Cooking fish can be a challenge, and if you don't want to use nonstick cookware you might think you can never cook fish well. Fish is delicate and can be ruined easily by sticking to the pan or getting overcooked.
Like many basic foods, fish takes a little practice to get right. But it is actually one of the simplest meals to make. It's fast, easy, and delicious--not to mention healthy--especially when you choose the right method and the right pan--and trust us, you do not need a nonstick pan.
Best Pans for Cooking Fish at a Glance
Pan Frying, with or without breading, and Pan Roasting
-Shallow to turn fish easily
-Can use high heat to brown
-Can go in oven up to 500F
-Insulates for even baking
-At least 2" deep
Steaming and poaching
-Perforated so steam can reach fish
-Can use for one-pot meals
-Can use high heat
-Raised marks to keep fish from fat and give it grill marks
-Deep enough to hold hot oil safely
Is Fish Safe to Eat?
We aren't food safety experts, but from the research we've done, we believe that yes, fish are safe to eat.
In fact, fish is high in protein and other nutrients, and should be consumed at least once a week. This is true even for children and pregnant women, who need to watch their mercury intake.
Mercury is the biggest concern when eating fish and because of it, most advisory groups advise people to eat no more than two servings (12 ounces) per week of low mercury fish and one serving per week of high mercury fish.
High mercury fish include shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (golden snapper or golden bass).
Shrimp, tuna, salmon (including farmed salmon), pollock, and catfish are low in mercury.
See this article from Harvard for more information.
Types of Fish (And How to Cook Them)
There are dozens of fish breeds to choose from, but they fall into two categories: fatty fish and lean fish.
Both are healthy choices, but fatty fish contains large amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, which most people don't get enough of in their diet. So if you want to eat more fish for health reasons, fatty fish is an excellent choice.
Fatty fish includes salmon (wild and farmed), tuna, herring, sardine, mackerel, and trout. Salmon is considered one of the healthiest fish you can eat, especially wild-caught, which has higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than farmed salmon.
Lean fish is also very healthy. It is high in protein and low in calories, though does not have the high Omega 3 content of fatty fish. Lean fish includes snapper, cod, halibut, bass, flounder, sole, cod, perch, and pike.
Shellfish, like shrimp and lobster, are also considered lean seafood.
Both fatty and lean fish cook quickly, and are a great way to get a meal on the table fast. In general, you can pan fry, pan roast, grill, or bake any type of fish, although only lean fish are typically breaded or battered.
How to Choose Fresh Fish
According to Eatwell101.com, here are the criteria for choosing fresh fish:
- The body of the fish must be rigid or arched.
- The fish should be bright, with a metallic luster
- The eye should be bright, vivid, and brilliant.
- The gills should be bright, wet, pink or red.
- The smell should be pleasant and mild. (If fish has a strong fishy smell, keep looking.)
- Scales should be shiny and not detach themselves.
- The abdomen should not be stretched or have green spots.
- The skin should be shiny, and slippery to the touch.
We'd like to add that one of the best ways to find good quality fresh fish is to find a good fishmonger in your area. If you find someone you trust, you will always have a reliable source of fresh fish.
Why Not to Use a Nonstick Pan
You may have noticed that none of our pan recommendations include nonstick.
There are so many reasons not to use a nonstick pan. We don't want to lecture you about it, but these pans are a bad choice for many reasons. Even a dedicated nonstick pan for fish and eggs is a bad idea.
Ceramic nonstick may be a safer option, but these pans are made using a number of toxic chemicals, too, so we no longer recommend them as a safe alternative to PTFE.
For more information, see our Guide to Nonstick Chemicals.
How to Stop Fish From Sticking to Any Pan
Don't skip this section--it's probably the most important one in the article.
The dreaded sticking is what gives many people pause when frying fish, or makes them reach for a nonstick pan. But you don't need to worry--and you don't need to use a nonstick pan.
The right technique is all you need.
Proteins tend to stick to pans, especially when cooked slowly. This is especially true for lean cuts, like fish, that don't release a lot of fat when they cook.
