are very versatile fish – they can be pan-fried, roasted, deep-fried, steamed or poached. Since it has such a mild flavor, any of these are good fish for someone who isn’t prone to liking seafood because of “fishy flavors”. While I like using skin-on fish fillets they can be substituted for skinless in this recipe. If you’re overwhelmed with options, ask your fishmonger for help. They can provide information about freshness, sustainability and more.
Oil – I use a neutral oil like canola or grape-seed in this recipe instead of olive oil because they have a higher smoke point. The fish is cooked quickly at a high heat so using canola oil will not smoke as it cooks.
Butter – I always use high quality unsalted butter – that way the level of salt added can be adjusted according to personal preference.
Lemon – I finish the fish with a squeeze of lemon which complements the butter and herbs in this recipe creating a simple lemon butter pan sauce. I like to serve the fish with additional lemon wedges added just before serving as desired.
Capers – Capers have a tangy, salty flavor. The edible part of the caper plant is the immature flower buds, which are typically served pickled and packed in water, oil or salt. In this case I recommend using nonpareils, the smallest capers, packed in oil or water for the best flavor.
Herbs – A variety of herbs work well in this recipe. While I recommend using a combination of chives, tarragon and parsley, other herbs like thyme or dill can be used as well.
Instructions to Make Pan-Seared White Fish
Season fish. Pat the fish dry (I use snapper below) with a paper towel and discard. Season all over with salt and pepper.
Heat oil. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat, add the oil and heat through.
Cook the fish skin down. Place the filets skin side of the fish down in the pan, pressing down gently for a few seconds so the skin doesn’t curl. Sear, until the skin is golden and easily releases from the pan, about 3 minutes.
Flip and continue cooking. Carefully flip the fish using a spatula and add the butter, lemon juice and capers to the pan. Continue to cook, tilting the pan so the butter pools in the side of the pan. Use a spoon to splash the butter over the top to baste the fish until it’s cooked through, about an additional minute.
Serve. Garnish with the herbs and serve the fish with lemon wedges on the side.
Best Side Dishes For White Fish
I like serving white fish over a simple white rice or rice pilaf. The rice absorbs some of the herb butter sauce for a delicious addition. Use a rice cooker for easy cooking!
Another grain like quinoa or bulgur adds a nutty flavor that compliments the white fish. Try serving it over this vegetable quinoa salad.
If pairing the fish with potatoes or grains I like to include a vegetable as well to round out the meal. Try making a roasted vegetable like honey glazed roasted carrots or serving it with some simple sautéed spinach or creamed spinach.
Variations on This Recipe
Once you’ve mastered this simple pan-fried fish recipe, put your own twist on it or dress it up with my recommendations for sauces, butters, breadcrumbs and more below.
Add ½ cup sliced scallions and 2 cloves of chopped garlic to a small bowl. Heat ½ cup of vegetable oil in a pan until it’s shiny then pour over the scallions and garlic, stirring to combine. Omit the butter, lemon and herbs in the recipe below, finishing the fish with a spoonful of the sizzled scallions.
In one bowl whisk together ½ cup of milk and 1 large egg until combined. Add 1 cup plain bread crumbs seasoned with salt and pepper to another. Add the fish fillets to the egg wash then toss in the breadcrumbs and continue to cook the fish in the pan as directed.
In a small bowl stir together softened butter with 1 teaspoon of curry powder and add to the pan as directed below, omitting the lemon.
Serve the fish topped with a spoonful of confit tomatoes. Get the recipe here.
Other Recipes to Try
If you enjoy this recipe, I recommend checking out these:
Pat the fish dry with a paper towel and discard. Season all over with salt and pepper.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat, add the oil and heat through.
Place the filets skin side of the fish down in the pan, pressing down gently for a few seconds so the skin doesn’t curl. Sear, until the skin is golden and easily releases from the pan, about 3 minutes.
Carefully flip the fish using a spatula and add the butter, lemon juice and capers to the pan. Continue to cook, tilting the pan so the butter pools in the side of the pan. Use a spoon to splash the butter over the top to baste the fish until it’s cooked through, about an additional minute.
Garnish with the herbs and serve the fish with lemon wedges on the side.
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Any of your readers from the Great Lakes region will laugh at your lack of knowledge about whitefish. There is actually a fish named Whitefish. Not tilapia or any other white fish. Mild and flaky ad moist when cooked properly.