Weeknight Cooking

James Peterson's Baked Fish Fillets with Butter and Sherry

April  2, 2014

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A 5-ingredient, 20-minute technique to make any white fish shine -- in time for Lent, and the dawn of spring cooking.

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Eating fish has gotten complicated. So it's up to us to simplify, and -- when we cook fish -- make it the best it can be.

It's tempting to stop cooking fish altogether, simply because we're afraid of not doing it justice. But as Saveur Executive Editor Betsy Andrews points out in the magazine's recent seafood issue, via a quote from science writer Erik Vance: "If everyone who cared about the oceans stopped eating fish, the only people eating fish would be people who don't care about the oceans." And that's almost certainly worse.

So go to your local fishmonger (just watch how Melissa Clark does it), or sign up for a CSF. Don't blindly buy halibut or sea bass or whatever a recipe calls for -- ask your trusty fishperson what's in season near you, what came in fresh that day. Do a little homework: Paul Greenberg recommends Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute (Seafood Watch even has an app so you can easily check the latest recommendations from the market).

Then cook it well, and eat it all. That's all we have to do to honor our fish -- buy the right, plentiful stuff and not muck it up. And it can be easier than we think.

James Peterson  Fish & Shellfish by James Peterson

You'll do well to keep this technique from James Peterson in your mental files (and if you want more for the files, get ahold of his book Fish & Shellfish). As Food52er cookbookchick told me, "This is the perfect recipe for the fish-intimidated. It's also perfect for many types of fish -- I myself have never actually used scrod," which Peterson calls for (but allows for riffing).

More: 9 more fish recipes for Lent and beyond.

Any firm-fleshed, non-oily white fish will work -- sole, cod, bass, rockfish, or any white fish that's not too delicate (so skip scrawny fillets like flounder). 

Your best local whatever white fish will bake quickly in a hot oven, so there's no fussing with splattering pans. Melting, cobbled-on butter will protect the tops from drying out, while hot sherry fumes steam up and perfume the fish from below. Parsley makes it look good. Those are your trifecta, powerful but not as pushy as your average miso-soy glaze. And they are all that you -- and your whatever fish -- need.

Here's how to do fish proud:

Get the oven up to 400° F. Butter (or oil) a big baking dish. Salt and pepper your fish fillets and place them inside, Tetris-style. You can cook them in long, unbroken fillets and slide them apart for serving (like we did here), or cook portion-sized pieces. No matter.


Dot butter all over the top. You could use more oil here instead, or an herby compound butter, if you've got some lying around.

Pour over dry sherry (or wine).

Scatter chopped parsley.

Bake for about 12 minutes per inch of thickness, then peek. If the thickest part looks opaque and big flakes are willing to pull apart, it's done. 

It will have made its own buttery, boozy sauce, which you'll spoon over the top without having to deglaze or reduce or thicken. Peterson warns in his headnote, "This may not be an impressive dinner party dish." I couldn't disagree more.

James Peterson's Baked Fish Fillets with Butter and Sherry

Adapted slightly from Fish & Shellfish (William Morrow, 1996)

Makes 4 main course servings

1 1/2 to 2 pounds scrod fillets (or any firm-fleshed, non-oily white fish in season)
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, herb butter, or extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons dry sherry or dry white wine
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52 community member cookbookchick for this one!

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Barb June 18, 2016
Ridiculous. You owe that fish an apology!
Tucker &. August 11, 2015
I love the simplicity of this recipe. It can move in different directions or just be. In Maine this week where the haddock and cod could not be fresher. Total bliss :-)
Anna E. June 15, 2015
Very bland..
toddnyc May 22, 2015
We always have dry vermouth around so I use that. It's great for steaming mussels too.
turnit May 20, 2015
Jimmy Peterson's books are classics. 'Splendid Soups' and 'Sauces' are bibles.
recept May 10, 2014
mycket lätt och enkelt recept.
Mark D. April 7, 2014
Mark Ford
I'm fortunate to not only to be retired but live near the ocean in Mexico. Besides having just caught fish the secret is let your imagination rule the preparation and don't over cook it!!
Diane P. April 6, 2014
I made this with cod and a very modest Amontillado; we loved the simplicity of it. Served it with oven-browned potatoes--and I agree that a grain would be best, to soak up the sauce--and green beans topped with toasted hazelnuts, to pick up the nuttiness of the sherry.
Regine April 3, 2014
Nice recipe. Just made it for dinner. Used dry white wine as I did not have sherry and also added 1 garlic clove thinly sliced. Excellent. It is like a cross between fish and courtbouillon due to the liquidy sauce. Sauce was ultra tasty. Served wlth couscous.
Kari- L. April 3, 2014
What I love about fish, is that it's quick and simple to cook and I'm thrilled to learn a new fish recipe!
Umara A. April 3, 2014
What can I substitute for Sherry or wine? awesome recipe!!
Kristen M. April 3, 2014
Maybe some broth for moisture and flavor (chicken, fish or vegetable -- homemade would be best here) with lemon juice for acidity?
choclinda April 3, 2014
I have always made fish this way. However, it's very hard to get fresh fish in Vermont. Everything is shipped in frozen. I was born and raised in South Africa. When in Cape Town we'd go down to the docks and wait for the fishermen to sail in.
There is nothing like freshly caught fish. Unfortunately that's just the way it is.
Kirsten April 3, 2014
Any recommendations for good accompaniments to this delicious fish?
Kristen M. April 3, 2014
Here's what I just suggested to someone over on the recipe page -- I'll share it here too: I think a whole grain like farro would be a great destination for some of those buttery juices, plus it would be a nice texture and color contrast to the fish. I'd also add roasted carrots and/or some sort of greens or salad. Or asparagus!
kvass2 April 3, 2014
Just a small comment -- I would use two pans where he uses one because the results with less crowding are quite significant. Otherwise good recipe.
Kathy April 2, 2014
Looking for nurtritional values...
Donna April 2, 2014
Kudos to Peterson's book, although this is very simple but delicious. Peterson's book is the "fish bible".
karmaya April 2, 2014
afew nights ago i did almost the same using line caught cod: 1" thick pieces of cod, salt, pepper, a bit of minced garlic & capers, buttered pan-toasted breadcrumbs, some white wine in pan, baked 10 minutes in 350 oven. wonderful.
tastysweet April 2, 2014
Sounds heavenly

Steve B. April 2, 2014
C'mon Food52...I'm sorry to strike a discouraging note here, but this seems like a rather prosaic preparation to me.
EmilyC April 2, 2014
This looks really good and easy enough to pull off on a weeknight (and agree that it's dinner party worthy) -- thanks for sharing it cookbookchick and Kristen!
Stubor April 2, 2014
An excellent example of the K.I.S.S. principle, and its corollary, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."