Thus, cooking proteins quickly is the key to them not sticking.
You should also make sure the fish is patted dry before you add it to the pan, as moisture will interfere with the oil barrier.
For pan frying, the key is to pre-heat the pan for several minutes. This allows the pan to heat to the right temperature and for the heat to be evenly distributed throughout the pan. (How hot? Medium-high is a good place to start; if you're an experienced cook, high is fine too, as long as the pan isn't nonstick.)
When the pan is hot, add your oil or butter--enough to thinly coat the pan surface--and wait until it starts to shimmer, probably less than a minute. When the fat is shimmering, add the patted-dry fish (or other protein).
Allow the fish to cook undisturbed for a few minutes, or several if it is a thick fillet or steak. The fish will form a crust and should release naturally from the pan. When it does, it's ready to flip.
Cook a few minutes longer on the other side. Use an instant read thermometer to check for doneness, or pull the fish when the meat easily flakes apart.
Do not turn the fish more than once, as this can cause it to fall apart.
That's really all there is to it.
If there are crispy bits left in the pan, you can de-glaze with a little bit of wine or water, add some stock and seasonings (a generous squeeze of lemon is great here!) and let them reduce for a few minutes, then finish with a couple of tablespoons of butter for a delicious pan sauce.
This method works really well for a stainless steel cooking surface, which gets the most complaints about stickiness from cooks who are used to nonstick. And you can use it for any protein, not just fish.
It also works with cast iron and carbon steel pans.
Once you get the hang of this technique, using stainless steel pans becomes second nature, and they are almost never hard to clean, either.
Don't fret about the fat! Fat is flavor, and your body needs it to function normally, as well as to absorb certain nutrients.
Do You Need a Special Pan for Fish?
The short answer is no, you don't need a special pan for cooking fish, and buying one won't make your fish turn out better than if you use a regular cast iron or stainless steel skillet.
You can buy special fish pans, but these are mainly for presentation, if you're cooking a whole fish and want to display it on the table this way.
The problem with specialty pans is that they're only good for one dish: in this case, fish. That makes them a poor choice for your budget.
Unless you routinely cook whole fish for guests, the better bet is to buy a good quality all-purpose skillet, grill pan, or baking pan. And if you ever do want to cook and present a whole fish for guests, any long, narrow pan will work (such as a Pyrex cake/lasagna pan).
Cookware Factors to Consider
There's no one perfect pan for searing, pan roasting, baking, steaming, or grilling fish (or any other food, for that matter). To find a pan that's right for you, need to take into account basic heating and quality features, as well as your own preferences: weight, handle design, depth, versatility, and whether a pan fits with your basic cooking style.
For example, don't buy a cast iron pan (or grill pan) if you don't like heavy cookware. You'll hate it and you'll never use it.
And you probably don't need a dedicated fish pan. You can find a good pan that you can also use for other tasks.
The pans we recommend here are the best not just for fish, but the best in general. If you want to spend more on a smoother cast iron pan or you want a lighter clad stainless skillet than the Proline, we give more options. But in general, the pans we recommend here are the best and most versatile options.
Here are the most important factors to consider when choosing a pan for cooking fish.
The most important features for cooking fish are a pan heats evenly and retains heat fairly well, although retention is more important for thick fish steaks than it is for fillets. Fillets cook quickly, while thick steaks take longer (which is why they're a good candidate for pan roasting: searing on the stove top and finishing in an oven).
The best skillet for frying fish is the best skillet for most things: a thick, heavy pan that heats evenly and holds heat reasonably well.
We like clad stainless steel. It's the best skillet material because it's so versatile. It pan fries and sears well, and you can put it in the oven, too: most brands are oven safe to at least 500F.
Cast iron and carbon steel are also great choices for fish. You don't need the exceptional heat retention, but it won't hurt anything either as long as you know when to take the fish out of the pan.
Not all pans are created equally, especially clad stainless. There is a wide range of quality among brands. We have several articles on this site about choosing clad stainless cookware; see our Cookware page for more information, or scroll down for our fish recommendations.
