Have you ever gone to one of those little, unassuming seafood shacks that ended up knocking your socks off with their lobster roll or fish sandwich? I recently had such an experience. The fish sandwich made with ‘catch of the day’ fish that I ordered while in one of Sarasota’s local seafood places was a delight to eat. Every component on the sandwich worked seamlessly with the rest, which really helped enhance and highlight the taste of the fish without overpowering it. It immediately became my goal to recreate this little masterpiece at home.
Admittedly, a fish sandwich is not the type of food that I eat often, but you don’t need to be an expert to recognize a great sandwich. Recreating it is an entirely different story. After a number of trials and errors, I finally made a fish sandwich which, I am sure, even the best seafood places wouldn’t be ashamed to serve to their discerning customers. I might even dare say that it tasted even better than the one that inspired me in the first place. Homemade always tastes better.
During my culinary explorations I learned a few secrets that undoubtedly helped me come up with a perfect fish sandwich.
Secret #1 – the bun
After trying several buns, the brioche bun won hands down. I liked how its subtle sweetness complemented fish, and how its soft texture matched the soft, flaky interior of the fish. Not all brioche buns are made equal so it pays to look around and get good quality and, most importantly, fresh buns.
Secret #2 – the sauce
A tartar sauce is a very common choice for fish sandwiches. Store-bought ones are a hit or miss, and most taste from terrible to OK. I find it’s best to just whip up your own as it’s super simple and quick to do, with basic ingredients that most home kitchens have. Savory tartar sauce works best to complement the fish and contrast the sweetness of brioche bun. Below is my favorite ‘secret’ tartar sauce recipe that I created to use with my ‘perfect’ fish sandwich. Feel free to use your own favorite sauce, or use mine.
Secret #3 – the right fish
Last but not least, is the fish. My favorite picks for a fish sandwich are snapper, grouper and mahi-mahi. Grouper has mild flavor with a light, sweet taste and large, chunky flakes, almost like lobster or crab. Mahi-mahi is another really mild fish that tastes a bit like grouper and is usually cheaper. Similar to grouper, snapper’s flesh is white, delicate and mild. It is moist, and it has a mildly sweet and fresh taste. All three are top choices for making fish sandwiches as far as I am concerned.
Now, picking the right fish is only half the secret. The other half is the thickness. I could never get that amazing flavor and mouthfeel with thinly sliced fish fillets. If you start with a thick slice of fish, however, it will be very easy to put a nice crust on it while keeping the interior soft, moist and flaky. Just talking about it makes me so hungry! I can almost taste that delicious fish sandwich in my mouth.
Secret #4 – blacken the fish
You can, of course, deep-fry your fish and it will make a very good, even great, sandwich, but blackened fish is the best. Why? Because it offers way more flavor. Just imagine a buttery-soft, flaky interior in between deep golden brown, crispy skin on one side and caramelized seasonings on the other side. The deep-fried breading is just too thick and crude to not overshadow the subtle fish texture and flavor.
Strictly speaking, you don’t even need to blacken the fish which pretty much requires cooking outside due to the amount of smoke it produces. All you have to do is fry fish fillets on both sides until they are nicely caramelized and the fish inside is just cooked.
And that is all there is to it. Go easy on the condiments, too. All you need a is a thin slice of ripe tomato and a lettuce leaf. Add too much of those and they will steal way from the taste of fish.
The Secrets to a Perfect Fish Sandwich
- 2 lbs fish fillets (grouper, snapper or mahi-mahi; cut into 4 pieces about 8 oz each)
- Salt (to taste)
- Black pepper (to taste)
- Cayenne pepper (to taste)
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil (for frying)
- 1 Tbsp butter (for frying)
- 4 brioche buns
- 1 tomato (sliced)
- 4 lettuce leaves
For the tartar sauce:
- 1 cup mayonaise (best quality)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice (start with 2 Tbsp and add more to taste)
- 1 Tbsp parsley (fresh, finely chopped)
- 1 Tbsp cilantro (fresh, finely chopped)
- 1/4 cup dill pickles (finely chopped)
- 1 Tbsp green onions (thinly sliced)
- 1 Tbsp shallots (minced)
- 1 clove garlic (pressed)
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (plus more to taste)
- Salt (to taste)
- Black pepper (to taste)
Prepare the tartar sauce by combining all of its ingredients (except salt and pepper) in a small bowl. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Scale (if needed) and rinse the fish, then pat dry with paper towels. Do not remove the skin. Cut the large fillets into sandwich-size pieces. Make two scores in the skin with a sharp knife to prevent curling. Do not make too many scores to avoid drying out the flesh during cooking. For best results, pick the thicker pieces as they will allow for a beautifully browned exterior while maintaining soft and flaky interior. The thinner, leftover pieces can be used for other dishes.
Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper on both sides and set aside.
Heat one tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add one more tablespoon of oil if the bottom of the pan is not fully covered. Add the fish, skin side down and fry for about 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness, until nicely browned. Flip and continue frying for another 3-5 minutes on the other side. In my case it took me 4 minutes per side to achieve perfect doneness.
Check the fish for doneness and remove it from the pan as soon as it's just done. Depending on the size of the fillet pieces and you the size of you pan, you may have to do the frying in two batches. You may need to add more oil for the second batch.
Assemble the sandwiches and enjoy. I like spreading some tartar sauce on the bottom half of the bun, then pour some on top of the fish.
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