Fried fish is a staple in pretty much every culture, on every continent, in almost every kitchen. In the Asian culture, they tend to cook the fish whole, leaving the head attached. They also use a lot of very fresh ingredients which makes for very delicious dishes.
In Britain, for their fish and chips, a wet batter is most commonly used and served with “chips” or more widely known as French fries. A white, dense fish, called cod, is most often used. It is a durable fish, neutral flavored and has a meaty bite.
In the good ol’ USA, we have various types of fried fish, depending on what part of the country you are visiting. Some of the fish we tend to cook is:
Of course, from this list, catfish is undoubtedly the most often fried. Catfish are mainly cooked in the South because of their availability and the fact that the fish are so big, they tend to feed a lot of people on a budget.
They are a staple in every Southerner’s kitchen and is synonymous with Sunday dinner or Friday night fish fry. The South and fried catfish go together like bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy or toast and jam. In its simplicity, fried catfish is one of the best meals you can have – yes, I am a little biased.
Although simple, it is a dish a lot of people can’t seem to get right. Here, I am going to show you how making fried catfish is something everyone can do, and almost everyone will love.
Let’s face it; catfish aren’t going to win any beauty contests. They can be a hard sell to the faint at heart. If you had a catfish for a cousin, your mom would spend a lot of time talking about his/her “wonderful personality,” and after every sentence would be a heartfelt “Bless their heart.” However, beneath the whiskers and mud lies a sweet white fish that routinely ranks as one of the most-eaten in the country.
So, let me show you how to do it right!
Prepping the Catfish
Whether you are making nuggets or nicely proportioned filets, catfish are prone to over-cooking. Sometimes it is better to have small pieces, so they cook faster inside and are done by the time they are golden brown on the outside. Whether you are dicing or filleting, keep your cuts ¼ inch thick or LESS. I will mention more on breading later.
As far as washing, if you are getting your fish from the grocery, there is no need. However, if you are freshly preparing fish you caught, clean each piece thoroughly and pat dry before breading. Also, soaking in buttermilk is traditional in the South. This process tenderizes and adds a “zippy” taste to a fish that CAN taste a little “muddy.”
There are lots of options to use for breading, but you should keep it simple. In the Asian and Hawaiian cultures Panko bread crumbs are used – basically, a coarse crumb that browns fast.
Wet batters are traditionally used in the UK as well as at Long John Silvers. Batters are useful in some respects, especially beer batters. They make for fluffy, sweet fried fish.
In the Southern United States, because of the economically challenged roots from where fried catfish comes, good ol’ cornmeal and white flour are mainly used. I was raised in Mississippi, where my mom used cornmeal only because flour was for biscuits. How dare you waste flour for fried fish. There is nothing wrong with just using cornmeal; however, in my experience and the recipe below, I use a combination of flour and cornmeal because I feel it makes it a better breading.
You will see in our recipe below that there’s no need to get fancy. However, we do mix in a few choice spices along the way for an extra kick; including salt and black pepper.
Frying the Fish
In the past, peanut oil was commonly used when deep frying. However, it is not necessary. Peanut oil is routinely a favorite for all deep frying because it doesn’t cause an oily taste, and it has previously said to be one of the healthiest deep-frying options. If you can’t go the peanut route, lard and Crisco will stand up to the challenge just fine, albeit with a little more love for those love handles.
Keep the oil at around 350 to 365 degrees. The first batch you should drop the fish in with the oil at 365, then maintain the temperature at 350. The temperature will drop with the addition of food; this is why you start just above 350.
When frying at temperatures less than 350, the oil tends to soak into the food; the water in the food isn’t sufficiently keeping the oil out. The same thing happens when you use old oil. The oil breaks down after constant use or constant high temperatures resulting in oily food – not correctly fried. If your temperatures are too high, it not only can break down your oil faster, it cooks the breading more quickly than the fish itself causing over-cooked coating and undercooked fish.
In the age of looking out for heart-health, avocado oil is used more frequently because of its high smoke point and heart-healthy properties.
If pan frying, which we don’t think is quite as good, butter or avocado oil are two of the best choices.
Are They Ready?
Deep-fried catfish is ready when it is golden brown on the outside if you cut your fish into small pieces as we have already mentioned. You want to remove the excess oil from the fish without taking so much away – it loses some flavor if too much fat is removed.
You want to see the fish pieces glistening, but not leak oil when pressed softly with a paper towel. It can take some practice to find the right balance for you. You can check temperatures if you want, but generally, it isn’t necessary. After a couple of times practicing, you will get the hang of it and will be a pro in no time.
TIP: If cooking a lot or need more time before eating, preheat your oven to about 220 degrees and put the finished catfish on baking racks or cookie racks as some call them; then place the tray in the oven. That will give you about another half hour of prep time and they will still freshly cooked.
If pan frying, expect 4-to-6 minutes per side. Our oven tip still works here.
Traditional Southern Deep-Fried Catfish Recipe
- ½ Cup Water
- 1 Cup Buttermilk
- 1 Cup Vitamin D Milk
- 1 Tablespoon of Baking Powder
- 1 + ½ Cup of All-purpose Flour, separated
- 1 Cup of Fine Cornmeal
- 4 Eggs
- One Juiced Lemon
- 1 Tablespoon Pink Himalayan Salt
- 1 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
- 1 teaspoon Paprika
- Avocado Oil (enough to fully submerge each piece)
- 1 LB Catfish Cut Into ¼ Inch Strips or Chunks
- Mix the buttermilk and water
- Marinate the fish in the water/buttermilk mix for at least 30 minutes, longer if possible
- Heat the oil I a deep saucepot, Dutch oven or fryer to 360 degrees, then maintain at 350 degrees for the next batches
- While the oil is preheating, in a separate bowl, whisk the eggs together with the vitamin D milk
- Place the whisked mix in a shallow pan
- Combine the cornmeal, ½ cup flour and cayenne with the baking powder
- Place dry mix in a shallow container, set aside
- Whisk the salt, pepper, and paprika together in a small bowl, set aside
- At this point, you should have three shallow dishes, one with 1 Cup flour, one with cornmeal/flour mixture and the third with egg/milk mixture
- Dip the dry catfish into the flour, then egg wash, back into the egg mixture, then dip both sides evening into the cornmeal mixture
- Let the coated catfish rest for a few minutes before cooking so it can soak up the breading.
- Let cook for 3-to-5 minutes in the oil or until the fish is golden brown, careful not to overcook
- Lay fish onto paper towels for 30 seconds
- Place fish onto cookie racks – placing in the oven if you need to hold until ready to eat
- Drizzle with lemon juice and sprinkle salt and pepper mix over cooked pieces
- Serve with fries, hushpuppies and homemade tartar sauce
- 1 Cup Mayonnaise
- 1/8 Cup Lemon Juice
- 3 Tablespoons Dill Pickles, Chopped
- Chop pickles into small pieces
- Mix pickles with mayonnaise and lemon juice
- Refrigerate for 15 minutes
- Dip your fried catfish into this yummy goodness
For Pan Frying
Most everything on the prep-side for pan frying remains the same. You want to heat the oil in the pan until a pinch of your cornmeal mix sizzles when dropped in it — Fry the catfish for about four minutes per side, or until nicely crisp and browned.
Chef Bobby is a Chef and Cookbook Author. He loves to share his knowledge of cooking and handling of fish with our community.