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  • The Chopping Blog

Utilizing Carbon Steel for Crispy Skinned Fish

Posted by Alex on Jun 26, 2024

You already know I love carbon steel pans. Now I want to showcase a technique that illustrates just why I enjoy cooking with carbon steel so much: cold-start crispy skin fish. 

This technique is going to use my favorite feature of carbon steel cookware to our advantage, which is its ability to achieve that non-stick seasoning through polymerization. Because of this non-stick effect, we can start our fish in a cold pan. If you did this in a stainless steel pan, you would encounter some serious sticking.

This method goes against the way most home cooks and chefs, including myself, learn to pan sear fish. The way I learned to sear skin-on fish is to start a stainless steel pan on high heat, and add a layer of neutral oil until small wisps of smoke appear. At this point, the fish is laid in the pan, skin side down, and pressed down into the pan to achieve full contact with the entire surface area of the skin on the pan, as well as working against the fish’s natural tendency to buckle. After the fish stops buckling, the temperature is dropped to medium-low and cooked skin is crispy, and then maybe flipped depending on how thick the piece of fish is.

While this still achieves a great result and is a viable method to use, there are a couple downsides. Both of these downsides have to do with introducing the fish to an extremely hot pan. First, since the fish has a lot of moisture in and on the skin, the immediate high heat is going to cause an oil splatter as the moisture rapidly evaporates out of the skin. This may not be a big deal for a line cook, but I don't always want to deep clean my range every time I cook some salmon. Secondly, when you sear a cold piece of fish in a hot pan, it causes the fish to buckle, or bend upwards, due to the abrupt change in temperature. When the fish buckles, the skin can start to tear away from the flesh causing some issues with searing the skin. Let's walk through the technique so we can see how these problems can be curbed. 

Raw salmonI start with 2 salmon filets in my 10-inch carbon steel pan. These filets are coated with just enough neutral oil for a thin layer, and seasoned with salt. They’re placed skin side down completely off heat. Now I'm going to place the pan on the burner and start on high heat. As the salmon comes up to temperature with the pan, the moisture will start to evaporate gradually, which will curb that intense splattering. Also, as the salmon comes up to temperature with the pan, we avoid the buckling since there's no abrupt change in temperature like a traditional sear. 

After two minutes on high, I drop the temperature to low to continue crisping up the skin without burning it, then continue to cook for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until the flesh side is starting to turn opaque, and that's it! The result is a crispy, glassy skin that fully covers the entire filet. 

Cooked salmonIf you want to learn more about fish cookery, join us for our Hands-On Seafood on the Grill class on Saturday, August 3 at 11:30am.

We also cover fish butchery and cookery extensively in our five-day Culinary Boot Camp. This intensive deep dive into the major cooking techniques all home cooks should know will change how you cook for life! 

Learn More about Culinary Boot Camp


Topics: fish, Cooking Techniques, carbon steel, fish skin

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