What’s cooking today: Fresh hake with restraint

What’s cooking today: Fresh hake with restraint
Tony Jackman’s fresh hake fillets cooked in an air fryer. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

I conquered my culinary nemesis this week. I have a long and complicated history with cooking fresh hake. I finally got it right. The key, who knew, was restraint. And you’ll never guess what I cooked it in.

Fresh and frozen hake are virtually two different species of fish. Fry frozen fillets straight from the freezer? No problem. Fry a fresh hake fillet? Pain lies there. Deep pain.

Fresh hake takes one look at me and falls apart, like a fanboy who’s seen his pop idol. My first attempt was in Knysna, must have been in the late Eighties. I’d bought some fresh fish somewhere or other and fried them in butter in a hot pan on the stove of the rented cabin we were staying in. Simple, right? They’d be golden and firm, yet supple, not too cooked at the centre. Nah. They pretty much disassembled themselves in the pan, falling to bits like a shy girl at the prom.

Once in a while over the years I’ve had another go, most recently only last week. You haven’t seen that recipe here, and you’re not going to. Even the photo I took of it afterwards was lousy. Taken by Magneto light when the lights were off, dankie Eskom. Anyway, I didn’t need the photo in the end.

Look, it was edible. It was cooked through. But could I get that skin to stay together? Nah. It fell apart like a fanboy who’s seen a shy girl dissolving in a heap of tears at the prom.

I consulted my friend, one of the best fish chefs in the country. The key, he said, was to make sure the fresh hake fillets were dry, salt them lightly, and put them in the fridge for a few hours, before cooking them.

“If you lightly salt hake and leave it for a bit, and allow it to ‘cure’ in the fridge for a few hours, the texture becomes almost like monkfish or crayfish.”

I have to say, this is something I have done before, yet still had that tiresome result when frying or grilling them. So, yes, but there had to be something else.

That something else, for me at least, turns out to be the air fryer.

When I showed my cheffy friend a photo of the end result, and yes, I was beaming like a fanboy who’s just had his autograph book signed by his pop idol, his reply pinged swiftly on my WhatsApp: “Such restraint.”

Well, it happens that restraint is a byword for his cuisine. I’ll take it.

(Serves 2)


2 x fresh hake portions, about 200 g each, skin on

Smoked Kalahari salt

White pepper

Garlic flakes

Olive oil

Olive oil spray

Lemon slices


Unwrap the fish, pat dry with kitchen paper, and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Pat dry again, and place them on a plate. Salt lightly. Place in the refrigerator for three or four hours, uncovered: they need that cold air.

Spray the bottom of the air fryer basket with olive oil spray.

Brush the skin side of the fish with olive oil, lightly. Season lightly with salt and white pepper and sprinkle garlic flakes over. (Don’t overlook this ordinary but rather useful ingredient, they have a lovely crunch and garlicky bite.)

Air-fry the fillets skin side down for 8 to 10 minutes at 200°C until nicely browned on top and juicy in the centre. Add two more minutes if they seem too “under” (but beware, a little under is good for fish).

Depending on how close they are to the element in your air fryer, they may or may not take on some colour. I was worried that they hadn’t, but that, said my friend on seeing my WhatsApp photo of it, showed “such restraint”. And I felt as happy as a fanboy who’s been asked out by a shy girl at the prom.

Heat a little olive oil in a small pan, add a pinch of garlic flakes and simmer for half a minute. Pour it over the fish on the plate. Serve with lemon slices. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

This dish is photographed on a plate by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Chris Mill says:

    Thanks, I’m going to try this. My attempts at frying fish, of any sort, with or without any sort of batter, have always ended up in a spectacular minced fish dish. I’ve even heard one of my children tell a friend that its “Friday – mashed fish night”.

  • says:

    Restraint should be your mantra in all cooking.

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