Whether cooking a delicate filet or an entire fish, having the right pan for the job can make a huge difference in how your fish comes out.
A pan that causes your fish to stick and tear apart is a tragic thing.
The good news is, a good pan isn’t hard to find and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.
Let’s dive in.
Do You Need a Separate Pan for Cooking Fish?
Yes and no - While you could theoretically cook fish in just about any pan, fish is tricky.
I like to compare it to frying eggs; you’ve either got to pick a method that works in your pan and stick to it, which usually requires a good amount of skill and cooking fat, or you need a separate pan for the project.
I’m an advocate of getting a separate pan.
Cooking on a line in a professional kitchen, it's very likely you will have a dedicated pan for eggs, and a dedicated pan for fish.
The short of it is, you don’t want to be fighting your equipment.
Get a pan specifically for cooking fish, and while you might have to replace it once in a while, the task of cooking fish will always be a delight.
Our #1 Pick -
Best Pan for Cooking Fish Fillets
Our #1 Pick -
Best Pan for Cooking Whole Fish
CARBON STEEL OVAL ROASTER 16.5”
If the whole fish is small enough, you could absolutely cook it in the OXO pan listed above. But the majority of people cooking whole fish seem to have a larger variety, and so need the extra space.
Though it costs a pretty penny, this is a beautiful pan that will last you forever with the proper care.
More details & pan options below.
Qualities to Look For in a Pan for Cooking Fish Fillets
You can’t beat a good non-stick. Especially if you’re going to dedicate the pan you buy to the cooking of fish.
This means the pan will not see extremely heavy use and is likely to maintain its non-stick finish for a longer time.
Don’t mistake me, non-stick pans will lose their finish over time, even with the best of care.
If you opt for a non-stick pan, you will have to replace it every 2-5 years, depending on how heavily it is used.
You will also want to cook with your non-stick pan below 500°F.
A Pan that's 10-12"
A large pan is crucial. Fish vary in size and you want a pan that is up for the job if you decide to sear a large cut.
However, if you know exactly what kind of fish filets you like and they aren’t that big, you can opt for a smaller pan.
An additional reason you need a large pan is to achieve a crispy skin and a golden-brown exterior.
You don’t always want to sear fish, but when you do, you need air circulation for this to happen.
Moisture is the enemy of caramelization, so you must have a large surface area to avoid overcrowding your pan and to allow the steam to escape.
Wide, Curved Edges
The curved edge allows for steam to escape easily, and more importantly, allows you to carefully slide the fish out of the pan after it's finished.
Lifting a delicate filet that has been perfectly cooked is a risky business.
Going from Stove to Oven
Look for pans that can go from the stove-top to the oven.
A method for cooking fish that is not used nearly enough is starting it on the stove, and finishing it in the oven.
This is especially useful when you have a whole fish, or a thick filet, that may have crisped up on the outside, while still being raw within.
A Well-Fitting Lid
A pan with a lid is ideal.
While a wide-cooking surface and air circulation are important if you want to sear fish with a crispy outside, steaming fish is a very common method, especially for skinless filets.
You’ll want a well-fitting lid if you plan to steam your fish on the stove top.
Things to Avoid in Pans for Cooking Fish Fillets
If a cast iron was perfectly cared for and seasoned extremely well, you could absolutely cook a lovely piece of fish in it.
But since most people’s cast irons just don’t see that much attention, they will likely cause your fish to stick and burn.
Cast iron is also porous and may retain some odors of fish even after it's been cleaned.
A piece of fish is a delicate, light-weight thing. Even a large cut of salmon is more delicate than a steak.
The pan should match the product.
You are far more likely to cook fish regularly if your pan is not cumbersome to use.
Most pieces of fish, when cooked properly, should be slid easily out of the pan onto the plate to avoid the chance of it breaking apart. This is hard to do successfully if your pan weighs 4-5 pounds.
A poorly-made pan will cause you a lot of unnecessary trouble and you will ultimately end up throwing it out and buying a more expensive pan.
Poorly made pans loose their coating easily, become warped quickly, and the handles often come loose.
Not only is this dangerous when lifting a hot pan, it’s extremely aggravating to have a floppy-handled pan.
To avoid this, do a little research on the brand you’re considering before purchasing. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Stainless Steel Pans - For the Expert Only
Hollywood has planted an alluring picture in our heads of someone in a white chef's coat, spooning browned butter over a beautiful fish in a large, stainless steel pan.
While it's certainly possible to cook a good piece of fish in a stainless steel pan, it takes a lot of practice and failures.
You’ve got to use a lot of cooking fat and be right on the money with the timing and temperature during the cooking process.
Novice cooks trying to cook fish in a stainless steel pan will usually end up with fish that is over or under-cooked, improperly browned, and the fish is likely to stick to the pan and come out in pieces.
Practice cooking fish on a non-stick pan for a while before trying your hand at stainless steel and you’re far more likely to have success.
Top 5 Pans for Cooking Fish Fillets
#1 OXO Good Grips Pro Hard Anodized PFOA-Free Nonstick, 12"
Why? This pan is lightweight, fits perfectly in your hand, and is prized for its amazing non-stick qualities and how easy it is to clean.
