Twice now I've tried pan frying fillets of white fish (Swai and Flouder) in olive oil and butter. Both times the fish has disintegrated into unsightly mush. Is there some technique I'm missing? How can I pan fry without the fish falling apart?

  • 1
    There could be lots of reasons - oil not hot enough, oil too hot, wrong pan, too much handling... You may need to tell us how you are doing it. And naked white fish is generally quite hard to get right, if you are not experienced with frying, you may want to start learning with breaded fish first and only continue with naked when you are better at frying.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 11:40

6 Answers 6


When we pan fry white fish, we use a non-stick but do not marinade nor bread it.

  • We stick a little bit of oil in the non-stick; just enough to cover the bottom.
  • Heat the pan up until the oil is shimmering and you can smell the oil (for example you will smell corn for vegetable oil). How high of heat really depends on your burner. We have a gas stove top and use the large burner at 5 1/2 and our non stick is an all-clad stainless steel (no copper).
  • Put your fish in the pan and do not move it for a few minutes. You should hear sizzling but not crackling. If the fish in the oil is crackling, turn the heat down a little.
  • At the end of a few minutes, shake the pan and see if the fish slides around. If it does not, the fish may need a little more time on that side. To help it along my husband likes to shake the pan every 10-20 seconds to get air pockets under the fish and allow the oil to coat the bottom of the fish some more.
  • Once the fish slides, flip it and remember how long you cooked the first side for just to have an idea. You will cook the other side for less time.
  • Watch the sides of the fish to see how the cooking progression is going.
  • If you want fully cooked fish wait for the sides of the fish to almost become fully opaque. Think of when you are watching even thickness chicken cooking from pink to white. Resting time under foil will cook the fish the rest of the way.


  • If the filets are not even thickness, move the thinner ends to the cooler sides of the pan. You can also fold over the thinner side (more common with salmon filets) to match the thicker part and stick a tooth pick in it, that way the filet is the same thickness all the way around.
  • If you have a sauce to pour over the fish, make the sauce while the fish is resting. This way you are able to cook the fish on both sides to get a nice crust without worrying about the sauce steaming the fish.
  • If marinading the fish, take the fish out of the marinade and let drip for a few seconds to get enough of the liquid off then follow the above tip to make a pouring sauce.
  • For skin on fish, we usually put the fish in skin side up first then flip it

I definitely like what @moscafj said "flip once".

I am going to stick to your statement of "pan frying". - which is indeed different from deep frying, shallow frying, sauteing, stir frying. Looking at your description you seem to be mixing pan frying and stir frying...

So let's stick to pan frying which uses minimum quantity of oil.

  1. Get the cleaned fish fillet and marinate it with any herbs you want, adding a bit of oil and lemon juice.

  2. Get a shallow pan that is not as deep as deep frying pan. Heat it up with a good fire. When it's heated only pour the oil (if you require)

  3. Lay the fillet on the pan while it gives you that sizzling sound of meat touching the hot pan - what a delight

  4. Don't poke your fish now - let it be for few minutes

  5. Now flip it - just once. And leave it for another few minutes

  6. As the oil comes out of the fish and pan is drying out, fish changes the colour...

Tip 1: Try not to get a fillet as thick as 1 feet (I am exaggerating). But really a standard 1cm-2cm kind of a fillet would be easier to handle & cook if you are novice.. (salmon can be particularly thicker)

Tip 2: When fish is marinated with a base of oil and lemon - it helps a lot by making the outer layer rougher, tastier since herbs are absorbed into fish and you may not even need extra oil to fry the fish.

Tip 3: Don't over-crowd your pan by adding a population of fillets into the pan at once. Add two fillets with a relatively good space between them - based on the pan size and fillet size you use. So the heat distributes evenly among them.

Tip 4: This is probably the cheapest non-stick pan I have ever used - lighter and durable even I want to throw it away. And it's like one of those old Beetle cars - no matter what you do - it just lasts... You can start with a pan like this and go up as you mature with the frying experience.

Tip 5: The most important out of all, get your fish-monger to give you fresh fish. If you are not aware how to choose a fresh fish, then you gotta do some research and get familiar with that. Personally I never ever use or recommend those frozen fillets (like "forgotten" dory fish) in hypermarket freezers. You get a good fish, you will enjoy a good meal.

Tip 6: Don't forget to use a Fish Slice kitchen tool that's made for pan frying - if you aren't using one yet.

Reference link for you to get an understanding of frying techniques:

Frying techniques vary in the amount of fat required, the cooking time, the type of cooking vessel required, and the manipulation of the food. Sautéing, stir frying, pan frying, shallow frying, and deep frying are all standard frying techniques.

Sautéing and stir-frying involve cooking foods in a thin layer of fat on a hot surface, such as a frying pan, griddle, wok, or sauteuse. Stir frying involves frying quickly at very high temperatures, requiring that the food be stirred continuously to prevent it from adhering to the cooking surface and burning.

Shallow frying is a type of pan frying using only enough fat to immerse approximately one-third to one-half of each piece of food; fat used in this technique is typically only used once. Deep-frying, on the other hand, involves totally immersing the food in hot oil, which is normally topped up and used several times before being disposed. Deep-frying is typically a much more involved process, and may require specialized oils for optimal results. Wikipedia


When working with flounder or sole fish, they are so delicate that are almost guaranteed to break on you. However, if you do this simple steps, your chances of mushing or breaking comes down.

1) Do not bring the fish to room temperature and keep it cold until ready for sautéing.

2) Do not marinate or bread them, however dip them in white flour to coat and shake the excess. Make sure the oil in the pan is hot, then place the fish. This provides a little protection.

3) These fishes really need 2 minutes per side when sautéed. Leaving them any longer to get a darker color is not worth it and will break or mush the fish. However if you use butter as your oil option, the fish will have a better fried color even in that short cooking time.

4) Use a metal fish turner utensil to help you flip them as neatly as possible.

Good luck


non stick pan...be gentle...only flip once?

  • 1
    These are good points, but the answer would be better if you fleshed it out some more.
    – SourDoh
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 15:20

The best remedy that worked out in my case for not sticking fish on the frying pan while frying is....just put curry leaves stem by stem in the oil when the oil is hot enough.don't remove leaves from stem so that it acts as a comfortable bed for the fish.put fish on this leaf bed and gently turn both sides...make sure when turning, the leaves get stuck on body of the fish so put some new leaves for the other side to fry well without sticking...


I have experienced this with so called sole from the Pacific. It seems there is a virus that affects the fish meat and doesn't harm humans! When you cook it, however, it is gelatinous slop. Has happened several times with fish purchased from Whole Foods. Flounder or Sole should remain firm when you cook it I don't think overcooking is a problem unless you want tough but not sloppy fish. It is something else. There is also this "Slime Sole, Slippery Sole; Microstomus pacificus".

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