I learned to fully appreciate butter in culinary school. I obviously already knew that butter was rich and flavorful, and a great way to add a layer of luxury to any dish. But it wasn’t until culinary school that I realized the true importance of butter. Why does everything taste better when a chef cooks it? Because usually, they used a lot of butter.
Each lesson in school was its own unique celebration of butter, but the day that we made sole meunière may have been one of the classes that relied more heavily on butter than any of the others. The extremely quick and simple classic French dish consists of a floured, pan-fried fillet of sole doused in a lightly browned butter sauce, with fresh lemon juice and chopped parsley. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that fish, butter, citrus, and fresh herbs form a delightful union of balanced, unfussy flavors. I remember when I made it, I almost felt like I had cheated: I barely had to do anything. Don’t applaud me—applaud the magical power of butter.
In this rendition, I’m subbing sole for mild, fatty salmon, but staying true to that classic butter sauce. In addition to parsley, I’ve added some fresh chives and dill. First, the fish gets pan-seared in oil, and then you just make the butter sauce in the same pan. It comes together quickly, so make sure you have all the ingredients prepped and nearby. Note: The lemon juice may cause the butter sauce to sputter, so add it with caution.
If this is your first time pan-frying fish, a few things to keep in mind: Pat the fish dry with a paper towel before you place it in the hot oil, to reduce sputtering. Always season the fillets on all sides with salt and pepper. (If you want to go super-classic, use white pepper, but black pepper will work just the same.) Lay the fillets in the pan skin side down, and do not move them around until the skin has crisped enough that the fish pulls away from the pan easily. A nonstick skillet will give you more insurance than stainless steel when it comes to fish-stickage, but a well-seasoned cast-iron pan will work as well. A fish spatula is a great tool to help you gently maneuver the fillets in the pan, but if you don’t have one, use a thin, rubber spatula or small rubber tongs.
As far as timing, you should consider the thickness of your fillets and how you like your fish cooked. The thinner the fillets, the quicker they’ll cook, of course. Salmon is medium-rare (slightly pink, opaque center) at 120°F. If you prefer medium (less pink and beginning to flake), cook it to 125°F—this is also when you’ll start to see some white albumin coagulation ooze from the fish (nothing to be afraid of, it just emerges as heat is applied). And even if you don’t nail your fillet-searing the first time around, the fish will still be bathed in an herby, lemony, buttery sauce, so it’s going to be delicious, regardless. Butter, we don’t deserve you.
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 10 minutes
- Serves 4
(6-ounce) skin-on salmon fillets, patted dry with paper towels
Freshly ground black pepper
canola or olive oil
chopped fresh parsley
thinly sliced fresh chives
chopped fresh dill
lemon juice (from about 1 lemon)
Lemon wedges, for serving
- Place the flour in a shallow dish. Season all sides of the fillets with salt and black pepper. Dredge the fish on both sides with flour, tapping off any excess.
- Heat the oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the oil is hot and shimmering. Add the fillets skin side down and cook until the skin is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Using a fish spatula, carefully turn the fish over and cook to your desired doneness, about 1 to 2 minutes for medium-rare (120°F on a thermometer) and about 2 to 3 minutes for medium (125°F on a thermometer). Remove the fish to a plate, tent with foil, and set aside. Pour off the drippings from the skillet and discard. Wipe out the skillet with paper towels.
- Reduce the heat to medium. Melt the butter in the same skillet and cook until the butter is lightly browned and starting to foam slightly, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully stir in the parsley, chives, dill, and lemon juice (be careful—the sauce may splatter). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the fish back into the pan and spoon the sauce over the fish. Serve with lemon wedges.