Fried Catfish

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

  • 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.

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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25 Comments

  1. Justin

    Two questions: Could yellow pollenta be used if it was further ground down in a spice grinder? Is there an alternate fish which is a good substitute for catfish? (if your in a part of the world without catfish)

    Yes, if you grind it fine. And as for alternative fish, I provide a raft of them in the recipe’s head notes. But if you are outside North America, any flat fillet will work. Nothing too oily or strong-tasting, though. ~Hank

  2. Marjorie

    I love catfish! I was looking for a recipe that did not use beer batter. My grandmother used to prepare it with cornmeal, but I lost the recipe. Thanks for posting yours. I´ll try it today! My mouth is watering already! I love your site!

  3. Judith

    This looks wonderful. My only problem is that I don’t know what to do with all the oil after I’ve fried the food. It seems so wasteful to throw it away (and peanut oil is expensive), and it’s thick and gluey after it’s been used. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    Good point. I save my oil by pouring it into a strainer that has a paper towel set inside; this removes any debris. I store it in a glass jar, mark it “fish” and reuse it 4-5 times. The oil is actually better the second and third time you use it. ~Hank

    • Jay Kenney

      You can by fryers that filter the used oil and store it in a container that is part of the machine. It will tell you when the oil needs to be replaced.

  4. cookie62

    For Justin and anyone else: Basa and Pangasius are catfish family fish that are available in other parts of the world. In order to be legally called “Catfish” it must be raised or caught in the USA. We use both of the other types of fish in our cafeteria and they taste just like catfish.

  5. AG Wright

    As a southerner and child of southerners fish of all kinds was always a part of our diet, usually we caught it ourselves.
    Mother always fried a potato in her oil after she was finished cooking fish. She said that it helped get rid of some of the fish flavor/smell in the oil.
    Plus fish and fries were always welcome in our family.
    Mother seldom put much in the way of spices in her corn meal, mostly just a bit of salt and maybe some paprika.

  6. Miles Graham

    I am definitely from the South, and your recipe is pretty close to what all of us in the delta use with one exception, we mix plain yellow cornmeal with a little bit of flour, cover the fish with yellow mustard before breading, season the cornmeal with salt pepper and garlic powder…, Fry as you directed, although most of us use a cast iron pot deep enough that the fish floats to let you know its done.. Great recipe… and you can substitute Tilapia for the catfish if you can’t find the real deal….

    Miles Graham—from an Ozark Kitchen

  7. Amy

    I do love me some catfish. I don’t like the large filet’s, though. I prefer the small, very thin chunks. You get more crispy edges (my favorite part) that way. Have you ever been to Catfish Parlor in Austin, TX? That’s how they do it and it is THE BEST.

    That quibble aside, your dredging mixture sounds really good.

  8. kjb434

    I like the idea of thin fry versus a whole fillet. Let’s face it, catfish really doesn’t have much of a flavor like most white fish. The flavor is all in the coating. Batter is a big no-no in the South and cornmeal is king.

    If you want to know who thin fry is done, try Middendorf’s. It’s a restaurant off Interstate 55 between Interstates 12 and 10 in Louisiana. It’s in the small town of Manchac. It’s a German restaurant that pioneered the thin fry phenomenon which many other Louisiana restaurants tried to copy. Thin fry is also a way to serve fish as a party or appetizer versus a main meal.

  9. Judi

    Oh yeah! When I was a kid, we often went out on Saturday night to the Rio Vista in Stone Mountain, GA. You could have all you could eat of either catfish or chicken.
    Their catfish could not be beat.
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane!!

  10. kristin

    we made “hush puppies” the other day when we had a fish fry (no catfish, sadly), and made them out of the damp panko after we ran out of fish but still had some panko left in the bowl. All seasoned, with a bit of egginess in it from the dredging, the panko packed pretty well into nuggets and fried beautifully. They were similar in texture to hush puppies, but less grease “heavy” seeming than traditional hush puppies. We devoured them all!

  11. cheryl ross

    This sounds really good! Want to use this in a sandwich w/fresh tomatoes and onion from garden along w/corn. What would be a good sauce that I could make up from all my fresh herbs, peppers?

