An absolute Southern classic, Fried Catfish is a delicious way to enjoy fish. The meat is tender and juicy, the coating is crisp and tasty, and the recipe, quick and easy.
I adore fish and enjoy it often. But I have to admit that catfish isn’t usually on my radar.
Making this recipe reminded me that it absolutely should be. Catfish is meaty, succulent, and satisfying. Inexpensive too. And fried catfish? Absolutely amazing.
As with any fresh fish, when you’re buying catfish look for firm, moist fillets without any strong fishy or ammonia odors. I also like to make sure that my fish is sustainably sourced—check Seafood Watch and this post for more on that—and luckily, there are a lot of sanctioned sources for catfish.
If you don’t live where catfish is prevalent, it’s also a good idea to call ahead. If your fishmonger doesn’t have it, they can likely order it. And many larger grocery stores carry it frozen.
While you can cook catfish however you enjoy other fish fillets, like tilapia or sole, coating it with seasoned cornmeal and frying it is the classic way to go—and one of the most delicious. (And conversely, other types of thin white fish fillets would be a good substitute for catfish in this recipe, including flounder and thinner fillets of tilapia, pollock, and haddock.)
The first step is a brief soak in buttermilk. Sometimes catfish can have a “muddy” taste, presumably because it’s a bottom-dwelling fish, and buttermilk can help eliminate that. Milk can work too, but I like the slight tang that buttermilk adds.
Next is to dredge the fillets in a cornmeal mixture. The recipe below includes flour and is seasoned with salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne. You can substitute other seasonings or seasoning blends, like Old Bay, but be sure to check if your blend includes salt and, if so, adjust accordingly.
Finally, the coated fish is shallow-fried in neutral-flavored oil. Shallow frying means that the food isn’t wholly submerged in fat, like it would be for deep frying. But neither is it sauteed with just a thin layer of fat between the food and the pan. Basically, it’s enough fat to get one side and most of the edges of the fish submerged and, therefore, crispy—but not so much that the fish doesn’t need to be flipped.
By “neutral-flavored oil” I mean oil that doesn’t have a flavor. In other words, something like corn, sunflower, or safflower oil versus something like olive oil. That way, the simple, clean flavors of the fish and seasoned coating shine through.
Did You Know? Here’s a tip for checking if your oil is 350°F without a thermometer. Stick the end of a wooden spoon in it. If the oil bubbles around the wood slowly and lazily, the oil is probably 300-325°F. When it bubbles quickly and furiously, it’s probably 375-400°F. If it bubbles relatively soon but not furiously, it’s juuuuust right.
What To Serve With Fried Catfish
Serve Fried Catfish with a little tartar sauce and a few lemon wedges. Coleslaw, fries, or hushpuppies make great side dishes. Add a crisp, cold beer and, like me, you’ll wonder why you don’t enjoy this delicious fish more often.Print
- 1 and ½ to 2 lb. catfish fillets, about ½-in. thick
- 1 and ½ cups buttermilk
- ¾ cup cornmeal (not coarsely ground or polenta)
- ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 and ½ tsp. salt
- 1 and ½ tsp. pepper, ideally white pepper
- ½ tsp. garlic powder
- ½ tsp. onion powder
- ½ tsp. cayenne powder
- ½ tsp. paprika
- About 3 cups neutral-flavored cooking oil for frying (see note)
- In a large skillet, add enough oil to reach a ½-inch depth. Heat over medium heat to 350°F degrees.
- While the oil is heating, put a baking sheet with a wire rack (if you have one) in the oven and preheat the oven to 200°F.
- Put the fish in a shallow bowl or dish in an even layer and add the buttermilk. Set aside.
- In another shallow bowl or dish, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, and paprika. Set aside.
- When the oil is hot, one at a time, remove two fillets from the buttermilk, shaking off any excess, and dredge both sides in the cornmeal mixture, shaking off any excess.
- Cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side.
- Transfer the cooked fish to the baking sheet in the oven and repeat with the remaining fillets.
Note: Neutral-flavored oils include corn, sunflower, safflower, canola, and grapeseed.