You don't need a durable pan for fish, but durability is an important all-around feature of good quality cookware, and it's something you should look for in any cookware you buy.
Clad stainless steel, cast iron, and carbon steel are all good choices for skillets. If stainless steel or carbon steel is too thin, it can warp, so you have to be careful about cheap or non-recommended brands. Our recommendations are all heavy duty, well-made pans that shouldn't warp or corrode.
For bakeware, you'll want a glass or ceramic baking dish. These aren't as durable as skillet material, but they're a good choice for baking because they insulate from the heat and help food cook more evenly.
However, you can also roast fish in stainless steel, carbon steel, and cast iron pans. If you do a lot of pan roasting, you may want to invest in a short-handled pan, as they go in and out of the oven more easily.
By safety, we mean cookware material that won't react with your food or the environment. We are most concerned with nonstick cookware chemicals, which are toxic and can be released from scratched and overheated pans.
The best cookware choices for safety are the materials we recommend: stainless steel, cast iron, carbon steel, and glass or ceramic baking dishes.
You can read more about cookware safety in our Guide to Safe Cookware.
The right pan size is dependent on how much food you're cooking, but for fish, you want a pan large enough to fit at least a couple of fillets at a time.
For skillets, the smallest you should go is 10-inches, and we think 12-inches is a more versatile size. Diameter is measured across the top, so a 10-inch skillet has a flat cooking surface of 7-9 inches; a 12-inch skillet has a flat cooking surface of 8-11 inches, depending on how angled the sides of the skillet are.
The standard baking dish size--for baking fish--is 9 by 13 inches, which will accommodate most whole fish as well as several smaller fillets or steaks.
If you're cooking just for yourself, smaller pans will work: an 8-inch skillet or a 8 by 8 inch baking pan. But if you're cooking for two people or more, you definitely want a larger size.
Best Pans for Pan Frying and Pan Roasting Fish
So we're on the same page, here are quick definitions:
Pan Frying: Pan frying, or just frying, is cooking food in a shallow amount of oil at a medium to medium-high temperature until done. Pan frying is a fast method, which makes it an excellent option for fish fillets, which are thin and will cook through quickly.
Searing/Pan Roasting: Searing is heating a pan to very high heat, cooking food in a small amount of oil to get a crispy crust, such as on a steak, then turning down the temperature and covering, or putting in the oven to finish.
This is an excellent way to cook thick fish steaks, but would be likely to overcook most fillets.
We love clad stainless for pan frying and pan roasting because it heats evenly and goes in the oven without a problem (as long as you buy a brand with stainless steel, not plastic, handles).
Cast iron and carbon steel are also good choices, especially if you're on a tighter budget and don't want to spend for a top-notch clad stainless steel skillet: you're better off buying an inexpensive cast iron or carbon steel skillet than skimping on a stainless one.
Best Overall: Demeyere Proline Skillet
See the Demeyere Proline skillet on Amazon (About $280)
The Demeyere Proline skillet, made in Belgium, is the best clad stainless skillet on the market, bar none. The walls are 4.8mm thick, with about 75% more aluminum than All-Clad D3 or D5. Handles are welded, so there are no rivets on the cooking surface. All Demeyere cookware has a proprietary treatment called Silvinox that keeps the steel shiny and makes it easier to clean than other brands of clad stainless cookware. The pan is shaped nicely with a lot of flat cooking surface. Demeyere has put the most thought into their cookware design than any other maker we've seen.
This pan heats evenly and holds heat better than any other clad stainless option. It's great for fish, steaks, and anything else you'd like to cook in it.
- Best heating performance of any clad cookware on the market
- Welded handles (no rivets on cooking surface)
- Great shape and design.
Best for People Who Want a Lighter Pan: All-Clad D3 Skillet
See the All-Clad D3 skillet on Amazon (About $100-$120)
If you can't handle the heft of the Proline skillet, go with the All-Clad D3 skillet. D3 is AC's standard tri-ply, and the brand against which every knockoff is trying to compete. It is also AC's most reasonably priced line, and performs just as well as their higher-priced lines (D5, Copper Core).
