At some point, all of us have sat face-to-face with a pile of fried fish or . As this usually happens first when we are tiny tots, the experience can alter the course of our dietary existence: After that virginal fish fry, many of us we emerge either as committed fish lovers — or, like many Americans, committed fish haters.
Only about half of Americans eat seafood more than once or twice a year, and I suspect that a big reason for such a gulf between fish eaters and fish haters is what was on that first plate of fried fish. Try to think back to your childhood now: Did your mom cook her own fried fish, or did she open a box and shake out a few frozen fish sticks?
I have vivid memories of both cases. My mom cooked her own fish. I have a crystalline image in my head of mom busily frying flounder fillets. It must have been from the mid-1970s. She’s standing next to a pile of fried flounder, each layer separated by paper towels sodden with oil. We’d eat these with lemon and lots of “tah-ta sauce.” Mum is from Massachusetts.
I also remember eating at some of my friends’ houses. That image is of pre-breaded fish sticks clunking out onto a foil-lined tray that somebody else’s mother popped into the oven, often a toaster oven. I remember these being dreadful.
Fish sticks are eaten by those who do not fish, I soon learned. Over the years, I’ve become a connoisseur of fried fish, and I still seek out superior fish and chips wherever I go. Most recently I had some fantastic fried fish in Seattle, at a place called Pike Street Fish Fry. It was perfect. Low-budget atmosphere, cheap, crispy fries, lots of beer — and a perfect batter.
Batter. When all else boils down, batter is why we love fried fish. Golden brown might be the two best words you can say in the kitchen (other than, perhaps, “More bacon?”), and the magic of a batter that is crispy, yet light, is a feat of culinary prestidigitation. The Japanese have their tempura batter, which is divine, but fish and chips need something sturdier. They need beer batter. While everyone has their own recipe, beer batters are all basically the same: Beer (what kind you use matters), flour and a little salt.
Mom never battered those flounder she cooked; they were merely breaded and fried. Most fish sticks are the same. Why? Batter can only be done properly with deep frying, and few Americans will deep fry at home. No one ever told me this, so I’ve happily been deep frying since I was in my early 20s. It’s not terribly scary, I assure you.
So long as you watch temperature, you’re fine. Yeah, it can be sporty to have a half-gallon of 360°F oil roiling on your stovetop, but so long as you know it’s that hot, you’re fine. Bad things happen when you don’t, and the oil gets too hot. Thermometers are a must.
I used to use a Dutch oven to fry, but now I use a, which has lasted me years. I like deep fryers because they restrict the amount of vaporized grease that gets into the air. And while that aroma really adds to the ambiance of a place like Pike Street Fish Fry, its not so good in your house.
A deep fryer also lets you control temperature, which is important. Soggy, greasy fish and chips happen because the oil was not hot enough. Oil that is too hot will burn the batter by the time the fish has been cooked. My sweet spot has always been about 360°F.