Fried Catfish

DinnerComfort FoodSouthernFish and Seafood

Crispy fried catfish fillets coated in a seasoned cornmeal crust!

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

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’.)

Fried Catfish

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: 15 minutes
  • Cook time: 15 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 Heat oil in pan, heat warming oven: 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. Heat the pan on medium-high.

Heat your oven to 200°F and lay a cookie sheet inside. Place a wire rack on top of the cookie sheet.

2 Soak catfish in milk or buttermilk: While the oil is heating, soak the catfish in the milk or buttermilk.

3 Mix together cornmeal, flour, spices for dredging: Mix the cornmeal, flour and spices together. (Or you can substitute your favorite seasoning instead.) Place in a shallow dish for dredging.

4 Dredge fillets in flour mixture, then fry in hot oil: Let the oil reach 350°F — 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.

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.

5 Keep cooked fillets warm in oven: 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

Claypot Catfish - from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

Spicy pecan crusted catfish from Eat Live Run

Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

More from Hank

32 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Lizzy

    My husband went to university in New Orleans, and we wanted to make a catfish po’boy for dinner to relive the good times. I had never fried fish before, though. We made these catfish fillets sandwiched between our favorite bakery’s baguettes, and with a little Crystal hot sauce it tasted just like the real thing! Fantastic!

    xxxxxyyyyy

  2. Julia

    I made this with my mom. It was SPECTACULAR!!!!!!! The key is to make sure the pan is hot and cook for 4 minutes on each side. We added thyme and pepper also. My father, mother, and I really loved this recipe. We had been trying to find a good catfish recipe for awhile and this was the one. I am going to tell everyone I know about this recipe. The other catfish recipes that we have tried came out soggy and we were not looking forward to eating them, but this one we will make again and again. The next time I make this recipe I am going to invite some people over to my house to try it. Thanks for inventing this recipe!!!!!!!!!!

    xxxxxyyyyy

  3. Jenni

    Great recipe. The trick is to keep it warm in the oven and allow the oil to drip off if needed. Keeps the fish crispy until everything is ready.

    xxxxxyyyyy

  4. Les C. from woodland ca.

    Hank;Can masa harina be used as fine cornmeal ?Masa Harina is what is used to make tamale dough,and corn tortillas.

    Show Replies (1)
  5. 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.

    xxxxxyyyyy

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