Any All-Clad skillet you buy is going to be high quality, but the D3 is the best price--and this one even comes with a lid, a rarity among skillets.
- Excellent quality
- Lighter than the Proline
- Comes with a lid
- Made in the USA.
- Some people hate the handles (we like them).
Best Budget Choice: Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad Skillet
Tramontina Tri-Ply Clad is the knockoff closest to All-Clad D3. Some testers even say it out-performs D3. The pans are roughly equal to AC in thickness, weight, heating core, and steel quality. Our one complaint is that the pan sides are steeply angled, so there's not as much flat cooking surface as with the Proline or the All-Clad.
Best Cast Iron: Lodge
See the Lodge skillet on Amazon (About $20-$40)
Lodge cast iron is still made in the USA and is extremely reasonably priced. Most cooks want a cast iron skillet for high heat searing, and many use them as their primary skillet. Don't be afraid of the seasoning: it takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, it makes a pan easy to take care of, and makes the pan nonstick. The more you use it, the smoother the cooking surface becomes, and washing usually means a quick wipe with a hot sponge--but if you need to scrub it, you can do so without harming the pan.
You don't need the heat retention of cast iron for fish, but it's still a great choice, mostly because it's a great all-around choice for many tasks. You can fry or pan sear easily. The only real drawback is the weight, so if you can't handle it but want a nonstick pan without toxins, consider carbon steel: it's still heavy, but about half the weight of cast iron.
- Excellent heat retention
- Nonstick cooking surface when seasoned.
- Has to be seasoned (even if sold as "pre-seasoned")
- Must be preheated several minutes to distribute heat evenly
Best Cast Iron Splurge: Field
See the Field skillet at the Field website (About $145-$200)
Field makes beautiful, artisanal cast iron pans, so if you have the budget, you may want to take a look at them. They are glass-smooth right out of the box, and they are lighter than most other brands without sacrificing any of the excellent heat retention. They're also beautiful.
The heating performance is about the same as a Lodge since they're made of the same material, which means long preheating times (several minutes) for even heat distribution, and excellent heat retention. So if you spend the money on artisan cast iron, you're really paying for the smooth surface and aesthetics--and the pan will still need seasoning, even if it comes "pre-seasoned" (true for all brands of cast iron).
Best Carbon Steel: Matfer-Bourgeat
Matfer-Bourgeat is our choice for carbon steel because they have a nice heft and welded handles, so no rivets on the cooking surface to collect food and cooking grease. They have the traditional French skillet shape, with somewhat shallow sides, which makes them great for pan frying fish. They may not be a great option for roasting because of the long handle, especially if you have a small oven.
- Great quality
- Smooth cooking surface
- Thick enough to hold heat well
- Made in France.
- Need to be seasoned (even if sold as "pre-seasoned")
- Heavy (but not as heavy as cast iron)
- Must be preheated several minutes to distribute heat evenly
- Long handle can make them a bad choice for ovens.
Best Pans for Baking Fish
See our favorite baking dish on Amazon (About $30 for a set, with lids)
Baking is the easiest way to cook fish. It's more forgiving than pan frying because you have a larger window before the fish goes from cooked to overcooked.
Baking means doing the whole process in the oven. Baking is a great way to cook any cut of fish. Thin fillets can cook in under 10 minutes, and thicker cuts usually cook in under 30 minutes. You can add seasonings and liquids to keep the fish moist, or you can wrap it in foil or parchment paper with herbs and butter to keep in moisture and flavor.
You can bake fish in a skillet, but the best baking pans are glass or ceramic because they insulate the food to keep it from browning too quickly or getting overcooked. These pans are inexpensive for the most part (just like anything, you can spend a lot if you want to) and most cooks get a lot of use out of them for cake, brownies, casseroles, lasagna, and for roasts and chickens.
Our favorite glass bakeware is Pyrex. It's cheap, long-lasting, and many pans come with lids, so you can go straight from the oven to the fridge or freezer.
You can spend more on fancier brands, but you really don't need to.
