The 7 Golden Rules for Making Perfect Pan-Fried Fish
In the UK, fish and chips are a dish celebrated on a nearly daily basis, but in Greece, you’ll only see fish fried in batter on one day: March 25. On the double holiday (which marks the Annunciation and Greek “Independence Day”), it’s tradition to serve bakaliaros skordalia, or battered salted cod with garlic sauce. The rest of the year, fish is prepped in classic Mediterranean fashion, pan-fried whole in olive oil.
“Here in Greece, our protein of choice is mainly fish,” explains celeb chef Argiro Barbarigou, who has earned the nickname of “First Lady of Greek Cuisine." “Thanks to our endless coastline, we are blessed with an abundance of freshly caught fish, and there is nothing we love more than frying it. Visit any coastal town or village and fried fish will be the star on the menu.”
Barbarigou grew up on the island of Paros, which sits in the Aegean between Santorini and Mykonos. White-washed tavernas line the winding alleyways in the fishing village of Naoussa, a former pirate’s den that’s now the nightlife capital of the island. Tables spill out along the harbor’s main square, where restaurateurs embrace one another like family, which in many cases they are. In the 1970s, Barbarigou’s father ran a restaurant here called Papadakis that, like many of its neighbors, centered around fish and fresh produce sourced from across Paros. In 1996, Barbarigou re-opened the eatery and it quickly became a favorite of the fashion set, who arrived via boat in Naoussa’s nearby harbor. Barbarigou later transported the Papadakis concept to the capital city Athens, where she has built her own legacy with the Paros-inspired eatery.
While Papadakis is located in the upmarket neighborhood of Kolonaki on the slopes of Lycabettus hill, the restaurant hasn’t lost any of its laid-back charm. The chef simultaneously greets guests and takes orders before running back to the kitchen to continue cooking and prepping plates of charcoal-smoked eggplant sprinkled with farm-fresh Paros cheese.
On a recent trip to Athens, I sat on the terrace of Papadakis sipping Greek Chardonnay as the sun was slowly setting when Barbarigou came out with a salad that was unlike any of the “Greek” ones I had seen in the States. Pickled caper leaves were placed delicately on a bed of arugula, topped with homemade cheese hailing from the chef’s home island. “What’s the secret?” I asked, trying to place the herbal notes that ever so gently jumped off the plate. “Fresh oregano and olive oil,” she said with a smile. Olive oil is to the Greeks what barbecue sauce is to southerners. It’s a base, a dressing, a dip, a sauce. And it’s the only ingredient you need when pan-frying a fish, a lesson Barbarigou learned as a child in her family restaurant.
“Extra-virgin olive oil is an excellent choice for cooking, even for high-heat methods like frying,” she says. “Pan-frying fish in olive oil gives it a wonderfully crispy crust, and it’s a divine light choice since you don’t have to lather it in batter or leave it in marinades for hours on end.”
Here, Barbarigou shares her tips on how to pick the perfect filet—and pan-fry it in six minutes flat.
Look your fish in the eyes.
As a little girl in Naoussa, fishermen taught Barbarigou a poem on how to choose the best fish, one that she still recites when selecting fresh catches today for Papadakis in Athens. It goes: “Touch me gently, see me shine, look me in the eyes, rub my tummy, squeeze me tight, take my breath away and I’ll always taste right!”
“Give your fish a gentle caress, and if it has a thin film of slimy coating, you'll know that it's as fresh as can be,” the chef says. Fresh fish should also always be shiny and vivid in color (even if they’re slightly matte, that’s a no-go) and sport round tummies. A sign your fish has started going bad: a belly that looks like a deflated balloon. When you squeeze fish that is a few days old, it’ll start feeling like “squishy bread,” whereas fresh fish will feel firm like muscle. Another telltale sign: look it in the eyes.
“Examine the fish's eyes carefully, and if it's fresh, they'll be transparent, shiny and lively,” she says.
Fry fish lighter than a pound.
“Here in Greece, we prefer small fish to fry without batter,” Barbarigou says, opting for anchovies and sand smelts, as well as larger fish (that fall under a pound) like stripped red mullet, black seabream, and white seabream. “The reason these fish are ideal for pan-frying without batter is that they aren’t fatty fish.” Without looking to batter as protection, they can achieve a perfectly crisp crust while still cooking to the right temperature inside.
Remember the rule of thirds.
Before cooking, make sure your filet is completely dry—inside and out— since excess moisture lowers the temperature of the oil and “causes the oil to become more agitated, which leads to burns and a messy kitchen,” the chef explains. Preheat a medium-size, cast-iron pan and use tongs to carefully lower the filet into the oil, placing the side you want displayed on your plate down first. Once you pour olive oil into the pan, it should cover one-third of the thickness of the fish so the meat doesn’t absorb too much oil while frying.
Aim for searing, not smoking.
“Keeping olive oil at the correct temperature is the difference between crispy and spongy food,” the chef says. Olive oil will reach the ideal temperature on medium to high heat, when it’s searing but not smoking. So how can you tell when the oil hits the right temperature without relying on a thermometer? “My preferred method is to watch the bottom of the pan while it is heating,” Barbarigou says. “Once you see wave-like ripples, the oil has reached its desired temperature.” Still not sure? Throw a pinch of flour into the pan or dip the end of a wooden spoon in the oil and wait for it to begin to bubble.
Practice portion control.
“While it’s tempting to add a small mountain of fish and fry everything in one go, it is really important that you cook fish in as many sessions as possible,” the chef explains. Since room temperature fish causes the oil to lose some of its own temperature, cooking a slew at the same time will cause your fish to absorb more oil, adding more calories and losing that sought-after crisp crust. Once your fish is cooked, place it on absorbent paper towels and gently pat both sides dry, which will help it maintain its crispy texture.
Another pro tip: Never cover pan-fried fish once it’s cooked.
Only flip once.
While cooking, watch as the flesh slowly changes color until it reaches halfway down the filet. Then flip it and continue cooking until the two cooking lines barely meet in the center. “If you want it to have a crispy texture, don’t flip it constantly—once is enough,” the chef says, recommending to cook the filet for approximately three minutes on each side. If you’re cooking a larger fish, Barbarigou’s trick to check if it's properly cooked is to insert a knife in between the two filets as the fish is lying on its side (along its back, about an inch behind the head on the thickest part of the fish) and lift the knife gently. If the meat separates from the bones without any effort, the fish is ready to go from pan to plate.
Don’t skimp on seasoning.
Season both sides of the fish (since the salt doesn’t get absorbed after frying) and drizzle the filet with olive oil (don’t be afraid to keep adding more!), continuing to season with salt and pepper along every step of the way. When it comes to herbs and spices, Barbarigou always follows the rules of traditional Aegean cuisine.
“When we roast or boil fish, we use a plethora of herbs,” she says. “However, when we pan-fry, there's only two herbs that pair and only one at a time: fennel or rosemary.”