It boasts almost 12,000 5-star reviews and was named the #1 non-stick pan by America's Test Kitchen multiple years in a row.
A lid is available to purchase for an additional $10 if you want to use it for steaming. Reviewers typically got 2 years of heavy use out of this pan before the finish began to wear.
Oven Safe? Yes, up to 430°F / 220°C.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a fantastic pan that will last them 2 years or more with regular use.
Who It’s Not For? Someone who wants a pan that will last them 10+ years. Someone who wants a small pan.
#2 OXO Good Grips Hard Anodized PFOA-Free Nonstick 12" Frying Pan
Why? This is almost exactly the same pan as the number one choice but differs in a few areas: It has a slightly different handle, it is not part of the “Pro” series, and it is $10 cheaper.
I have owned this pan for about two years now and it's a joy to use.
I did not follow the “best practices” in caring for and using this pan and it has still held up extraordinarily well.
I can definitely see the non-stick coating beginning to wear, but with a little cooking oil, it is still very non-stick and I would absolutely trust it to cook a delicate fillet. A lid is also available for $10.
Oven Safe? Yes, up to 390°F / 200°C.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a fantastic pan at a good price that will last them at least 2 years or more with regular use.
Who It’s Not For? Anyone who wants a small pan or a pan that will last for 5+ years.
Why? I’ve used these pans in varying sizes on the lines in kitchens. They are fantastic pans and will last a long time.
The non-stick coating will last up to two years with proper care and the pans are oven-safe up to 400°F if you remove the handle cover.
This pan is slightly heavier than the OXO pans and the handle is straight rather than tilted, which makes it slightly less comfortable to grip.
Overall, a rock-solid choice for a fish pan, though finding a lid that fits exactly can prove a bit troublesome.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a fantastic pan at a good price.
Who It’s Not For? Anyone who wants a small pan, a pan with a lid, a pan that will last for 5+ years, or is easy to grip.
Why? While I would normally advise against spending anything near $100 on a single non-stick sauté pan, Caraway might be the exception to the rule.
With almost 37,000 5-star reviews, their use of ceramic and environmentally-friendly practices, coupled with the stunning colors that can rival Le Creuset, make this pan a worthwhile investment.
If you don’t plan to cook extremely large cuts of fish you could go down a size to the fry pan, which is a bit cheaper.
Due to their specific material, which conducts heat extremely well, they are meant to be used on medium-low heat, as is advisable for all pans with a non-stick coating
Caraway pans are also covered under a warranty if you use them properly.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a gorgeous, functional pan that should outlast most of the other non-stick pans on the market with proper use.
Who It’s Not For? Someone on a budget, someone who wants a dishwasher-safe pan, or a pan that can be used at extremely high temperatures on the stove.
#5 Stainless Clad Frying Pan
Why? While this pan is a bit of an investment, it will last you forever. Though its reviews on Amazon are limited, it has over 18,000 5-star reviews on the Made-In website.
Voted “best frying pan” by numerous food publications, this pan is lightweight, functional, and easy to use.
It comes with a warranty as well. The upsides to a stainless steel pan are obvious. Especially in that you should never have to replace this pan, as it is well-made and will not warp.
However, cooking fish in stainless steel takes lots of practice and is not for the beginner. See below for more tips on learning to use this pan.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a gorgeous, functional pan that can last a lifetime.
Who It’s Not For? Someone on a budget, a novice cook wanting to achieve good results with fish immediately.
Top 3 Pans for Cooking Whole Fish
The dimensions of a pan are usually measured from lip to lip. So a 14-inch skillet is actually going to give you about 11 inches of cooking surface.
This is especially important to note when selecting a pan for cooking whole fish, so you don’t end up with a pan that is too small.
Once you start cooking fish that is longer than 14 inches, you’re better off roasting or grilling it.
Pans that big will not heat evenly on a single burner, so if you want to cook it on the stove top, a grill pan is your best bet.
#1 CARBON STEEL OVAL ROASTER 16.5” (13.5” cooking surface)
Why? Whole fish are fun to cook, stunning in presentation, and delicious. The kicker is you need a pan big enough for the project.
This pan is expensive. But it is absolutely gorgeous and one of the most functional pans I’ve seen on the market.
It’s designed to be used on nearly any kind of cooking surface, from an out-door grill to an electric, gas, or induction burner.
It’s rated for open fire so you’re not going to hurt this pan by baking your fish at a hot temperature either.
Carbon steel is a fantastic material. It's incredibly hard to season well, but this pan comes pre-seasoned so you don’t have to worry about it.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a gorgeous, functional pan with all the benefits of cast iron but none of the weight or bother.
Who It’s Not For? Someone on a budget, someone who wants a dishwasher-safe pan.
#2 Ergonomic Frying Pan - 17” Lodge
Why? This pan is much more affordable, and is one-inch larger than the carbon steel roasting pan. It's versatile and can be used on a gas, electric, or induction burner, on the grill, or in the oven.
