Cooking Tips

For Beautifully Browned White Fish, Sprinkle Sugar on It First

That's all it takes to caramelize the crust for a super-savory, subtle crunch.

Published Nov. 3, 2021.

A thick fillet of white fish like cod or haddock, dressed appropriately for the season, is a fairly ubiquitous presentation on restaurant menus around where I live in Boston. I’m here for it: Moist, flaky fish is an ideal canvas for a buttery sauce or citrusy relish. Often described as “pan-roasted,” the menu reveals how restaurant chefs achieve perfectly-cooked, thick fish fillets: Seared first on the stovetop, then transferred to the oven to finish cooking through. 

This two-step restaurant technique is also the test kitchen’s go-to method for cooking cod, haddock, black sea bass, pollock, and hake (not to mention, thick steaks and chops) at home. But for a light golden-brown, just-crispy crust to encase the silky fillet, we turn to an additional—and surprising—ingredient: sugar.

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That’s right. Sprinkling a little bit of sugar on the side of a fish fillet before placing it sugar-side down into a hot pan helps accelerate browning, and also prevents the exterior from drying out before the fish is cooked all the way through. This small addition—we’re talking about ½ teaspoon of sugar per pound of fish—doesn’t sweeten the fillet at all, but it caramelizes the crust for a super-savory, subtle crunch. 

Former Cook’s Illustrated test cook Andrew Janjigian explains in this video:

The reason this works is because sugar speeds up the Maillard reaction, which is the chemical transformation that makes seared food so appetizing. At about 200 degrees—more than 100 degrees sooner than the traditional temperature required to brown a fish fillet—sugar’s sucrose breaks down into fructose, causing the caramelization.

This happens quickly, about a minute into searing. That’s great, because flaky white fish never needs very long to cook.

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If you’d like to try this method at home, here are some tips:

  • Make sure to start with fillets that are at least 1-inch thick, so the fish has time to brown on the outside without overcooking the interior.
  • Use ½ teaspoon sugar for 1 pound of fish and sprinkle over one side of each fillet. Cook the fillets sugar-side down over medium-high heat, lightly pressing them for 20 to 30 seconds to ensure even contact with the skillet. Once the fish is browned on first side (1 to 2 minutes), flip and transfer to a 425-degree oven to cook through.
  • If you’re using a nonstick skillet to cook fish this way, make sure it’s ovensafe to 425 degrees.

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