- Excellent for all baking tasks
- With lids, can easily store in the fridge and freezer.
- Brittle, can break if you drop it
- Not for use on stove top.
Best Pans for Steaming and Poaching Fish
Steaming means gently cooking food in a perforated tray above simmering liquid, usually water.
Poaching means gently cooking food in gently simmering liquid, usually stock or water with herbs and seasoning.
For both methods, you need a deep pan with a lid. A steamer try is essential for steaming and can also be used for poaching--a tray makes it easier to lift the fish out of the liquid.
Note that there are many options for steaming fish. You can use a bamboo Steamer or a rice cooker if it has a steamer tray. You can even do it in the oven (or toaster oven) with a cooking rack and a baking sheet.
We like the stove top method, but you'll probably have to cut your fillets into smaller pieces to fit.
Best Pans for Grilling Fish (Indoors)
Indoor grilling on a grill pan is an easy, healthy way to cook fish. There is less oil than with pan frying or pan roasting, and the fish cooks quickly.
To grill indoors, you need a grill pan: a pan with raised bars that give the fish grill marks. Grill marks keep the food above the grease that's released during cooking (for fish, that's not very much) and lets the true flavor of the food shine.
You can also use your oven's broiler, a smokeless indoor grill appliance, or of course, an outdoor grill.
Cooking time can vary by how hot your grill is. A good rule of thumb is 8-10 minutes per inch of fish.
Best Pan for Deep Frying Fish
The main difference between pan frying and deep frying is the amount of oil you use: in pan frying, you use enough oil to create a barrier between the food and the pan and to add flavor; in deep frying, you fully immerse the food in hot oil. Deep frying is the best bet for battered chunks of fish because it crisps the batter all at once to crispy perfection.
Deep frying is not for the timid cook. You are using dangerous amounts of hot oil, so you have to be confident and know what you're doing. Never fill a vessel more than half full with hot oil.
You also need a thermometer because getting the oil temperature right is essential to cooking the fish properly. A few degrees too cool, and the batter soaks up oil; too hot, and the batter cooks while the fish stays raw in the middle.
It's also not something you should have often. While the food itself remains healthy, the crispy, delicious batter is not the healthiest thing to eat.
The best pan for deep frying is a deep, heavy one that will stay put on the stove. We like an inexpensive enameled Dutch oven--but if you have a Le Creuset, feel free to use it--or a deep cast iron skillet.
You can also buy a dedicated deep fryer, which can make frying a little easier (still dangerous!), but can be messy to maintain and a hassle to store.
Other Useful Tools
Here are a few other tools that will help you get perfect results every time you make fish.
Thin, Flexible Spatula
For pan frying, it's helpful to have the right tool for flipping the fish fillets (or steaks). The best spatula is actually called a fish spatula: it has a thin, flexible blade that makes it easy to get under the fish, and is long enough and wide enough to flip just about any sized fillet.
Avoid thick turners, which aren't great for fish (or pancakes), and avoid silicone, plastic, and bamboo because it's hard to find them in a thin, flexible form. (And if you don't use nonstick cookware, you can use metal utensils.)
Our favorite is the Wusthof (about $60). It's thin, with just the right amount of flexibility, and it will last forever.
But if you want to save a few bucks, the Oxo turner is also a good choice (about $15).
Both have plastic handles so they're dishwasher safe.
Instant Read Thermometer
One of the best ways to improve your cooking is to buy an instant read thermometer. If you have one, you'll never overcook anything again. They're great for baked goods, steaks, and fish--anything that is temperature sensitive that you don't want to ruin by overcooking.
Our favorite brand by far is Thermoworks, about $80, which is water resistant (or waterproof, depending which model you buy) and can hone in on a temperature in about a second. They are exceptional tools and are worth the investment
If you don't want to spend that much, here's Amazon's recommendation (about $13).
Knowing the thickness of your fish is essential to getting the cooking time right. The easiest way to measure it is with a ruler. You can just use a standard ruler, or you can invest in a kitchen measuring tool that you can throw in the dishwasher and has lots of other measurements, as well.
