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How to Fry Fish: The Ultimate Guide on Everything from Oil Temperature to Batter Recipes

It's time to take your fish fry game to the next level.
It's time to take your fish fry game to the next level. (Jack Hennessy/)

Few meals foster such a sense of community as a fish fry. Whether its gathering in a church basement on a Friday night or at a picnic table after a spring morning of slaying crappie, a perfect fish fry brings people together. A few baskets of fried fish fillets are usually the precursor to some good laughs, storytelling, and a little B.S.ing.

Unfortunately, those gatherings have been few and far between during a year of coronavirus. But on the upside, even a small fish fry with your family can be more of an event than just a meal. In this guide, I discuss everything you need to know on how to fry fish, from what oil to use, the differences between beer-battered and flour-coated fish, and more. Want to take your fried fish to the next level? Read on.

The Best Fish to Fry

Most restaurants serving fried fish often opt for haddock or Alaskan cod. Both do well in terms of texture after a deep fry and offer a fresh-tasting fish most every time. You can likely find these fish at most grocery stores.

But anglers can do better. For anyone looking to serve up his or her catch, there are many options and opinions of course vary on what is the best-tasting fried fish. My only criteria: No bones. That means if you like the taste of northern pike like I do, make certain to fillet and fry in such a manner that zero y-bones appear in the fried loaf. For walleye, depending on the size of your catch, this could also mean being diligent to “zipper” the fish to remove bones.

This is my very subjective list of favorite fish to fry (in order): crappie, bluegill, walleye, largemouth bass (from late-fall cold waters of the Pacific Northwest), catfish.

All these fish – all white-flesh – offer a fresh, clean taste as well as a tender texture after frying. (Well, catfish does have its unique slightly less-than-clean flavor profile.) There are other great options of course: trout, perch, tilapia, halibut, whitefish. It all comes down to personal preference, but here’s a good general rule: fish with stronger tones such as trout, salmon, or steelhead, you may want to coat in a stronger batter to balance out flavor – this could mean a darker beer in your beer batter, or an extensive blend of spices in a flour dredge. Years ago I ate fried catfish from a Wichita pub that used crushed cereal – cornflakes, I believe – in their flour mix. It was very tasty.

A note on keeping and eating bass: I almost always catch-and-release bass, but I have fished waters where keeping bass benefit overall populations and I have found there is a big difference in flavor between cold-water and warm-water bass, with bass from colder waters tasting substantially better.

Lastly, a note on bleeding fish: I believe in bleeding your fish before they expire, otherwise you risk blood settling in the muscles. To do this, make sure your livewell is functioning properly or that you have a cooler with ice on hand so you can cut the throat of the fish to let its blood run out before they turn belly up. This kills the fish relatively quickly and humanely. Place bled fish on ice so you can keep fishing.

The good old cast-iron skillet is a classic fish fry too. But, it's hard to beat a deep fryer.
The good old cast-iron skillet is a classic fish fry too. But, it's hard to beat a deep fryer. (Jack Hennessy/)

How to Fry Fish in a Deep Fryer vs. Skillet

There really aren’t many solid arguments for not having a deep fryer other than the expense or kitchen space it may take up. When operated properly, a deep fryer is arguably safer than a skillet filled with oil, as a fryer will regulate the temp automatically while a skillet could get too hot and risk a hot-grease splash when you drop in fish. Auto temp regulation is also the reason a deep fryer is more reliable – the oil, ideally, won’t drop below the perfect frying point and won’t get so hot that is burns the exterior before the inside is cooked.

Yes, you can certainly fry fish in a large, deep skillet – preferably cast iron. And that is what I do, but it’s a slow, painstaking process and I can only serve up a couple plates at a time. Additionally, weather permitting, I use the Sidekick propane burner that came with my Camp Chef Woodwind, as a flame burner is far preferable to the inconsistent electric burners on my stove. For a large, thick cast-iron skillet, electric burners are terrible for evenly distributing heat and keeping oil hot.

In a deep skillet, you will likely want to add a couple inches of oil. A shallow layer of oil means you could lose batter when flipping as the batter will be wet, crispy since it hasn’t touched oil yet.

What’s the Best Oil to Use For a Fish Fry?

This is another one that comes down to personal preference but the main thing to keep in mind is an oil’s smoke point. You want to fry your fish anywhere between 375 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Oils or fats with a smoke point lower in this are no good, so that means extra virgin olive is out. Obviously so is butter. You don’t want your fish tasting like burnt oil or fat.

Some oils to consider: canola, vegetable, sunflower, soy. Sunflower is my go-to, though others might prefer peanut or avocado oil, but do know those oils offer a bit of extra flavor versus the mostly clean-tasting nature of canola, for example.

But you can indeed raise the smoke point of any fat or oil by adding a higher-smoke-point oil. Example: My dad contends the best fried fish he’s ever had was the crappie we caught during our Canada fishing trip in 2016. Every morning we saved our bacon grease and combined it with sunflower oil in the evenings for our fish fries. We then of course saved that oil (which included the bacon grease) and kept the flavor train rolling. Enjoy a hint of butter in your fried foods? Start with a high-smoke oil like canola and toss in a couple pats of butter with your fish. Or perhaps you’re also a waterfowl hunter who renders their own duck fat. Toss that in. (Duck fat has a smoke point of 375, so with just a little bit of canola oil you can certainly fry fish in that.)

What’s the Best Size Fish to Keep?

I’ve found an average width of 1 inch is about perfect when frying in 375- to 400-degree oil. Length can vary but make certain to never crowd the skillet if panfrying, as a crowded skillet gives off steam and that steam can soften exteriors, leading to soggy fish. Much thicker than 1 inch and you risk not fully cooking the fish by the time the exterior is golden brown. So cut up your fillets in portions you want to serve, but butterfly cuts thicker than 1 inch.

