Mark Hix: How To Cook Sole

Esquire's resident chef on how to make restaurant-worthy fish at home

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Apart from frying up some cod or salmon, people tend to be scared of cooking fish at home, with types such as monkfish, swordfish and sea bass rarely getting a look in. Another sadly neglected sea-dweller is the sole. But cooking a beautiful Dover or lemon species at home isn’t too tricky.

Grilled whole or floured and pan-fried, you need do very little to achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish. Just be sure to get your pan to the smoking stage to prevent it from sticking.

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But which sole to choose? Dover is delicious, though astronomically expensive. Lemon is sweet and delicate, while Torbay – sometimes known as witch sole or megrim sole – doesn’t match Dover or lemon in texture, but cooked well can still be very tasty.

The key to buying any fish, sole in particular, is ensuring it’s totally fresh. Do this by checking the brightness of the eyes and the redness of the gills. Sunken eyes and brown gills are a bad sign, so always buy from a fishmonger who keeps the heads on his produce. Fresh fish won’t smell fishy, either, and will be bright and shiny – feel free to prod it a bit before you buy. 

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Grilled Dover Sole With Béarnaise Sauce (above)

Serves 4

Dover sole is a restaurant best seller, perfect if you want something simple, light and clean. But be warned: you can expect to pay around double the price of other fish. Here’s how to cook it to perfection.


4 Dover soles, each about 500g, black skin removed
Flour, for dusting
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil, for coating

For the Béarnaise Sauce:

3tbsps white wine vinegar
1 small shallot, chopped
A few sprigs of tarragon
1 bay leaf
5 white peppercorns
200g unsalted butter
3 small egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1tbsp chopped tarragon
1tbsp chopped chervil or parsley


1 | To make the béarnaise sauce, place the vinegar, shallot, tarragon, bay leaf and peppercorns in a saucepan alongside 3tbsps of water. Reduce the liquid by boiling it for a few minutes until there is no more than a dessert spoonful left in the pan. Strain through a sieve and leave to one side to cool.

2 | In a separate small pan, melt the butter and simmer for 5mins. Remove from the heat, leave to cool a little, then pour off the pure butter where it has separated from the whey. Discard the whey. Clarifying the butter like this helps keep the sauce thick.

3 | Put the egg yolks in a small bowl (or double boiler) with half the vinegar reduction and whisk over a pan of gently simmering water until the mix begins to thicken and become frothy. Slowly trickle in the butter, whisking continuously (you can use a hand-held electric whisk here), but if the butter is added too quickly, the sauce will separate.

After adding two-thirds of the butter, taste the sauce and add a little more, or all, of the remaining vinegar reduction. Add the rest of the butter. The sauce should not be too vinegary, but the vinegar should just cut the butter's oiliness. Next, season, stir in the chopped tarragon and chervil or parsley, cover with cling film and set aside in a warm, not hot, place.

4 | Preheat a grill or griddle. Lightly dust the skin side of the fish in seasoned flour, pat off excess and dip both sides in olive oil on a large shallow plate.

When the grill or griddle is smoking-hot, cook the fish, flesh side towards the heat first, for about 4-5mins (less if you want criss-cross markings), then turn and cook the other side for the same time. Whether grilling or griddling, you may have to cook in batches.

5 | Serve the soles with the béarnaise sauce. If necessary, the sauce can be reheated over a bowl of hot water and lightly whisked again.

Sole Caprice

Serves 4

Even though I was head chef at London’s prestigious Le Caprice for many years, we never actually served this classic dish, which I fondly remember from my college days. Perhaps a slightly odd concoction — fish, banana and mango chutney — it’s actually delicious. There are several recipes with differing sauces, but I really like this version. You don’t have to use Dover sole for this (do so if you wish) but I’d recommend lemon or Torbay, too. Ask your fishmonger to cross-fillet them.


Flour for dusting
1 medium egg, beaten
40-50g fresh white breadcrumbes
2 bananas, peeled and halved lengthways
Vegetable or corn oil for frying
4 lemon or Torbay sole fillets, about 150g each
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
50 -60g butter
3-4 tbsps mango chutney


1 | Have three wide dishes ready: one with seasoned flour; one with beaten egg; and one with breadcrumbs. Carefully pass the bananas through the flour, shaking off any excess, then the egg and finally the breadcrumbs.

2 | Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan and fry the bananas on a medium–high heat for about 2mins per side until golden, making sure to be careful not to break them when turning, then keep warm.

3 | Fold the sole fillets in half lengthways with the skin on the outside. Season and lightly flour them, shaking off any excess. Heat some vegetable oil in a large frying pan and fry them for 2–3mins on each side, adding the butter halfway through then cook until golden.

4 | Arrange the sole fillets and bananas on warmed serving plates, serve with a spoonful of mango chutney.


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