  12. Whitney

    I love your site and refer to it regularly for great recipes and tips. Just yesterday I commented to my Italian husband, we live in Rome, how I craved catfish fiercely. I’m heading to Texas in two weeks and know that someone in my family will oblige my hankering. Great post!

  13. tempy

    I live in Northern Louisiana and breaded catfish id definitely the way to go out here. I have tried it baked . . . but it just doesn’t have the same kick!

  14. Nancy Long

    Try ‘corn flour’ – Zatarains is a good brand – have had many a good meal at Middendorf’s. will be trying this, though hubby likes my blackened catfish a lot, along w/my tartar sauce.

    Blackened Catfish (Cajun Style)
    6 servings

    8 catfish fillets
    ½ pound unsalted butter, melted

    Seasoning mix:
    1 tablespoon sweet paprika
    2 ½ teaspoons salt
    1 teaspoon onion powder
    1 teaspoon garlic powder
    1 teaspoon cayenne
    ¾ teaspoon white pepper
    ¾ teaspoon black pepper
    ½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
    ½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves

    Pre-heat heavy skillet (preferably cast iron). Combine seasoning ingredients in a small bowl. Dip fillets in melted butter, then sprinkle seasoning mix on both sides. Please in hot skillet. Add a tablespoon of butter over top of the fillets. Cook for 2-3 minutes each side until charred. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

    fav Tartar Sauce
    Makes ½ cup

    ¼ cup mayonnaise
    2 teaspoons pickle relish
    1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon or ½ teaspoon dried
    2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
    ½ teaspoon chopped or mashed capers
    Dash black pepper
    Dash hot sauce

    Mix well and chill until needed

    • Tina

      Nancy – thank you for posting this – I LOVE this tartar sauce recipe! I have found that I need to triple it because people love it SO MUCH! Definitely going to keep this one for years!

  15. LouisianaJoe

    I like to mix Zatarain’s Fish Fry and corn meal in equal parts to fry catfish in. It gives the crust a crunchier consistency. I always fry potatoes in the same oil after frying the fish. I get my catfish from Lake Des Allemands, a large freshwater lake in southern Louisiana.

  16. Todd

    Finely ground cornmeal not available? Never heard of hushpuppies? OMG! Who are you writing this stuff for? Space aliens? If you live somewhere where you can’t get good cornmeal, you should move. Quickly. (smiley) Love the lard suggestion. This also works well with talapia.

  17. Kim Kim Smoth

    The fish came out soggy, waste of ingredients.

    Your oil was too cold. It needs to be 350 to 360 degrees to prevent that. ~Hank

  18. Michelle

    Yum! Catfish is my favorite!!

    I marinate my fish in hot sauce or milk/buttermilk with hotsauce mixed in for a bit of extra flavor. (Use a Louisiana hotsauce like Franks or Crystal. . . NOT tobasco). Also I let the dredged pieces sit for a while on a rack over a cookie sheet before frying. This makes the coating stick better and become crispier. And, as stated, the oil must be HOT HOT HOT, using a fryer with a thermostat or a thermometer is a must if you don’t fry often and can’t judge by look.

  19. Ed Green

    Nice post with quality pics. I have been doing pretty close to exactly this for years. I would just like to add that fine yellow corn meal works equally as well but I would decrease the flour by about half and stress that the corn meal be fairly heavily spiced with Lawrys seasoned salt and a little fresh pepper.

    I would love to see the slaw recipe posted as well as a companion post….looks great.

    One last thing, I love the comment one person had about putting mustard on the fish before breading…..I will be trying that.

  20. Rae-Ann

    That sounds delish..I am a sucker for anything with buttermilk and the addition of cornmeal just makes it even more tempting..shame Im having tilapia!

  21. Brad

    I live in south La and we eat lots of catfish. We usually use a mixture of half mustard, half water to coat the fish before breading it with Zatarains seasoned fish fry. The half mustard/water mixture keeps the breading from getting too thick and having an overbearing mustard taste; mustard is good, just not too much! We also never fry the whole fillets, we always cut it into strips to get more flavor from the breading with each bite.

  22. 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!!!

  23. 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.

I apologize for the inconvenience, but comments are closed. You can share your thoughts on our Facebook page ~ Elise.