The traditional southern fish fry dates back to the 18th century when families first gathered on the banks of large southern rivers for weekend “picnic seinings.” Long nets (picnic seines) were employed to catch large quantities of fish. Most were smoked, dried or pickled for later use, but the fisher folk never passed up a meal of fresh-caught fish. Lard was heated in a large cast iron kettle (probably the same one used for scalding hogs). Then pieces of fish were dredged in stone-ground corn meal and fried in the hot grease. Hushpuppies, fried potatoes, big pots of beans, and plenty of home-made pickles and desserts rounded out the meal. Then, as now, no one went home from a fish fry hungry.
Catfish are cooked at most fish fries today, because they’re delicious, inexpensive and available in large quantities from fish markets and grocery stores. Any lean fish is excellent when fried, however, so if you have plenty on hand to serve your guests, you may want to substitute bass, crappie, bream, trout or saltwater species like grouper and sea trout.
There are numerous methods for frying fish. All are rather simple, and if you follow a few simple rules, all produce a mouth-watering repast. Here’s a sampling.
When properly done, deep-frying produces tender, delectable fish with a crisp crust. Unfortunately, many cooks neglect to follow the most important step — bringing the oil to a proper temperature before adding the fish.
A temperature of 375 degrees is best. To determine when the fish is done, insert a fork. Properly cooked fish flakes easily and is opaque and moist. Beware of overcooking, which produces tough, dry fish.
Add fish to the oil one or two pieces at a time, and allow the oil to return to the desired temperature before adding more. When you lower a basket of fish into the oil, the temperature is reduced, and if another batch is added too soon, the fish will absorb oil and come out soggy and distasteful.
Savvy fish cooks always keep their fish cold right up to the moment it’s slipped into the cooking oil. The reaction between the hot oil and cold fish seals the coating immediately. Fish cooked this way turns out perfect, moist and flaky inside, crisp and golden brown outside.
The type of oil you use for deep-frying is a matter of personal preference, but most Southern fish chefs prefer peanut, safflower or corn oils, which can be heated to a very high point (over 500 degrees) without imparting a foreign flavor. If plain vegetable oil is used, be certain the temperature does not exceed 400 degrees.
You’ll need a fish cooker, deep fryer, wok or deep pot for cooking. To maintain the suggested 375-degree cooking temperature, you’ll also need a cooking thermometer that clips onto the side of the frypan. These cost only a couple of dollars and are available at most grocery stores.
The cooking oil should be deep enough to cover the fish, but the pot should never be more than half full. Two or three inches are usually adequate. A deep pot full of oil is unstable and could cause serious burns if accidentally overturned.
When the fish is done, place it in a single layer on paper towels or brown grocery bags to drain. For the best flavor, serve immediately. The crust may become soggy if serving is delayed.
You can pan-fry, or sauté, almost any fish fillet, steak or small whole fish. This method involves cooking the fish in a large skillet to which has been added a few tablespoons of butter or oil. Heat to the bubbly stage, add the fish, and cook, turning once, until nicely browned on both sides. If done correctly, the skin of the fish will turn out crispy, not burned, and the flesh will be flaky and moist. Add oil or butter as necessary between batches of fish.
The pan-fry skillet should never be covered when cooking. If this is done, steam forms, and the skin will not crisp. It’s also important to avoid crowding the fish in a too-small skillet. This cools the oil or butter and makes the fish greasy.
Stir-frying—using high heat, relatively little oil and constant stirring—is an Oriental cooking technique. Small pieces of boneless fish combined with thin-cut vegetables are well suited to this technique of rapid cooking.
Before starting, determine the relative cooking time for the fish and vegetables. Start with the item that requires the longest cooking. Add just enough oil to the heated wok or large skillet to cook all the fish and vegetables being prepared. Have all the ingredients close at hand and ready to cook once you start the process. Seasonings should be added near the end of the cooking time.
Following are some delicious recipes you can try the next time you’re having a fish fry for friends or family. Each lists specific types of fish to use, but you can substitute similar types of fish in any recipe.
Crackerjack Crappie Fillets
- 2 pounds crappie fillets
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1-1/2 cups cracker meal
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- Peanut oil
Beat the eggs until frothy, then add the buttermilk and mix. Dip fish fillets in this mixture, then roll in a mixture of the remaining four ingredients. Deep fry until golden-brown in peanut oil heated to 375 degrees.
Pan-fried Bream Dilly
- 6 bream, pan-dressed (scaled, gutted, heads removed)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons fresh chopped dill
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1/2 cup cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
Melt butter in a skillet and add dill. Dredge fish in a mixture of flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper. Sauté in dill butter until done.
- 10 sauger fillets (about 4 to 6 ounces each)
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1-1/2 cups Italian bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons butter or margarine
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Soak the fish in buttermilk for 30 minutes. Remove, and dredge in a mixture of the bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Fry the fillets in a combination of the butter and olive oil heated in a skillet. Add more butter and olive oil as needed. Fry until golden brown, or until the thickest part of the fish is easily flaked with a fork.
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 well-beaten egg
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 2 pounds bass fillets, cut in serving-size pieces
Combine first five ingredients. Beat egg and water together, add the dry mix and stir until smooth. Dip fish fillets in batter, and deep-fry until golden-brown in cooking oil heated to 375 degrees.
- 1 pound catfish fillets, cut in one-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons sesame or peanut oil
- 2 carrots, thinly sliced
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 zucchini squash, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
In a wok or large skillet, heat oil, and add vegetables and thyme. Stir-fry until slightly tender. Season catfish with pepper and add to the pan. Stir-fry until fish is opaque and flakes easily. Serve over a bed of hot rice.