The culinary technique of blackening was invented in the early 1980s by the famed cajun chef, Paul Prudhomme. He wanted to replicate the flavors of a charcoal grill in a commercial kitchen. A common misconception is that it is the spices that create the flavor. In fact, the secret to perfect blackening is butter.
The blackening process is created by the charring of the milk solids and creates a beautiful black and brown crust. The spices add to the flavor and can add some serious heat if you prefer. If done properly, this method sears the fillets instantly and locks in the moisture on the inside of the filets.
Using oil for the fat is discouraged as the crust does not come out as crunchy. In fact, using oil can cause the filets to come out dry and even flavorless. Besides, butter is full of flavor and, as mentioned above, causes the blackening process to happen.
Blackening combines melted butter and spices like salt, oregano, thyme, peppercorns, garlic powder, and onion powder. Do not use fresh herbs as the intense heat will burn them and the taste of the filets will turn bitter. Although blackening is best done in a red hot cast iron skillet, other methods will be discussed below. Cast iron is preferred because it can hold up to the intense heat without warping.
Blackening is designed for firm proteins such as redfish, snapper, chicken, and steak. The blackening method is an intensive cooking method and will produce smoke and sometimes flames. Make sure you have the stove’s exhaust fan on high and, preferably, some nearby windows open. Do not walk away from the stove during the cooking process.
You can blacken fish in a cast iron on the grill to prevent the heavy smoke from infiltrating your home. Heat the grill over medium-high heat and, once hot, use the same process as you would in the kitchen. Just be cautious about spooning the butter over the filets over an open flame, as this causes flame ups. Simply pull the skillet off the flames when you add the butter.
The idea is to get your cast iron skillet as hot as possible. While it is heating mix your herbs to your taste preference. Melt enough butter to dredge all the filets in, plus a few tablespoons more. Once the skillet is hot enough, dredge the filets thoroughly in the butter and dip them into the spice mixture. You should avoid setting the filets down once dredged as this will pull the butter off. Dredge both sides and add them to the red hot skillet.
It is best to use cold filets and to pat dry your filets before you dredge them. The cool temperature helps the butter and spices adhere to the filets better. A dry filet will prevent unnecessary moisture from being added to the cooking process.
As soon as you add the filets spoon a tablespoon of butter over the top of the filet. Be careful because this can cause a flame up. Cook for 2-3 minutes and flip the filet with a firm spatula. Immediately spoon a tablespoon of butter over the filet and cook for 2-3 minutes. That’s all the time needed for the filets to be cooked. Remove the filets and serve.
How To Blacken Fish Without a Cast Iron Skillet
The reason blackening is usually done in cast iron is that cast iron can withstand high temperatures and will not warp. If you choose to use a pan other than a cast iron skillet, do not use a non-stick pan because it does not hold up to intense heat. Instead, use a heavy-bottomed pan that is designed for high heat. If not, the pan will warp.
If using a skillet other than a cast iron, it is recommended to add kosher salt to the spice mix. Kosher salt will add a barrier between the filets and the skillet to help the fish not stick to the skillet. However, you can also blacken fish on the grill or in the oven.
Preheat the heavy bottom skillet over medium-high heat. If you are using a skillet other than cast iron, stainless steel is the preferred choice. Unlike cast iron, you will have to add butter to the skillet while it is heating so that the bottom will not burn. Prepare your fish as you would for the cast iron method. Once the skillet is very hot, add the filets and spoon butter over them.
Cook the fillets on high heat for 2-3 minutes, flip and spoon butter over the other side, cook for 2-3 minutes more and they will be cooked through.
In order to blacken fish on the grill, you will need a grill basket. For the grill basket method, heat the grill to medium-high heat then dredge and season the filets like you would for a cast iron skillet. Place the filets in the grilling basket and close the lid so that the fish do not slide around. Cook for 2-3 minutes and then flip the filets with a firm spatula. Remove the basket from the grill and spoon butter over the filets again. If you do this over the grill, it will flame up.
The foil method is primarily used for an oven although it can be used for the grill as well. Preheat the oven to 425℉. While the oven is preheating, mix your spice blend and melt the butter. Dredge the fish fillets in the melted butter, dip them in the spice blend and add to a foil packet. Make sure the foil packets are sealed completely. Add to a baking pan and cook for 10-12minutes.
If you are using an oven to blacken the fish, it is best to place the filets in an uncovered baking pan to avoid the steaming effect caused by the foil packets. Place the dredged and seasoned fillets in a baking pan that has been buttered, wiped with oil, or lined with aluminum foil. Cook the filets for 10-12 minutes, or until flaky. Flipping baked fish over is delicate as they fall apart easily. Make sure they are completely cooked halfway through before flipping.
My name is Jason Phillips and I cooked for many years, primarily aboard Merchant Marine vessels and in fast-paced commercial kitchens. My passion for culinary arts led me to attend a culinary arts academy in 2019 where the instructor piqued my interest in food and beverage writing.