Fish fillets are best when pan-fried simply. This easy recipe makes delicious fish every time. It’s fully-cooked, flaky, and tender.
Let’s just put it out there – fish can be tricky. It can be dry and flavorless. Or, it can be fishy. Fish fillets are also delicate and can fall apart when you cook them. And, for many, fish is not very familiar so, especially given that other stuff, it can be daunting.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s actually quite easy to cook up delicious fish. There are just a few tips to keep in mind.
What Is A Fish Fillet?
If you can picture a fish, it has a backbone running through the middle of it. A fish fillet is created when you cut the meat of the fish off of that backbone. You end up with two long, thin, flat pieces from each fish, because one fillet is cut from each side of the fish. If the fish is large, these two pieces are cut into portions that we also call fillets.
Don’t worry though, you don’t need to cut the fish yourself. Grocery stores and fish mongers sell the fillets already taken from the fish. These are ready to cook and eat. If you need help, I’ve got a guide to help figure out how to choose the best fish fillets and what to look for in the store.
Are Fish Fillets Boneless?
Because the fish fillets are cut off of the backbone, they don’t typically have larger bones. They’re not really supposed to have smaller bones either. However, we have all encountered small bones in fish fillets from time to time, and so you should always be careful when eating them. In general, thicker fillets from large fish will have less of these small bones than thinner, smaller fish.
One way to detect small fish bones before cooking is to run your hand all along the fillet to feel for anything poking out. If you encounter one, you can use a pair of kitchen tweezers (tweezers that you only use for kitchen purposes, and that you clean like kitchen equipment) to pull it out.
What Kinds Of Fish Fillets Are Best?
While salmon and tuna are cut into fillets as well, usually when people ask me how to cook fish fillets, they’re talking about types of white fish. That includes cod, haddock, tilapia, halibut, Alaskan pollock, catfish, and trout, among others.
Which kind of fish fillet you’d like to have depends on a variety of factors including price, sustainability, flavor, amount of fat, and more. If you want to shop sustainably, check with a source like Seafood Watch to find out which species are the best bet for you.
I prefer to either buy fish fillets that have never been frozen (so I avoid the phrase “previously frozen”) or fish that is frozen. It is often frozen right on the ship so getting it frozen can be the freshest choice, in a way.
The other main criteria that I use for choosing fish is how thick it is. If I’m planning to pan-fry it, like in the recipe below, I want something relative thin, like catfish or tilapia, so that it cooks quickly. If I’m planning to cook it in the oven, then I’d go for something thicker like cod or halibut.
How Best To Cook Fish Fillets
My preferred method for cooking fish fillets is to pan-fry them, like in the recipe below. I like it when they get a light brown crust on the outside, and are only just cooked through and opaque. I find that it is easiest to control that when I’m doing it quickly on the stove, than if it’s away in the oven.
Although, I do sometimes cook fish fillets in the air fryer to make it more hands-off. It turns out really crispy and fantastic in there, especially with a breading.
Should You Do A Breading For Fish Fillets?
Now that I’ve brought up a breading, I should let you know if you need one. I honestly think that the best way to cook fish fillets is without a breading, just simply done with salt and pepper in a skillet. It’s quick and easy, and it really lets the flavor of the fish shine through.
If you’d like more of a crust, you can mix some all-purpose flour with salt and pepper and then dredge the fish fillets in there, just for a light coating. You can still follow the instructions below, you’ll just need to add some extra oil right before flipping the fish. And, watch that the flour coating doesn’t start to burn. Flip it if it starts to darken.
If you want an actual bread crumb breading, you can use the same mixture I’ve used for the air fryer recipe. And then you can pan-fry the fish fillets exactly as done below. They might need a little bit more time for the breading to brown, and, like with the flour, you’ll need to add a bit of oil right before flipping so that the second side gets some oil as well.
Do Fish Fillets Need A Sauce?
I don’t typically serve a warm sauce of any kind with fish fillets. A simple squeeze of lemon, and maybe some chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or chives is nice too. If you do want a sauce, I find that tartar sauce is really the best. You can buy some at the store, or make your own like this.
What To Serve With Fish Fillets
Fish fillets go great with rice and of course with fries (fish and chips, right?). I also really love them in a fish sandwich. Spread a bun with tartar sauce, add the fish fillets and some lettuce, and dig in!
Important Tips For Perfect Fish Fillets
First, start with good fish. Buy it from a good fish counter with knowledgeable staff. And if you have any doubt, smell—fresh fish shouldn’t smell fishy at all. It should smell like a fresh ocean breeze. Note that if you don’t have access to a good fish counter, buying frozen fish fillets is a great option. And, you can even cook them straight from frozen, if you’d like!
Second, use fresh fish within a couple of days. Or freeze it (if it wasn’t already frozen). And then when you’re ready to cook, take it out of the refrigerator 30 minutes ahead of time. Not being cold when it goes into the pan will help keep your fish from sticking.
Third and most importantly, once it’s in the pan, don’t overdo it. Fish only needs to be at 145°F to be safe to eat. That isn’t going to take long to achieve, especially if you have a thin fillet. Go for just a minute or two per side for a very thin fillet like sole or flounder, and 2 or 3 minutes per side for thicker fillets like cod or tilapia. (If your fillets are 3/4-inch-thick or more, they might do well with pan roasting—find out how to do that in my post on cooking salmon perfectly.)
Not overcooking your fish will help keep it moist and juicy. It’ll help keep it from falling apart. So how do you know when it’s done? Go for nice golden color, because browning means flavor, and a texture that’s barely firm to the touch—definitely not rigid.
To sum up all the above—start with good fish and then cook it just a couple minutes per side. That’s it! That’s the big secret to cooking really good fish fillets!
Keep Fish From Sticking To The Pan
For those of you that want a slightly deeper dive, a couple more tips to help keep fish from sticking to the pan (in addition to making sure it’s not ice cold when you start cooking). Warm the pan first, then add the oil and warm it, too. Then add your fish and leave it alone until it gets brown on the bottom. Once it’s time to turn your fish, it should easily release from the pan.
It’s also a good idea to use a fish spatula. Honestly, I use my fish spatula for tons of things beyond fish. Why? It has a sharp edge, which lets you get under things better, even if they’re slightly stuck to the pan. Also, it’s a slotted spatula, meaning that it has less surface area so that things can slide and flip from it more easily. This makes it much easier to flip delicate things like fish fillets (but also crepes and eggs) over.Print
Delicious fish is quick and easy—follow my simple tips and it’ll be perfect every time!
- 1 and ½ lbs. fish fillets (with or without skin, whichever you prefer)
- ½ tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. pepper
- 1–2 Tbsp. olive oil (see note)
- Sprinkle both sides of the fish with the salt and pepper.
- In each of one or two large skillets (you need enough skillet surface area to hold the fillets without crowding), heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high.
- When the oil is hot, add the fish and cook undisturbed until golden brown, 1 to 3 minutes.
- Turn the fish and continue cooking until golden brown on the other side and barely opaque throughout, 1 to 3 minutes.
- Transfer the fish to plates and let rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
- If your fillets are on the thin side, say ½ inch or less, you can use half oil and half butter. (I don’t recommend butter for thicker fillets because they need a little longer in the skillet and, in that time, the butter can burn.)
This post originally appeared in February 2019 and was revised and republished in December 2022.