Beer Batter, Flour Dredge, or Bread Coating?

There really is no right answer here, as it basically comes down to what you feel like eating. Carbonation in beer adds an airy texture to fish, while a flour coating provides an extra crispy exterior. Bread crumbs add their own unique flavors to the dish.

But beer choice does matter. Don’t ever let anyone tell you “It’s just water.” B.J. Hunt, co-owner of Walnut River Brewing in El Dorado, Kansas, uses their Teter Rock Kolsch in their Wichita restaurant, The PourHouse, for a beer-battered fish and chips recipe. The beer recipe was developed by the brewery’s other owner, Rick Goehring, nearly 30 years ago and features the Czech Saaz hop.

“A little bit of beer flavor and that C2O to protect it when it’s in the fryer – it helps with the crispiness,” said Hunt. Both he and Goehring experimented with several brews before ultimately landing on the Kolsch. “We played around with it but had a pretty good idea Kolsch was going to be the one,” said Hunt. “Generally, we could rule out IPAs, as those hops are so brash. Our Warbeard was a little too malty. If you had a stronger fish, that might put up with that. For cod or whitefish, it would be too much.”

Summary: Use lighter beers like Kolsch or a pilsner for your milder fish. Use something darker for your stronger fish like trout.

What about the beer-to-flour ratio? When making a beer batter, I have found, generally speaking, 10-12 ounces per cup of flour works perfectly. So take a swig from a 12-ounce can, pour the rest in the batter. I also recommend, when it comes to beer batter, to first fry just a teaspoon of it to get an idea of the flavor. Taste-test the fried batter for saltiness, for example. If too salty, add more flour to dilute, along with more beer. Texture of the batter should be that of wet paint.

General rule of thumb in regard to salt: Use kosher salt and don’t use more than 1 teaspoon per cup of flour. Salt can absolutely ruin a good fish fry. Be cognizant of the salt content in any spice mix you might use. Some seafood mixes are saltier than others. Per cup of flour, I normally don’t add more than 2 tablespoons of any given spice mix – this applies to both flour dredge and beer batter. In the cover photo, for that recipe, I used a little under 12 ounces of Teter Rock Kolsh and 2 tablespoons of Bearded Butcher Blend Cajon seasoning for 1 cup of flour. It turned out very well.

Some folks prefer self-rising flour for their beer batter. I don’t believe this is essential, but it produces a fluffier loaf in the end due to the baking powder in it. It also contains salt, so that may affect your recipe if alternating from all-purpose flour. You can always add 1 teaspoon of baking powder to your all-purpose flour recipe if you want that slight rising effect when frying.

In terms of a flour dredge, I recommend soaking your fish in buttermilk 2-3 hours prior to frying. Buttermilk slightly tenderizes the fish but also makes certain flour can adhere to the fat for an even, crispy crust when frying. You can indeed use regular milk, if in a pinch, with similar results. I also like to dabble in almond milk and enjoy the flavor profile that soak produces.

Some folks also like to add cornstarch to their flour dredge mix as it can lead to a crispier coating. So if you feel you have an issue with serving soggy fried fish, consider substituting 1/4 of flour for cornstarch. Others will work cornmeal or corn flour into their dredge. Both are worth experimenting with.

In terms of bread crumbs, the choice is up to you – regular or Italian or something else. Some folks use panko bread crumbs, but do know panko generally burns quicker than regular bread crumbs. An example recipe using bread crumbs: tossing fish through flour dredge, then dipping in egg wash, and finally coating in bread crumbs and frying.

What’s the Perfect Temperature for Frying Fish?

Long story short: No lower than 375 degrees Fahrenheit. No higher than 400. This is where a deep fryer comes in handy as it’ll adjust to stay consistent. From the skillet side, when you add cold fish, you drop that oil temp. That is why I like to start out at 400 when frying and often raise the burner heat after dropping in fish. I don’t want to drop below 375, as the fish will start to absorb oil (versus frying) and could potentially result in an oily, perhaps soggy, final product. I also don’t want to fry higher than 400 as the exterior will cook and crisp before the fish fully cooks and is safe to serve.

All this means you should indeed have a meat thermometer or infrared thermometer on hand. I use a $15 one from Amazon and it has worked well for me for several years. I just point and pull the trigger on the oil’s surface and the infrared thermometer lets me know if I’m ready to rock.

Let the Grease Drain

For a deep fryer, this usually just means pulling the basket and letting it hang over the oil as oil drips off the fish. If using a pan or skillet, when removing the fish, you want to place it on some sort of grate, not a napkin-covered plate which will absorb oil and turn fish soggy. I also lightly pat dry fish with paper napkin after placing on a stainless steel mesh tray so oil can drip to plate below.

Skip the newspaper when serving up your perfect fish fry.
Skip the newspaper when serving up your perfect fish fry. (Jack Hennessy/)

How to Serve Up your Perfect Fish Fry

In England, to my understanding, they used to serve their fish and chips in newspaper with the idea that the newspaper absorbed the grease. It didn’t. When serving, you can opt to serve on wax paper or simply a plate, but don’t pretend to be English and serve in newspaper or a similar material unless you want to deliver soggy fish.

In regard to sides, you can never go wrong with coleslaw and fried potatoes of any kind. Hush puppies are also a great option and there are many box choices where you just have to add egg and water and mix and fry.

When it comes to tartar sauce, while I respect the concept of a great dipping sauce, my opinion is a great-tasting fried fish shouldn’t need anything extra beyond maybe a lemon wedge. Malt vinegar is another fine option, but as you take your fish fry to the next level, you might find out that you don’t need any extra sauce at all.

Find the author on Instagram at: @WildGameJack

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