For years I searched for the ideal fish and chips. Journeying 45 minutes away to a restaurant a friend of a friend swore by, or hanging out in a shop decorated with sticky vinyl chairs and soggy fries, I was on a mission. My hunt for the ideal fish and chips -- crispy on the outside, steaming hot and tender inside -- became increasingly elusive. Sure, I would occasionally stumble upon a place with decent and sometimes quite good platters of fish, but these were far and few between and hardly ever in the Bay Area. The sad truth is that there is more awful fish and chips out there than not.
Now I suppose I should explain that when I want fried fish I'm looking for the beer-battered variety. The type you would find in a first-rate British pub (although I've eaten bad fish and chips in the UK as well, so the problem isn't just here). I want my teeth to bite into a perfectly crunchy coating that gives way to a delicate flaky center. I want to taste the beer in the batter and I don't want my mouth to feel like an oil slick. Bread crumbs are not an option and curses on whoever tries to pawn off breaded fish with potatoes as fish and chips. Here is an example of the horrors that lie in wait.
So a few years ago -- after being served the soggiest bread-crumby fish I had ever encountered (and paying close to $15 for it) -- I decided to make my own fish and chips. I was happily surprised to find that making truly decent battered fish is both incredibly easy and straightforward. And, as is the case with all home cooking, you can control the results: want it really crispy, fry a little longer; interested in smaller pieces, cut them up; in the mood for a hearty batter, use dark beer.
Another benefit to making your own fish and chips is that you can easily batter and fry up some lemon slices to go with it. These are a heavenly way to garnish the dish and after trying them at your own fish fry, you'll never want to eat fish and chips without them again.
If you are lucky enough to live near a restaurant with wonderful fish and chips, I am happy for you. But if you're like me and you don't, I am here to tell you that you can make homemade fish and chips that will taste better than almost anything you can buy in a restaurant or pub, and cost a fraction of the price.
The recipe I use is tried and true. I've made it more times than I can count, and it has never failed me. Before you start, however, there are a few basic tenets to consider concerning frying the fish and also making and eating it.
Basic frying rules to get under your belt:
1. If you don't have a fryer (which includes most of us), use a non-reactive deep pan that can hold enough oil to submerge at least half the fish. I use my trusty large cast iron pan and it works great.
2. Use an oil with a high burn rate. I like to use canola oil. Don't use olive oil as it will scorch and flavor the fish.
3. Do not overheat your oil or it will burn the batter. I usually start the pan on medium high and slowly work my way down to medium and then medium low as the pan continues to heat the longer you fry.
4. Do not underheat your oil. Frying your fish in underheated oil leads to the batter sliding off the fish. Not a pretty sight. I'm not sure what the actual temperature of the oil should be, as I don't have a thermometer, but you can test the oil by placing a small teaspoon of batter in the oil. If it doesn't sink to the bottom of the pan and sizzles nicely, you should be good to go.
5. Use a fry screen if you have one as it will help reduce splatter and keep your stove from becoming a complete mess.
6. Be sure to gently lay the fish into the oil so you don't spatter it onto your hand (which really hurts!).
If you follow these rules, you should be in good frying shape.
General rules for making and eating fish and chips:
1. Dark beer gives the dish a more complex flavor while lighter beers are more subtle. Choose whichever you prefer.
2. Look for meaty white fish. Please don’'t use Atlantic cod as it's endangered and, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list, we're "fishing the last 10% of this population." Other great choices are Alaskan Pacific Cod and Pacific Halibut. I've also made it with catfish, which worked well.
3. Try to use fresh fish instead of thawed frozen, which tends to taste dry.
4. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel before seasoning and dipping in the batter.
5. Serve with malt vinegar, which perfectly accents the beer batter. If you don't have any, try fresh lemon juice.
6. Consider making your own tartar sauce by mixing good mayonnaise, chopped up sweet pickles, and a little horseradish.
As for the chips, I bake them. Yes... you heard me. I bake them. They come out crispy and seasoned perfectly. Best of all, my potatoes are not reduced to the sad fate of sogginess which often happens with home fried fries. Here's my recipe.
Homemade Beer Battered Fish
Serves: 4 people
6 - 8 medium-sized pieces of white fish
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup beer
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Enough oil to fill half a large non-reactive pan (about 1 cup)
1. Pat fish dry and lay on a plate. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Heat oil in pan.
3. While oil is heating, mix flour, beer, salt, pepper and thyme in a large bowl. Whisk until everything is fully incorporated. The mixture should reach the consistency of pancake batter. Add more beer if necessary.
4. When oil is hot (test using method #4 in the frying rules section above), coat two pieces of fish in batter and then gently lie them in the oil. Be sure to fully coat the fish and be careful not to splash oil on yourself.
5. Cook fish until it is crispy and a rich brown color. Pick up each piece of fish with a fork and gently turn them over. Cook on the other side until done.
6. Drain fish on a plate lined with paper towels and fry the remaining fish pieces.
7. Serve hot with malt vinegar and battered lemon slices (recipe below).
Beer Battered Lemon Slices
Makes: 6 slices
1 lemon cut into 1/4-inch slices (not including the ends)
Leftover batter and oil from your beer battered fish
1. Remove seeds from lemon slices.
2. Coat slices with batter.
3. Lay lemon slices in the hot cooking oil and brown on each side.
4. Remove from pan and serve with fish.