The cooking-fish trick that changed my life

Paperbark cod from Cabarita's Paper Daisy.
Paperbark cod from Cabarita's Paper Daisy. Photo: Supplied

A guest staying with us from overseas jokingly asked me what my cookbook would be called as I was making (a very easy) dinner. "Back to basics," I shot back while cutting through cauliflower. For it's true. I like simple, basic meals with quality produce. A good piece of fish or steak served with a crunchy salad or side of veg is enough to keep me happy.

Which is why I was so pleased to meet two-hatted chef, Ben Devlin, at his restaurant Paper Daisy earlier this year. Set in the lush surrounds of Halcyon House on the northern NSW coast (and also, coincidentally, won Best Regional Restaurant in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide this year), Devlin set about creating a menu that would make the restaurant a destination, rather than just a place to eat in a hotel.

The whole dining experience is rather new for Australia. It's as though a restaurant in the Italian Riviera has been picked up and plonked down in the the middle of a sleepy surfside town. And the food? Oh, the food!

Paper Daisy prawns by Ben Devlin at Halcyon House
Paper Daisy prawns by Ben Devlin at Halcyon House 

Devlin has tricks, you see. Ones that are probably too complex for me, but others that are extremely practical for everyday cooking. One trick in particular has completely changed my life. I'm obsessed with getting the skin crisp on my snapper. Very rarely, it works, and I'm treated to the snapper of my dreams. Mostly however, the skin either sticks to the pan (I don't believe in non-stick pans, that's cheating, could be bad for you, and it never comes out as crunchy), or it shaves off the fish in a mess of skin and flesh that looks like someone hacked into it with a sharp object.

But Ben Devlin changed all that. Here, his tips to perfectly cooking a piece of fish and achieving a crisp skin. Every. Single. Time.

1. "Bring the fish to room temperature (or as close to it as possible) before you start cooking."

Aha! My first mistake! I would normally have raced home from work, thrown the fish into a bowl of cold water to defrost it, and cooked it straight from this freezing cold water. Oh I know, I know, patience is a virtue. But I get very, very hungry.

2. "Pat the fish dry with a paper towel before cooking."

Mistake number two. I used to take the fish out of the bowl of water and throw it in the fry pan, soaking. Oh come on, I'm trying to feed a family here! As it turns out, patting the fish dry only takes a minute and is a very important step. 

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3. "Oil the fish, not the pan."

I'd gotten so obsessed with achieving a crisp skin that I thought I wasn't using enough oil or butter (and as mentioned, I don't use a non-stick pan). I'd fill the pan with butter, and when that didn't work, the next time I'd use oil. In the end I started using both in the hope that some bizarre chemical reaction would occur and I'd be able to lift the skin off the bottom with ease. That folks, is not the solution. Devlin suggests oiling the fish and rubbing in salt and pepper before taking it to the pan.

4. "Place in a hot pan, skin side down,"

Now this, I was doing. Hallelujah.

5. "Once the fish is cooked on the skin side, add a generous dob of butter to the pan and turn over."

Hmm, is this really going to work? I was dubious but by golly! What a difference it makes. The butter doesn't burn. Instead, it gently flavours the flesh and allows you to pick it up in one piece at the end.

That's it. Apart from not overcooking the fish of course.

Those tiny tweaks have made a world of difference. I get crisp skinned snapper/salmon/barramundi/whatever delicious piece I happen to be cooking, every single time, without the fish sticking to the pan and taking half my dinner with it. 

Note: When I spoke to Guillaume Brahimi, also at Halcyon House for a cooking class - correction, the best cooking class ever - he gave exactly the same tips for making the perfect steak. Let it come to room temperature. Dry it. Pop it up the top of the BBQ even before cooking. Oil the meat, not the pan. Clearly, I'd been missing a trick. Have you?