How to Pan-Fry Fish Fillets

  • 01 of 08

    How to Pan-Fry Fish Fillets

    A pair of fried white fish
    Diana Miller/Getty Images

    Pan-frying fish is one of the most delicious ways to cook any non-fatty fish. The coating protects the flesh from direct heat and helps keep the fish moist, while also providing a browned and crispy or crunchy crust. The method avoids a large amount of oil (not to mention the mess) required for deep frying.

    The steps here show how to do a full three-step coating, but the basic idea can also be used to simply coat the fish once with flour to improve browning for pan-fried fish.

    If you're not up for frying, try baking fish in parchment or grilling whole fish instead.

    Continue to 2 of 8 below.
  • 02 of 08

    Start With Fresh or Freshly Frozen Fish Fillets

    Fresh fish filets on plastic wrap
    Molly Waton

    Whether you catch and fillet your own fish or buy them from a fishmonger or at a fish counter, always cook with only the highest quality, impeccably handled fish. Look for firm, uniformly textured flesh and clean smell of ocean, river, or lake. Fish should never smell fishy or have soft spots or bruising. This recipe is using sand dabs, a mild fish.

    Continue to 3 of 8 below.
  • 03 of 08

    Set Up Breading/Coating Station

    A three part breading station
    Molly Watson

    The most complete and thorough way to coat fish (or anything for pan-frying) includes three steps: flour, egg, and a coating of bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, cornmeal, or panko:

    1. On your left, set up a plate, shallow bowl or tray with about 1 cup flour for every pound of fish and mix in 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and a dash of cayenne pepper, if you like. (If you're left-handed, start from the right and go left.)
    2. In the center, thoroughly whisk 2 eggs in a shallow bowl for each pound of fish.
    3. On the right, prepare a large plate or tray with about 2 cups of bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, cornmeal, panko, or another crumb-textured coating.
    Continue to 4 of 8 below.
  • 04 of 08

    Flour Fish Fillets

    A fish fillet being coated in a bowl of flour
    Molly Watson

    Note: You can greatly reduce the need to rinse off your hands in the middle of this process if you use one hand for "wet" aspects of the breading process and the other for "dry" aspects.

    Place a fillet on the flour, pat it down, turn it, and pat it on the other side to thoroughly coat the fillet with a thin layer of flour. Shake off any excess flour.

    For an extremely lightly coated fish, you can go directly to Step 7 to Cook the Fish Fillets.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Dip Fish Fillet In Egg

    Flour covered fish fillet breaded in egg
    Molly Watson

    Dip the fish fillet in the egg mixture, turning it as necessary to coat it completely. Lift the fish fillet out of the egg and let any excess egg drip off of it.

    Continue to 6 of 8 below.
  • 06 of 08

    Lay Fish In Crumbs

    Egg and flour soaked fish fillet rolled in breadcrumbs
    Molly Watson

    Lay the fish in the plate of crumbs or whatever final coating you're using. Use a dry hand to cover the fish with crumbs or pat it down and then turn it over to coat the other side. The method you use depends on how much bread crumbs or cornmeal you have and how well they are sticking to the fish. Lift the fillet out of crumbs or cornmeal and gently shake off any excess coating.

    Repeat steps 4 to 6 with the remaining fillets.

    Lay the coated fish fillets in a single layer on a baking sheet or tray. The fish can be coated, covered, and chilled up to several hours before cooking.

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  • 07 of 08

    Cook and Serve Fillets

    Egg, flour, and breadcrumb covered fish being fried
    Molly Watson

    Heat a large heavy pan over high heat. Once the pan is hot, reduce the heat to a medium hot temperature and add enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan thoroughly.

    Add the fillets to the pan, being sure to leave space between the fillets. Work in batches if necessary. Depending on the specific fish and the pan size, you may be able to cook anywhere from one to four fillets at once. The fillets should sizzle the moment they touch the pan; if they don't, remove them and wait for the pan to get hotter.

    Continue to 8 of 8 below.
  • 08 of 08

    Browned and Crispy Fish

    Breaded fish browning in a pan
    Molly Watson

    Cook the fillets until browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Flip them over and cook them until they've browned on the second side and the fish is opaque and flaky in the center, about 3 more minutes. The timing here really depends on the fish, so use your judgment over the clock. Remove the fillets from the pan and hold them on a warm baking sheet or tray. Repeat with the remaining fillets, adding additional vegetable oil between batches if necessary.

    Serve pan-fried fish hot with wedges of lemon or the sauce of your choice. Homemade aioli is an easy and tasty choice.