Healthy Cooking

I Finally Learned How To Get Crispy Fish Skin After Years of Soggy Trial and Error

Francesca Krempa

Photo: Stocksy/Darren Muir
It's easier than you might think to learn how to make restaurant-quality filets of fish with crispy skin, which is full of nutritional benefits. Fish skin is a particularly great source of collagen, which helps promote healthy skin, joints, and nails, says Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, a dietitian, founder of the sustainable seafood brand Mini Fish, and author of Eat Your Vitamins. It's also filled with powerful antioxidants, like vitamin E and selenium, that aid in preventing oxidative stress from things like drinking alcohol and sun exposure.

"Fish skin—and the whole fish—is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have strong anti-inflammatory properties important for heart, brain and skin health," says Davis. "Leaving the fish skin on actually provides more nutrients."

If you're concerned about mercury in fish, choosing lower mercury fish like cod, tilapia, trout, or salmon can minimize exposure, says Davis. Wild-caught fish is generally better than farm-raised, according to recent studies.

Just because fish skin is healthy doesn't mean that it tastes good if it's not cooked properly, though. Luckily, Sarah Angileri, a recipe developer for the meal kit delivery service Home Chef, has some suggestions for getting that skin seared to crispy perfection every time.

"The skin gets soggy because there is a layer of subcutaneous fat beneath it that needs to be rendered out in order for the skin to crisp up, like the skin on a chicken thigh, or a duck breast," she says. "If you choose to enjoy the skin, sear skin side down in a hot pan, then lower the temperature, which allows the thick layer of fat under the skin to render out and get crispy. "

See? Not so hard after all. If you're looking for a full recipe, Home Chef's grilled salmon with a zesty lemon-dill yogurt sauce is perfect for hot summer nights. Just be sure to use these six tips to cook and use that crispy salmon skin for all those extra nutrients.

How to make crispy fish skin every time you cook it

1. Pat it dry

No matter the recipe that you're following, a simple hack to get crispy fish skin is patting the fish dry before you cook it. To help suck out any extra moisture, pat your filets with a paper towel and then place the filet skin side up on a plate in the refrigerator for at least an hour before cooking. The refrigeration aids in drying out the skin, too.

2. Always pre-heat your pan

A general rule of thumb for crisping fish skin is pre-heating your pan. "Always preheat your pan over medium-high heat before adding oil," says Angileri. "Pre-heating the pan is important to getting a nice sear on the fish while ensuring even cooking." Same goes for the grill. Angileri says to make sure it's hot beforehand, then to cook your filet with the skin-side up for about 4-6 minutes per side. Using a nonstick skillet provides "a little extra insurance" against burning, according to Bon Appétit.

3. Sear it with the skin-side down

As Angileri mentioned, you should cook salmon with the skin side down to make sure that layer of fat melts down. Otherwise, you'll be left with soggy skin. "Turn the heat down to medium-low to allow enough time for the fat to render from the skin," she says. "This is how it gets crispy without the skin burning."

Pro tip: Angileri suggests pressing gently on the filet for a few seconds as soon as it makes contact with the pan. This will allow the skin to bond with the pan and cook evenly across the surface.

4. Don't season until you're right about to cook

Seasoning generously with salt is a must, but timing is everything. Season your fish (both skin and flesh side) right before it hits the pan. Otherwise, it will suck out all the moisture and leave you with salmon that's too dry and flaky. The skin should be crispy but the flesh should be juicy and tender.

5. Use an oil with a high-smoke point

Food & Wine suggests using a cooking oil with a high smoke point as this can make or break the texture of your skin. Choose an oil that doesn't burn too quickly, like avocado oil or ghee. When you're cooking, look out for smoke. Once your oil has stopped shimmering and started smoking, it's likely too hot and time to lay off the heat.

6. Get creative with a garnish

When you buy fish filets, you're likely paying for the weight of the fish, and that includes the skin. Rather than letting it go to waste, Davis suggests crunching up small, crispy pieces and using it as a garnish on salads, soups, or grain bowls. If you need a little inspiration, try a kimchi-farro bowl that's drizzled with a zesty lime dressing or toss some onto a salmon-quinoa salad.

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