Ice fishing in Northern Michigan for perch has never looked this beautiful. Ditch the typical frying method and learn about this classic French preparation typically used with skate, making this perch incredibly flaky, buttery and delicious.

In 2006 I flew home from Manhattan to attend a Lake Erie wedding. “Have a perch sandwich for me,” my now-husband wrote in one of our early flirty emails. He grew up sailing the southernmost Great Lake, on the shores of which his father was born and raised, and had fond memories of fried perch fillets piled high with lettuce, tomato and creamy tartar sauce on a soft roll. To this day, we both love a good fish sandwich, but often ask each other: Why is perch so often deep-fried?

Especially in the winter months, when caught through the ice by what the late angling author A. J. McClane dubbed the “cold-foot clan,” yellow perch reeled up from the frigid, clear waters of Northern Michigan’s inland lakes tastes as good as any catch the world over. With its firm texture and thin white fillet, the fish actually reminds me of skate. To be clear, one is a relatively small freshwater finfish and the other a massive flat-bodied ray from salty waters, but in the kitchen, they both have the same firm flesh, need only a quick flash in a pan and flake onto a fork in a similar way.

To rescue perch from the fryer, we draw inspiration from a classic French preparation that’s been used with skate for generations— serving fresh-caught perch with capers and brown butter. We score the skin so the fillets don’t curl and each piece stays flat in the pan, making sure that every bit of this jig-caught prize gets golden brown before melting into a generous pour of brown butter. This winter, if you’re lucky enough to locate a school of perch, know that this simple but elegant preparation is just a few easy ingredients away.

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Brown butter perch recipe with capers

Photo by Dave Weidner

Perch with Brown Butter and Capers Recipe

Serves 4

  • 8 perch, scaled, cleaned and butterflied into double-sided skin-on fillets, about 1 pound of fish
  • 1⁄4 cup flour
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil 6 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 Tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons drained capers, gently smashed in a mortar and pestle
Northern Michigan Brown butter perch recipe

Photo by Dave Weidner

Northern Michigan Perch Recipe Directions

1. Warm oven to 200 degrees and place an empty heat-tolerant serving platter in it.

2. Working parallel to the outer edge of each fillet, use a sharp knife to cut through the skin-side of each piece of fish, scoring 2 slits into both sides of each butterflied fillet. Measure flour, salt and a few grindings of black pepper onto a dinner plate and stir with a fork to combine. One at a time, dredge both sides of each fillet in the flour mixture. Use your fingers to gently press every crevice of the flesh into the flour on both sides, and then gently shake any excess off before setting the coated fish on a second dinner plate.

3. Pour 1 Tablespoon of the oil into a sauté pan set over medium heat. When the oil runs across the pan quickly when tilted, drop a pinch of spare flour into the oil. If it sizzles, the oil is ready. Working in batches, add a few perch fillets, skin side down, without crowding the pan. Cook the fish for about 2 minutes, pressing it down with a metal fish spatula from time to time so that the skin comes into contact with the pan and turns golden brown throughout. Use the spatula to flip the fillet and cook for one minute more. Place cooked perch, skin side up so it remains crispy, on the warm platter in the oven. Add a bit more oil to the pan, check to be sure the pan is hot but not smoking, and repeat until all fish are golden brown and on the warm platter.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and wipe out the oil with a paper towel. Working over low heat since the pan is still plenty hot, melt the butter. Once the butter is melted, stir the butter frequently, cooking it gently until the foam subsides. Whisk in the vinegar until fully combined and add the smashed capers.

5. Remove the perch from the oven and place, skin side up, on individual plates, spooning a generous pool of brown butter sauce over the fish.

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner