Who doesn’t like a good piece of fried fish? I sure do, and I’ve been pigging out on it since I was a small child. Many Americans have been introduced to seafood through “fish sticks,” myself included, and to this day, a piece of crispy fried fish remains a cherished comfort food.
But. I must admit that it took me a long time to master this seemingly basic technique. Early in my cooking career, I struggled with frying fish (or anything else, for that matter). My pan-fried fish always seemed to come out greasy and soggy, the breading crumbled off, I made a big mess, and the fish would be seriously overcooked. Frying was my Achilles heel of fish cookery, and I struggled so much with it that, for many years, my wife insisted she would handle all the frying duties in the house.
Not one to give up, though, I secretly studied her technique, researched the subject at length, and came to the humbling realization that I had been making a lot of “Googan” mistakes.
I can now proudly boast that I’m capable of making a mean pan-fried fish, and if you follow the 8 tips listed below, you can too!
Perfect Fried Fish
Step 1: Choose the Right Fish
Over the years, I’ve heard several people comment that they don’t like the taste of striped bass. My first question is always, “How do you cook it?”
More often than not, the complainer replies, “I fry it.”
Not all fish is meant to be fried and striped bass is a fine example; I believe it is much better suited to be grilled, broiled, or braised.
The best fried fish is made from mild flavored, white-fleshed fish like sea bass, flounder, cod, haddock, pollock, tautog or scup. (For freshwater fish, I use white perch, yellow perch, or walleye). I avoid frying oily fish like bluefish, trout, salmon, or tuna.
I also prefer thinner fillets when pan-frying. For most fish, I fry the tail-end section of the fillets and reserve the thicker shoulder cuts for other preparations.
Step 2: Season the Fillets
A lot of recipes out there call for seasoning the flour, the egg wash, and/or the breading with salt and other seasonings which, frankly, makes no sense.
I always dust the naked fillets (which should be thoroughly dried off using paper towels) with salt and pepper before coating them. This does a couple of things. First, it allows you to evenly season the fish. Second, the salt draws moisture out of the fillets, which will react with the flour to make a glue, which makes the breading adhere much better to the fish when it is fried.
Step 3: Dip the Fillets in Flour, Egg, and Breadcrumbs
Applying the breading is 3-step process. The first step is to dust both sides of the fillet in flour until evenly coated. Next, dip it into beaten egg and then coat it with your breading of choice (breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs, panko, etc.)
Pro Tip: If you use one of your hands for dipping into the dry ingredients, and your other hand for dipping into the wet ingredient, you won’t end up with big ol’ dough balls on your fingertips.
Step 4: Place the Fillets in the Fridge
This, I believe, is crucial. After breading the fillets, I always pop them in the refrigerator for at least a half hour. This accomplishes two things: First, it allows the egg to set with the flour and the breading, which makes everything adhere better to the fish when frying. Second, it makes the fish as cold as possible when hitting the pan, which helps prevent overcooking.
Step 5: Choosing the Right Frying Pan
Hands down, the best tool for pan-frying fish is an electric frying pan. It is equipped with a thermostat that allows pinpoint precision of the cooking temperature. Maintaining the proper temperature is the key to cooking fish that’s golden and crisp on the outside, and moist and perfectly flaky on the inside.
When you add fish to hot oil, the oil’s temperature drops. An electric frying pan automatically adjusts to raise the temperature back up to where it should be. I’ve found that 350 degrees is the ideal temperature for frying fish.
Electric frying pans have a second benefit, which is that they eliminate cold spots and enable even browning throughout the pan. Since they get heat from a direct source, the entire cooking surface is heated evenly.
My second pick for pan-frying fish is a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Contrary to popular belief, cast iron does not excel at even cooking; stuff in the center of the pan cooks faster than stuff at the outer edge. Because of this, I have to rotate the fish while it’s cooking to get it evenly browned.
If you do opt for a cast-iron skillet, make sure it’s preheated before adding the oil. Heat it on medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes until the handle is hot to the touch. Add the oil, wait another 2 or 3 minutes, and then add the fish.
Step 6: Picking the Right Cooking Oil
You want one that has a high smoking point. Olive oil does not, and the same with butter. Stick with canola, vegetable, or peanut oil.
Step 7: Flip the Fried Fish
Did you know there is a kitchen tool designed specifically for flipping fried fish? A fish spatula should be your weapon of choice for this task. For the crispiest fried fish with the least amount of grease, I recommend buying two. The key is to lift the fillet after the first side is cooked and suspend it over the pan for a few seconds to allow excess oil to drip off. Then, carefully flip the fillet over onto the second fish spatula and lower it back into the pan to finish cooking the second side.
This reduces the amount of oil absorbed by the breading and helps produce the perfect, crispy exoskeleton.
Step 8: Place the Fried Fish on a Drying Rack
When your fried fish is ready to come out of the pan, it should be placed on a metal wire drying rack to rest, never on paper towels! Placing it atop paper towels (or any flat surface) steams the fish from below, resulting in a soggy bottom, increasing the odds of the breading pulling away from the fillet.
Crispy Pan-Fried Fish
- 4 fillets catch of the day
- 3/4 cup flour
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup plain breadcrumbs
- Salt & pepper
- Canola oil
Dry the fillets with paper towels and remove any pin bones. Lightly dust them on both sides with salt and black pepper.
Set up three dredging stations (shallow bowls, plates, or pie plates) for the coatings. Add the flour to the first. Add the beaten eggs to the second, then and add the breadcrumbs and Parmesan to the third. Dip the fillets into the flour, making sure they are well coated, and shake off any excess flour. Next, roll them around in the beaten eggs, once again allowing any excess to drip off. Now, press them into the breadcrumbs on both sides until they are evenly breaded. (I flip them over several times to make sure they are totally coated.)
Add a thin layer of breadcrumbs to a platter, place the breaded fillets on top, and then dust them with any remaining breadcrumbs. Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.
Add about 1/8 to 1/4 inch of oil to an electric frying pan and preheat it to 350 degrees. Carefully add in the fillets, making sure to give them some elbow room – do not overload the pan! Cook for about 3 minutes per side until golden and crispy. Lift each one from the pan with a fish spatula and allow any excess oil to drip back into the pan before flipping it over. Cook for about 2 to 3 more minutes on the second side until they register 145-degrees, remove, and let them rest on a wire drying rack placed above paper towels. Let rest for a minute or two to allow excess oil to drip out. Dust with salt, if needed.
When I was a kid, I always ate my fried fish with ketchup. Sometimes I still do, but if you want a slightly more sophisticated dipping sauce, give this a try.
The Ultimate Fried Seafood Dipping Sauce
This is my go-to recipe for a dipping sauce. It goes great with fried or baked fish, and it’s also perfect for a fish sandwich.
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce – I like Frank’s
- 1 tablespoon capers
Mix all ingredients and refrigerate. Dip the fried fish in the dipping sauce and devour!