Getting crispy skin on fish can be elusive to home cooks. If you don’t know the proper technique, you will likely end up with skin (either crispy or soft) that sticks to the pan. Salmon skin, after all, is one of the fish’s fattiest parts, so when crisped up properly it’s like a chicharron from the sea.
For a foolproof cooking method that leaves your fish skin crispy and intact, we’ve got you covered. In short, what it all comes down to is proper prep.
Find Your Fat
Before you get cooking, check to see if you have the right kitchen tools to make crispy skin a foolproof endeavor. The most important kitchen tool you need for crispy skin happens to be the most low-tech, accessible one: the right fat. Do you have the right fat for the job?
You’ll need something that can withstand high temperatures without being compromised. Not having a fat that can take the heat is a non-starter, since it will burn and turn your salmon skin into a bitter, blackened mess.
Fats like peanut oil, canola oil, or even ghee have high smoke points — meaning, you can bring them to relatively high temperatures before they start smoking and burning. This quality makes fats with high smoke points ideal to use when you want to achieve crispy skin, since you’ll be using high heat to make this happen. Our blog post about fats fundamentals can give you a few pointers if you want some guidance one which ones to use and when.
You can use any type of pan to get crispy skin, but some undoubtedly work better than others. A well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel pan is ideal. Stainless steel pans are good to use, as well, though there’s a slightly higher possibility that your fish will stick to the pan. Non-stick pans are at the bottom of the list, since they actually inhibit a good sear — and generally, these pans are not built for high-heat uses.
Equally as important is the size of your pan. Can it hold all of your fillets without you having to crowd them together? If not, you will need to size up or cook in batches. A crowded pan will simply end up steaming your fish, since the moisture escaping from beneath the fillet won’t have space to evaporate.
The final kitchen tool you’ll want to have, if possible, is a fish spatula. Fish spatulas are made of thin and flexible steel, slotted to reduce drag and designed with a rounded edge and a slight angle to help you shimmy it delicately between the pan and the fish. If you don’t have a fish spatula, use the thinnest one you own, ideally one made of metal as you’ll need some stiffness to work the spatula between the fish skin and the bottom of the pan.
Dry Your Fish
You. Must. Dry. Your. Fish.
This is true anytime you’d like the surface of your fish to develop a bit of a crust — on the grill, under the broiler, roasted on a sheet pan — but it is even more foundational when you want crispy skin on the stovetop. Any excess moisture on your fillet is going to cause the surface of your fish to steam rather than sear. Excessive moisture will also increase the likelihood that fish skin will stick to the pan.
This is one reason why we recommend you thaw your fish in a way that prevents it from sitting in the moisture that defrosts from the surface of the fillet; allowing this moisture to drain will ensure that your fish skin doesn’t get waterlogged. For the best ways to thaw your fish, you’ll want to hop over to our blog post that covers everything you’ll need to know.
Once your fillets are thawed, pat them dry — especially on the skin side, as it will be the first side to hit the pan — with an absorbent tea towel or paper towel.
Score the Skin
You have a sharp knife right? Use that blade to score the skin of your fish, making shallow cuts into the fillet from the skin side that are about ¼ of an inch apart from one another. The more scores you make, the easier it will be for the skin to get crispy, since it will help the fillet lay more evenly along the bottom of your pan; without scoring the skin, the fillet tends to curl away from the pan, and you won’t get that surface contact that you need to develop a proper crust.
Turn Up the Heat
You need to use an intense dose of heat to sear fish skin into submission.
Add a small amount of oil (or ghee) to your pan — just enough to cover the bottom — then heat it up over high heat. A heavy cast iron pot will need lots of time to get to temperature, while a lighter pan will get hot sooner. Either way, when the oil is hot enough to give your fish skin a proper sear, it’ll shimmer a bit.
While you’re waiting for the oil to get sizzling hot, season your fish with salt, and pepper if you like. You don’t want to salt the fillets much sooner than this, as it will draw moisture from the fillets to its surface. You can add a dusting of dry rub to the fillets now, too. Note: One thing you don’t want to use is a wet marinade on your fillets, if your goal is to get crispy skin.
The Big Moment
Once your oil is shimmering, give it a little test. With the skin side down, begin to lower your fillet into the oil facing away from you (rather than toward you, so that you don’t get splattered). Just as the tip of the fillet touches the oil, notice if it’s sizzling hot. If you hear sizzling, you’ve got the green light to slide the rest of your fillet into the pan. However, if you don’t hear any sizzling, pull back and wait, or adjust the heat, until the oil is hot enough to sizzle the moment it comes into contact with your fillet.
As soon as the fillet is in the pan, use your spatula to press the fillet down to ensure that your skin is making solid, even contact with the pan. You don’t have to smash it down — you’re not making panini here. Just apply firm pressure for the initial few moments of contact to keep things flat. At this point, lower the heat to medium; the high heat was integral to getting that initial sear on the skin, but now that your fillet has met the pan, a more moderate heat setting will keep your fish from overcooking.
Then, whatever you do, don’t move the fish until it’s ready to flip. The fish will actually let you know when you can do this, as the skin will release itself from the surface of the pan once it’s perfectly crispy. This will probably take 3 or 4 minutes; you can keep an eye on how golden the skin is getting around the edges to get a sense of when it’s ready to flip.
Slide your fish spatula between the pan and the fillet. This is where the thinness of the spatula will help you work your way through any spots that seem to stick a bit, but it should be relatively easy to separate the fish skin from the pan.
Carefully flip the fillet so that it’s skin-side up in the pan; thick fillets may need another minute or two to cook through, while the fleshy side of thinner cuts should just hit the pan for a quick sear.
Enjoy your fillet as is, or serve with sauce on the side so that the skin stays crispy through your meal.