100 Techniques

Technique #18: Sauté Flaky Fish That Doesn't Fall Apart

High heat and gentle handling yield consistent results with these fillets.

Published Oct. 14, 2023.

This is Technique #18 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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White fish fillets are frequently overlooked in favor of bolder choices, but we love their mild flavor and delicate texture. Whether cooking thin or thick fillets, our goal is always a golden brown, lightly crusted exterior and a perfectly moist and flaky interior.

To achieve that golden exterior, you need plenty of heat. But you can’t let the fillets get too hot or cook for too long or they will dry out and fall apart (not to mention that they will stick hopelessly to the pan). How do you reconcile these seemingly opposed goals?

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General Tips for Cooking White Fish

We started by applying lessons learned from cooking other types of fish. For example:

  • Salting salmon before cooking can help it retain moisture and also seasons the flesh. Through comparison testing, we discovered that flaky fillets like tilapia and sea bass reap the same benefits from the quick-salting method.
  • After salting, we pat the fish dry (so it will brown rather than steam) and sear-sauté it in a smoking-hot pan. The high heat quickly jump-starts the browning process.
  • To ensure uniform browning and even cooking for thin fillets such as tilapia, sole, and flounder, cut them in half along their natural seam. (One half is the thicker portion beneath the dorsal fin, and the other half is the thinner belly portion.)
  • Sauté the thick halves first before proceeding with the thin halves. This gives each portion full skillet contact, allowing it to turn a deep golden brown. Plus, cooking the thick and thin halves separately lets you tailor the cooking time to suit the thickness of each (though both cook through in a matter of minutes).
Watch Bridget Lancaster and Dan Souza prepare tilapia in an segment from "America's Test Kitchen" TV.

How to Cook Thicker Fillets

For thicker fillets, place them in the skillet over high heat and then, since they need a longer cooking time than thin fillets, immediately lower the heat to achieve outer browning without overcooking the interior. We also include a bit of sugar in the salt rub for our thick fillets; this helps to accelerate the browning process over the lower heat level.

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How to Cook Flaky Fillets

For flaky fish fillets, it’s safest to take the precaution of using two thin spatulas for flipping. Sliding one spatula under the piece of fish and using the second to guide the fish as you flip it makes it easy to keep the delicate fish beautifully intact.

Equipment Review

Best Nonstick-Safe Spatulas

Invest in a good nonstick-safe fish spatula. It's gentle on your fish and your pan.
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Step by Step: How to Sauté Flaky Fish

Whether it's tilapia, sole, or flounder, here are the key steps to properly prepare and cook flaky fish fillets.

Step 1: Season and Rest

Sprinkle fillets with salt and let rest. Pat dry.

Step 2: Cut Thin Fillets Lengthwise

For thin fillets, cut each fillet in half lengthwise at seam that runs down middle of fillet.

Step 3: Cook on First Side

Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add thick halves to skillet and cook, tilting skillet to distribute oil, until first side is golden.

Step 4: Flip

Using 2 thin spatulas, flip fillets. Cook until second side is golden and fish registers desired doneness. Remove from skillet.

Step 5: Cook Second Side

Return skillet to high heat. When oil is just smoking, add thin fillet halves and cook until undersides are golden. Flip and cook second sides until golden.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Use your newfound thin fish sautéing knowledge with any of these recipes.


Sautéed Tilapia

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.
Get the Recipe

Sautéed Tilapia with Chive-Lemon Miso Butter

We were skeptics, too—until we did our homework. The facts: Most tilapia is responsibly raised and features moist, firm flesh with a clean, mild taste.
Get the Recipe

Crispy Pan-Seared Black Sea Bass

Serving fish skin-on is a way to instantly elevate it.
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Pan-Fried Sole with Lemony Herb Butter

An extra shot of lemon flavor highlights the fish in this quick and easy weeknight dish.
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Sautéed White Fish Fillets

A sautéed fish fillet needs a pan sauce to turn it into a satisfying main course. The problem is coordinating the cooking so that both are done perfectly.
Get the Recipe

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