Another option is a dough scraper with measurements on it. This is an all-purpose kitchen tool that you'll reach for often: it's useful for many tasks beyond scraping dough, especially if it has measurements etched on it.
Deep Frying/Candy Thermometer
For deep frying only: if you don't have a dedicated deep fryer, you need a thermometer to tell you when the oil is hot. You can't deep fry without one.
We like the digital one because it's a lot easier to read.
You may think our advice about the right pan for cooking fish is vague. This is intentional, because the pan you use is less important than your basic cooking skills and understanding about how fish cooks.
As long as your cookware is decent quality, your cooking skills are what will make or break how your fish turns out.
Here are some tips.
Basic Cooking Skills
First, you need some basic cooking skills. Understand the different types of cooking (searing, pan roasting, poaching, etc.) and what you're trying to accomplish. Know how to follow a recipe and measure ingredients. Be familiar with your stove. Have a few good resources available that share techniques and not just recipes. Understanding the "why" is as important as doing the "how."
If you want to learn more, our recommendations are Joy of Cooking, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and The Food Lab. These are very different books but all contain excellent basic information and not just recipes.
If you don't want to invest in any books (but you should!), check out Serious Eats. There are many other websites that can help you learn cooking skills, but this is one of the best.
Know Your Cookware
You have to be familiar with your cookware: know how it heats, when to pull it off the heat, how much oil or butter you need to prevent food from sticking, and the best utensils to use with it (metal utensils are almost always the best choice, especially for delicate foods like fish--just one more reason not to use nonstick cookware).
Even if you don't realize it, you learn how to use your cookware from the first time you use it. You know how long to preheat a pan, how often to stir so food won't scorch, how well lids hold in moisture, etc.
You can cook anything with any cookware, but heavier, higher quality cookware distributes heat more evenly and holds heat better than thin, cheap cookware--which is why we always recommend that you buy the heaviest cookware you can comfortably handle.
Basic Knowledge About How to Cook Fish
Finally, you have to have some basic knowledge about cooking fish, such as the right heat to use (which can vary per the type of fish), when to turn the fish or take it off the heat, and how to tell when it's done.
Maybe most importantly is to know that fish is tricky to cook mostly because it's so lean. Even fatty fish like salmon is much leaner than your average cut of beef. Fat insulates meat and makes it more forgiving to cook. So fish, especially lean white fish and shrimp, can go from done to overdone in an instant.
Knowing when fish is done is not as simple as it might sound. Many cooking sites say when it's flaky and no longer mushy when you press on it, it's done. But most fish is overdone at this point, which makes it dry, so it's not a foolproof indicator.
The USDA recommends cooking fish to 145F: this is certainly the safest bet, but most, if not all, types of fish are badly overcooked at this temperature and will be dry and chalky. Unless you're immune deficient or pregnant, you should probably not cook fish to this doneness.
Doneness also varies by individual palate: what one person thinks is perfect, another might find raw. So you have to know what you like, too, and learn how to cook fish to your preferences.
In general, fish is best when you take it off the heat or out of the oven just a smidge before it's cooked through. The residual heat will finish cooking it, and it will be perfectly done yet still moist and tender.
This page at Thermoworks.com lists doneness temperatures for several species of fish, including shrimp, lobster, and scallops.
Good cooking skills make all the difference! Cookware is no substitution for knowledge and experience. The best combination is cooking skills plus familiarity with your cookware.
If you're not an experienced cook, don't despair. Cooking is as easy as following a recipe. No, a recipe is not a guarantee that your meals will turn out perfectly, and there are a lot of poorly written recipes around, unfortunately. But don't be afraid. Plunge in and be willing to learn from your mistakes. Before you know it, cooking in general, and cooking fish in particular, will become second nature to you.
Final Thoughts on the Best Pans for Cooking Fish
It's not difficult to find the best pans for cooking fish: get decent quality cookware, then practice your basic cooking skills. There's always a period of trial and error as you learn, but you'll be cooking perfect fish before you know it.
Thanks for reading!
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