Fried Catfish

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Please welcome Hank Shaw as he serves up a Southern classic—fried catfish. ~Elise

Fried catfish is an icon of Southern cooking: For many, there simply isn’t any other way to prepare it. Arguments rage over whether it’s best deep-fried, battered, breaded with cornmeal, or even just simply dredged in flour. This, to my mind, is a healthy debate.

Now I love a good beer batter, and some fish are best with that simple dredge of flour. But not catfish. Catfish need breading. Cornmeal breading. There’s something about a cornmeal crust that really sings with catfish. Maybe it’s the combination of a truly American fish with a truly American grain.

This is a simple dish, but there are a few keys to good fried catfish: Hot oil, and the right breading. If you’ve ever had soggy, greasy catfish, it’s because the oil is too cold. You want it around 350 degrees. And use peanut oil if you can — it adds a lot of flavor. (Lard is even better… just sayin’.) For the breading, use fine, white cornmeal if you can find it. This, sadly, is not always easy outside the South. In the absence of fine, white cornmeal, use the regular stuff with a little flour. Unless it is finely ground, an all-cornmeal crust tastes gritty.

As for seasoning, what we provided below is just what I like to use; you can use whatever seasoning you want, from your own concoction to Lawry’s to Zatarain’s, Old Bay or even just lemon pepper.

Serve your catfish with whatever you want, but traditionally you’d want cole slaw and hush puppies, which, if you’ve never heard of them, are a fried cornmeal dumpling. Hot sauce on the side, too.

Fried Catfish Recipe

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  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 10 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4.

This frying method works with pretty much any thin fish fillet: If you can't find catfish, use tilapia, bass, flounder, walleye, perch, rockfish, croaker or black seabass.

Ingredients

  • 4-6 catfish fillets, about 1-2 pounds
  • 1 cup milk or buttermilk
  • Salt
  • 3/4 cup fine cornmeal (do not use coarsely ground cornmeal)
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
  • Oil for frying (use peanut oil if you can)

Method

1 In a heavy frying pan (I prefer to use cast iron), pour enough oil to come 1/2 inch up the sides of the pan. Turn the heat to medium-high. Turn your oven to 200° and lay a cookie sheet inside. Place a wire rack on top of the cookie sheet.

2 While the oil is heating, soak the catfish in the milk or buttermilk. Mix the cornmeal, flour and spices together. (Or you can substitute your favorite seasoning instead.) Let the oil reach 350 degrees — a good test is to flick a little of the dry breading into the oil, and if it sizzles at once, you're good to go.

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3 Once the oil is hot, sprinkle the catfish fillets with salt and dredge them into the breading. Shake off the excess and gently lay into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2-4 minutes, depending on how thick the fillet is. Use a metal spatula and gently turn the fish over and cook for another 2-4 minutes. Cast iron heats up and stays hot, so monitor the heat as you fry; you may need to lower the heat on the burner at some point.

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4 Once the fish is ready, move it to the oven while you cook the rest of the catfish. Keeping the fried catfish warm in the oven will help keep it crispy. When they're all done, serve at once with your favorite hot sauce, cole slaw and some hush puppies.

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Links:

Hush puppies - from Allen Williams of Eating Out Loud
No better fish to fry - recipes for catfish, hushpuppies, and chipotle lime mayo from Lisa Fain, the Homesick Texan
Green chile hush puppies - from Use Real Butter
Vietnamese Fried Catfish - from Viet World Kitchen
Gluten-free Fried Catfish - from Gluten Free Goddess
Claypot Catfish - from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Spicy pecan crusted catfish from Eat Live Run

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Showing 4 of 30 Comments

  • Ann Merhall

    This is delicious. Is the secret in the buttermilk? I used full fat buttermilk. When you’re aiming for southern fried fish this is not the time to skimp. This afternoon is the second time that I have tried this and it is a hit with us. I gave up frying fish. It was disastrous. Not anymore. May I suggest whilst deep fat frying to simmer citrus peels with rosemary or other fragrant herb and just a drop of vanilla and water to neutralize the air in your kitchen/home. It works wonders. Thank you for a fabulous recipe.

  • David

    Love catfish fried in cornmeal, but a very tasty fish prepared the same way is the smaller black drum [<10 pounds]. I've told people if there was a taste test between fried catfish, redfish [red drum] and black drum-the black drum will win, redfish next then catfish.

    Also my wife and I loved to eat clams and fish at Woodman's of Essex (Woody's) between Gloucester and Ipswich, MA-asked them what they fried the seafood in and they said "we only use lard." Had a great flavor that we just loved.

  • Rob

    Thanks for the fantastic recipe! I thoroughly enjoyed the finished product! I substituted Grapeseed oil for Peanut oil and it turned out great! Thanks again!

  • Ben Crowley

    Great recipe. I’m from GA but lived in CA the last 7 years. I just moved back home and had a windfall fishing day at my favorite lake as a kid. Caught a ton of catfish and as my in laws from India were visiting, wanted to treat them to a true southern meal. Your recipient worked like a charm. I now have an Indian Sikh couple hooked on chili (no beef) fried catfish with hush puppies, Brunswick stew (again no beef just turkey and rabbit) and Irish stew with goat instead of beef.

  • Annyce Arendt

    The best catfish in the whole wide world is at Cypress Inn in Benton, Louisiana. The restaurant is located on Cypress Lake. They used to serve “all you can eat” deep-fried catfish there. I moved from Bossier City in 1982, but if I visited, I would go there for dinner!!!

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