From Left to Right: Cheez-It (White Cheddar), Fritos, Potato Chips (Salt and Vinegar), Pretzels, Bugles
Recently, while on a fishing trip for tautog, I packed along a small bag of Bugles for a snack. Part of the reason I love fishing trips is that I can buy junk food that my wife doesn’t allow in the house. While munching on the Bugles during a lull in the action, I pondered whether they, smashed up, would make a tasty breading for a nice piece of fried fish.
Several years ago, I fried up some quail breasts using crushed Cheez-Its for the breading, and they were phenomenal. I was at deer camp in Maine, and the cabin’s pantry was not very well stocked. We had no breadcrumbs, but we were well-stocked with junk food, and a great recipe was born.
My co-worker Jimmy Fee recently told me about how he fries black sea bass using smashed Cap’n Crunch cereal for the breading. He claims it’s delicious.
Junk-Food Breadings for Fried Fish
So, for this month’s column, I decided, in the name of science, that I would conduct a taste test using different junk-food breadings for pan-fried fish. I made an extensive list of potential products, but soon realized I would need to narrow it down to five, which was more than enough for a meal if I cut the fish into small fish sticks. Plus, I figured it would be a good way to sneak some junk food into the house, so I ended up picking my top five salty junk foods, in this order: Cape Cod Sea Salt & Vinegar potato chips, Bugles, Fritos, Cheez-Its, and Rold Gold pretzels.
I went to the local Quik-E Mart, where I felt like a total glutton at the register, and got the goods. That night I used fresh tautog for the experiment. I figured that since all the “breadings” were super salty, I wouldn’t need to add any additional salt. I cut the tail ends of the ‘tog fillets into nice rectangular fish sticks, gave them a dash of black pepper, dipped them in flour, then egg, and then rolled them in junk food crumbs. I refrigerated them for a half-hour, and then fried them to perfection in canola oil in my electric skillet.
They were all very good, and none of the breadings overpowered the delicate fish. Much to my surprise, they all could have used more salt. Here are the results:
#1: (Tie) Salt & Vinegar potato chips, Bugles
These both came out so delicious that I could not declare either one a clear-cut winner. I felt they both provided a glorious, golden-brown color. The Bugles provided a slightly better crunch and added just a touch of corny-sweetness. The vinegar from the potato chips was just barely detectable, but it was a welcome addition that brightened up the flavor and added a pleasant aroma. I will make both of these again.
I opted for white cheddar Cheez-Its because they were available in a smaller box than all the other Cheez-It flavors. These provided the best golden-brown color to the finished product and the crunch was spot-on. I could detect just a hint of delectable “cheesiness,” which I thought paired well with the mild-flavored fish.
These corn-based chips provided the most salt out of all the contestants. They also yielded the most crunch, which reminded me of breadings that incorporate cornmeal. The color, I felt was slightly off. They looked pale and didn’t develop that nice golden-brown color I look for in a good piece of fried fish. The Fritos were, by far, the hardest snack in the batch to smash up. I put them in a zip-top bag and went to town on them with a rolling pin, yet they still yielded a bigger crumb than the other snacks. Because of this, the breading didn’t stick to the fish as well as the others.
Let me be clear, there were no losers in this competition. They all tasted dynamite, but I think the pretzels fell short on presentation. They yielded good flavor and a pleasant crunch, but the color was off. I cooked all the samples in the same pan, for the same amount of time, at the same temperature. The pretzels came out much darker than the others, and almost looked burnt, even though they weren’t.
Remember, there are many ways to hook a fish and many ways to cook the dish. Eating fish the same way every time is boring. Be brave and try some new recipes this year!