There are a few downsides to this pan.
Firstly, a cast iron this big is going to be really heavy. Cast iron requires a lot of maintenance and care to keep it up, and because it's porous, it may retain the smell of fish.
You can help mitigate this by putting some sliced fennel or leek under your fish to separate it from the pan if you don’t plan on searing the skin.
For tips on care and maintenance of a cast iron pan see here.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a solid, functional pan that will last a lifetime.
Who It’s Not For? Someone who wants a lightweight pan. Someone who wants a pan that is easy to care for.
#3 Camp Chef 20IN Lumberjack Skillet
Why? This is for the outdoor cook. A giant pan to cook your giant catches in. While it might be slightly cumbersome to handle, the upside is it will fit some pretty big fish.
However, it does have some downsides: A pan this big will be extremely heavy, you will have to maintain it carefully, and because it's porous, it may retain some odors of fish.
Cook your fish on slicked fennel or leek to help mitigate this. Storage of this pan is another consideration.
Who It’s For? Anyone who wants a very large pan for cooking fish outdoors that will last a lifetime with proper care.
Who It’s Not For? Someone who wants a dishwasher-safe pan, a lightweight pan, or a pan that requires very little maintenance.
Advice for the Novice Chef
Begin your fish-cooking journey by investing in a dedicated, non-stick pan. This will help you out tremendously and you’ll learn more every time you use it.
Once you’ve been cooking fish in this pan for a while, if you want to move to a stainless steel pan, go for it. Stainless steel can last you almost indefinitely.
Be patient with yourself while learning. Use more cooking fat than you think you need, and practice, practice, practice. Study the Maillard Reaction to better understand how to get an item to brown and release from a pan.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Care for My Pan?
Hand-washing will help increase the life of your pan.
For non-stick pans or cast iron, use only non-metal, non-abrasive utensils and wash with a soft cloth or sponge, and do not heat them above their rated temperature.
Follow the same rules with carbon steel pans unless directed otherwise by the manufacturer.
Stainless steel pans can take a good scrubbing as needed and any utensil is fine to use.
How Long Should I Expect My Pans to Last?
Most non-stick pans have a maximum of a 2-year life expectancy before the non-stick coating begins to wear off.
You can get a longer life out of these pans with proper care, and by dedicating them to a specific use.
Pans made of carbon steel, stainless steel, or cast iron should last you a lifetime with proper care.
Do I Need a Fish Spatula?
For non-stick pans, you should be able to slide fish easily out of the pan and onto the plate.
If you need to use a spatula, use a rubber fish spatula like this one.
For stainless steel pans or grills, this is an excellent spatula.
How Do I Get Crispy Skin on My Fish?
- Start by drying the fish and skin extremely well, then season the fish with salt. If you have time, allow it to sit, skin-side up, uncovered in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This will help dry it out.
- Allow your pan to get properly hot before adding the fish. You don’t have to use extremely high heat to get your pan hot, simply give the pan 3-5 minutes to heat up. Toss water droplets on the pan to check when it's ready (higher heat is encouraged if using a stainless steel pan).
- Use plenty of oil. We’re not trying to deep fry the fish but don’t skimp on the oil either. Two Tablespoons of oil is usually a good starting point. Use a high-smoke point oil like grapeseed or canola oil for best results, and add the oil when the pan is hot.
- Add the fish to the pan skin-side down when the oil is piping hot (if the pan is smoking, it's too hot). The fish should sizzle immediately. Press the fish down for 30 seconds, then leave it alone.
- Check back in a few minutes. The fish is ready to be flipped when it's released easily from the pan and not before. If it sticks, let it keep cooking.
- Serve the fish skin-side up. If you set it skin side down after cooking, the skin will steam and become soft.
How Long Will it Take to Cook a Whole Fish?
This will vary greatly depending on the size of the fish, the cooking method, and temperature.
Steaming cooks things faster than roasting. Open grilling might take even longer. How the fish is dressed can also affect this.
But don't sweat it, get a good instant read thermometer and check it periodically.
Fish is done at 145 Fahrenheit.
Don’t forget to simply take a breath and observe. You know more than you think you do. You can always put the fish back on to cook if it's not done so don’t be afraid to pull it and check.
You can check by slicing into the thickest parts of the flesh and just take a look. Cooked fish should be firm, flaky, and opaque. Raw fish will be translucent.
How Long Will it Take to Cook a Fish Filet?
For pan-searing: 1-2 minutes per side for very thin fish like catfish. Increase this to 3-4 minutes per side for a salmon steak or thicker filets.
To bake in the oven: 400 Fahrenheit is a good temperature. Start with the above cook times and be aware you might need to increase them slightly depending on your oven.
For large pieces of fish such as ½ lb of salmon, check out this article on baking salmon.
You can cook fish in almost any pan with enough practice and skill. But a non-stick pan is a really great option for ease of use, consistent results, and for beginners.
A stainless steel pan can cook beautiful fish if you are an experienced cook. A good stainless steel pan will last you forever.
Avoid cooking fish in cast iron when possible. The exception to this is when cooking whole fish.