Good Batter not Badder
By Daniel Kiazyk
Often you’ll read that an important part of modern sport fishing is the new catch and release ethic. Without a doubt this particular practice has become an increasingly important consideration for the preservation of resources that can sometimes be at risk or for that matter resources that are very rare. However to suggest that this particular ethic has a place of primary importance is to forget what really was at the root of fishing itself; The harvest. As controversial as the harvest has become of late there is little doubt amongst most fishers that a sustainable harvest may not only be desirable but at times a necessity. So many have suggested that the real challenge today is to reach some kind of balance between the two should the conditions warrant. Some organization have called it sustainable harvest other just see it as a part of our fishing heritage.
So it was in light of this larger context that I started to pick up a new skills set with regard to the harvest. In particular I had never really spent much time deep frying fish but had up until recently just fried up the catch. Deep frying had a bit of a culture to it that I ad not been exposed to, to any great extent. There had always been my experience of the fish and chips traditional “English” preparation of cod or other such salt water fish that was common fare in many restaurants throughout the country. I also had friends who wouldn’t prepare their catch in any other way. I did enjoy this particular type of preparation but had never had any inkling to prepare my fish in this manner.
OK I was a bit interested and had tried to prepare fish in this manner on a few occasions in a deep fried batter in a skillet that carried a bit more grease. The result was a fillet that was a bit greasy and a bit crunchy but not the soft supple textured batter that a good deep fry can produce. Controlling the temperature of the skillet was almost always a challenge, a particular component that would continue to challenge in my upcoming skill set development.
My introduction to deep frying fish was round-a-bout in nature. Initially the cooking hardware that I’m now using was obtained as a part of a turkey deep fryer. The stand burner and propane hose provided an excellent basis for the project that would be undertaken Secondly as a result of a late winter fishing trip with an acquaintance, I saw in operation a fish crisp pot and strainer and was impressed with the size and oil capacity of this particular unit. Finally I had an exposure to a variety of batter types through a variety of different “fish fries” and spices/batters.
Where did my experimentation with this type of fish preparation take me? Two primary events had to occur first to provide a basis for this approach to preparing fish. Firstly there was the moment when I was able to put together the equipment necessary to cook fish in this manner. The winter prior I had spent considerable resources trying to perfect hose lengths and tank sizes that would work with my ice hut heaters. This prior experience allowed me to have a better understanding of the heating capacity as well as the necessity to have an appropriately sized/configured heating stand. Secondly, and it is significant how this happens once in a while without much thought, there is a need that all your equipment fit together to form the basis for a safe cooking procedure. Boiling oil can be very dangerous. Having equipment that fits together well and works safely and efficiently is of first importance.
In the process of learning to deep fry I also got to see some of the fine points of this type of food preparation. Of course cooking the fish is what this was all about…but here we’re talking about preparing fish in a specific manner. Deep frying fish is not the only way to prepare fish by any means. Rather it is one way that requires of the cook a specific set of considerations in order for it to be a successful pursuit.
Where do you start? Well, a good oil is certainly a primary consideration. There are heavier and lighter oils. In my case I chose to use an oil that was lower in poly saturated fats and would provide a light taste. Different oils have different temperature ranges. Some oils cannot be heated up as much while others leave a particular taste. Of prime importance is finding an oil that suits your particular preferences. Don’t forget that all oil has a flash point, that is a particular temperature where it has vaporized and can ignite in an explosive manner.
Spices and the taste you’ll add to your batter or to the exterior of the batter are certainly a matter of taste. Having a good variety of them will certainly add to the pleasure of what is to be prepared. Perhaps most importantly of all is the need for fish that is appropriate for the type of cooking being undertaken. I prefer a lighter flakier type of fish. Pike perch walleye and sauger all make excellent candidates for a battered deep fried technique. Keep the seasoning and the batter to a minimum to allow for the unique taste of the fish to come through.
Also important to deep frying are a number of accoutrements and related deep frying components that make getting the job done that much easier. Firstly, stainless steel utensils are an important consideration when related to cooking in this manner. A couple of strainer spoons, a whisk, thermometer, a couple of bowls of medium size and a wooden spoon are what I’ve found to be essential for the cooking process. If you’re cooking on concrete a board be aware that there will be spatters and drops of grease when moving food from the oil to the serving platter. Kitty litter or some type of absorbing medium is a good idea to have around.. Newspapers and paper towels are also important for absorbing any extra grease that can be on the exterior of the battered fish. If you cook on the plain ground remember this approach as a tendency to leave a foot print that can remain a long time. Care for not leaving too much oil around will prevent environmental damage.
As for the actual preparation of the batter a few important considerations need be made. Tempura flour is required as it has a tendency to mix well and to remain flaky and fine textured when heated. “Fresh” baking powder is also an essential ingredient but is often overlooked. Too often the power of baking powder is lost if it sits after a first opening. In my opinion it is a good idea to replace your baking powder every season. In the case of a beer batter, I find that a room temperature can of beer produces the best result. Near beer (beer with .5% alcohol) are just as good as regular beer. