My wife is an extremely picky eater when it comes to certain types of food. If it happens to be a type of food that I like to cook, that means I get a lot of practice refining my recipe until I get it right. And then I chisel that recipe in stone and don’t change it for years. Fried fish is one of these foods. Good beer-battered fish is one of her favorite pub/comfort foods, but only when it is done just right. In this case, “just right” means: sliced thin or in bite-sized chunks; enveloped in a crispy, not-the-least-bit soggy crust; and cooked well-done to the point that the flesh of the fish is flaky and free of moisture. This may not be what everyone looks for in fried fish, but these are the rules I follow when refining my recipe; and for what it is worth, I think I have gotten it down to a science at this point.
Fried fish is one of those foods, like buffalo wings, that are simple to prepare and anyone can do it and you can find anywhere from the local Chinese take-out to a fine restaurant. But once you find your favorite, you accept no substitutes. Fish and chips used to be my go-to dish at pubs and dives that I didn’t trust to order anything that could disappoint. Now I can’t order it anywhere; I have found my favorite version and refuse to choke down another basket of soggy, half-breaded haddock fillets till the day I die.
I used to use catfish chunks to make this until I discovered swai. Swai (aka Basa) is a Vietnamese relative of catfish (the Mississippi is not the only river known for catfish). It is light, flaky, neutral in flavor, and dirt cheap. A ten pound bag of frozen fillets can be had from around seven dollars at Wal-Mart and you can score fresh fillets for less than $2/lb. Catfish, tilapia, cod, haddock, pollock, any white fish will work, but I prefer Swai and keep my freezer stocked.
The beer batter recipe I use has not been modified much over the years and I probably pulled it from some corner of the internet or another so if this looks familiar to anyone, my complements and much obliged. The result is dark, crispy, and at that just-right level of spiciness that means that I can taste it, but my wife can tolerate it.
1 1/4 Cup Flour (or flour/corn starch mixture)
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup beer (lager or pale ale)
2 tsp Crystal hot sauce
red pepper flakes to taste
Combine all of the dry ingredients, then mix in the beer. I have tried many different types of beer and rarely notice any difference but I usually use whatever lager or pale ale I have on hand. The type of beer is not that important, just avoid anything super-hoppy, high-alcohol, or dark. The consistency should be similar to pancake batter. Add more flour/beer until it looks right.
Cut the fish into chunks or strips. Keep them small enough to crisp up but not so small as to make a mess of your fryer. Smaller pieces cook and taste better, but fewer pieces are easier to cook, so there is a bit of a balancing act.
Deep-fry at 350’F for about 8-10 minutes. The batter will turn dark quickly due to the paprika and peppers but it will take a while to burn. For reasons stated above I err on the side of overcooking it, but if you like a soggier, less crispy fish pull them at 6-8 minutes.
Forget tartar sauce, instead mix up a spoonful of mayonnaise with a spoonful or two of hot sauce. The fish is already spicy so keep that in mind. But regardless of what type of hot sauce you go with or how spicy you like it, I guarantee you the result blows tartar sauce out of the water.
That’s all there is too it – simple yet elegant; not much to photograph but I promise it will look awesome on your plate. I have always wanted to try making fish tacos out of these but I can’t talk myself into eating it in any way that adulterates, distracts from, or covers up its basic, primal perfection. I think most would agree.