Creating the perfect fish fry

You’ve got a craving for a delectable piece of juicy, flaky fish on the inside, crispy and crunchy on the outside. You settle into your kitchen and make yourself a little taste of comfort food—a delicious fish fry. Except, you’re not entirely sure about a few things. What’s the best oil for a fish fry? The best breading or coating? What kind of pan? Do I need certain seasonings? How long do I cook it?

Nobody’s perfect and cooking your own food and choosing what makes it taste remarkable doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Luckily, we do have a few tips to make sure you can cut into the absolute most tender, flaky, delicious fish fry you’ve made yet.

Let’s get oily.

There are a few things to remember when using oil to cook with: no flavored oils. In the most positive scenario, the flavor in the oil will disappear in the middle of being used to cook your fish. Worse, and much more likely to happen is that a flavored oil will turn acrid and completely ruin the entire piece (or pieces) of fish you are cooking.

If you really want to use a flavored oil, set it on the table to be used as a light drizzle on your fish once it's cooked and plated to eat.

The less refined your oil, the lower the smoke point. The lower the smoke point, the less likely you’re going to be trying to cook in a cloud of grey fishy scented smoke while your fire alarm goes off behind you. Nobody enjoys the sound of a fire alarm and most people aren’t fans of burnt-oil smoke either. Make sure your oil is refined, double check the label to ensure the smoke point is for sautéing or very high heat for over 350 F.

  • Pan Fry oil: Sautéing or pan frying is one of the most popular ways of preparing any fish. The basics are to pour a little oil into a hot pan and cook the fish quickly over high heat. Like cooking in a wok, the key to both is very little oil and very high heat. High heat isn’t a thing that just any oil can handle. You need a high smoking point oil. The highest smoke point oil is avocado oil, but let’s be honest—that is pricey. If you can’t afford to splurge on it, your second-best choices that are affordable are canola, corn and vegetable oil. Olive oil must be light or very refined and definitely not extra-virgin if you want to pan fry fish. If you have the patience and time for it you can make clarified butter or purchase some as it is also a good oil for high heat.
  • Deep frying or just pan frying? When you are pan frying, canola, corn, and vegetable oils are fine. But if you are deep frying there are exceptions. Peanut oil complements deep fried fish perfectly. If you have very refined olive oil, that is also the best choice for Mediterranean flavored dishes. If cost is an issue, canola oil is affordable and available nearly everywhere, though it may not be the healthiest.
  • Grilling, Broiling, and Baking oils. If you are going to grill, broil or bake the fish, you will want an oil to be used to coat the fish itself. It will help conduct the heat throughout the fish. In this scenario, olive oil is recommended for the nice, clean taste and is a healthier option. But if you aren’t worried about calories, any of the oils listed can do in a pinch.

The best fish for frying

Some fish meat simply responds to being fried better than others. Oily or more neutral and mild fishes tend to turn out best when fried. You’ll get the most out of your fried seafood from these:

  • Tilapia
  • Alaskan Cod
  • Hake
  • Halibut
  • Smelts
  • Anchovies
  • Bass
  • Perch
  • Shrimp

Pat it dry

Before cooking whichever way, make sure your fish meat is completely dry. Excess moisture lowers temperatures, especially in oil. So pat dry your whole fish or filet very thoroughly.

To batter or not to batter?

That’s entirely up to you and what you’re looking for in a meal. If it’s a cheat day or if you aren’t needing to watch everything you eat and treating yourself to a crispy, crunchy, golden deep friend battered piece of fish is something you like, go for it! If you don’t like battered fish or want something with less fat, a simple high temp fry in oil in a pan, baked in the oven, or fresh off the grill is just as good.

The right temperature

Always preheat your pan or oil before plopping your piece of fish into it.

Getting the right level of crispiness on fried fish can be iffy if you don’t know what temperature you’re frying it at. Too low, and the skin gets soggy or sticks to the pan and comes right off. Too high and you get leathery fish, possibly burnt skin and a dried out tasteless near disaster.

Thin or small fish: The perfect fish to fry is thinner filets or smaller fishes to try to keep your pan and oil maintaining the correct temp of roughly 365 F. That means if you’re frying more than one piece, make sure either the pan remains at that temp steadily, or cook one piece at a time to allow the oil to rise back to 365 F. This can almost guarantee your smaller or thinner sliced fish gets the perfectly crisp outside while ensuring you don’t overcook the inside. Generally, no more than 4 minutes per side. But always check to see if your fish can be easily flaked with a fork if you need to double check it is done.

Deep fried: For the ultimate in deep-fried perfection, keep your deep fryer oil reading 350 to 375 F. Too low and you get greasy fish. Too high and it’s just a burnt fish.

Thick Fish: Generally speaking, pan frying thick pieces of fish isn’t recommended as the heat is difficult to get even. It's very easy to overcook the outside of your fish while having the inside undercooked or completely raw. Consider baking or deep frying for thicker pieces.

Most important: don’t turn away from your fish. Sometimes fish cooks faster than what you think it will. Fish is an incredibly versatile, flavor-packed meat but it also can turn into an overcooked mess if not watched closely.

This may seem like a whole complicated process that once you’ve read to this point you might be thinking it would just be easier to toss something in the microwave, but we promise, it’s not as difficult as it sounds, and it can be broken down to very simple steps!

  1. Buy the right oil for high temps of 350 F or more. Read the label. Use that oil.
  2. Avoid flavored oils.
  3. Always dry your fish.
  4. Always keep your pan at a steady 365 F or deep fryer between 350 and 375 F.
  5. Don’t overcrowd the pan or fryer.
  6. Try and use small fish or thinly filleted fish for pan frying.
  7. Keep an eye and a timer handy.
  8. Eat delicious, perfectly fried fish!

That’s it, really! A lot of the work is in the pre-prep for frying. Keep an eye on your frying fish and you are bound to walk away with the perfectly fried, crispy outside, juicy, succulent fish on the inside!