Anglers can bake, poach or grill their catch, but deep frying remains king of the hill when it comes to cooking up a mess of fish.
It's fish fry season now that spring fishing is in full swing. Crappie and walleye filets are welcome additions to a freezer, along with other favorites such as bluegill, catfish and trout. Time to invite the gang over, fire up the fryer and get that oil smoking hot.
But how hot? How does a fish fry chef get those filets to come out golden brown, hot and crispy? Temperature of the oil is key. So is dipping the filets in cornmeal and flour or a packaged fish fry breading mix available at the grocery store.
Those were lessons learned last February when Tim Smith, fish cook extraordinaire with the Missouri Department of Conservation, fried up a mess of trout filets for about 20 anglers attending a fishing seminar at Roaring River State Park near Cassville, Mo.
"Ideally you want your oil temperature to be 350 degrees, or somewhere between 325 and 375," he said while peanut oil heated up in a propane-fueled deep fryer. "If I'm cooking for a group, I'll get the oil up to 375. That allows for some cool down when I add the filets."
Fish cooks quickly this way. Filets are done in a minute or two. A rule of thumb is, when they float they're ready to eat. Smith advised giving them a little extra time after that so they cook up crisp.
Another tip is to let the oil heat back up to temperature for a minute or so before cooking the next batch of filets.
Some cooks dredge filets in a milk and egg bath before breading. Not Smith. He dunked the trout pieces right into the breading, then into the hot oil. Talk about five star dining! The trout filets were beyond delicious.
Smith likes peanut oil for deep frying. Here at the shack-ri-la, we've been pleased with canola oil. Like Smith, we skip the milk and egg step and simply bread the filets with a packaged breading mix. Our favorites are Harold Ensley's fish fry mix, Louisiana Classic Breading Mix or the Zatarain's brand. A 10-ounce bag of the last two will set you back about a dollar.
We soak our filets in cold water while we dump half the amount of breading mix we will need into a paper bag then add an equal amount of cornmeal and shake the bag. We drop a few filets into the bag, shake it to bread the fish, then deep fry it in the canola oil.
Here at the shack we use an electric Fry Daddy deep fryer. It's small and only cooks a few filets at a time, but the filets come out perfect.
After hearing Smith's demonstration, we tested the oil temperature of our Fry Daddy. An instant read digital thermometer showed the oil to be 380 degrees at cooking time, in line with Smith's advice.
With the little bucket-shaped Fry Daddy, we only cook two or three filets at a time, then let the oil heat back up to optimum frying temperature. We keep the cooked filets in a pan lined with paper towels while we fry each piece of fish.
Some say a fish fry isn't complete without hush puppies. We've never been crazy about them here at the shack, but fans can buy frozen hush puppies, a box of hush puppy mix or find a recipe and make them from scratch.
Hold the hush puppies, but bring on the baked beans and coleslaw -- and let the fine dining begin.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at [email protected]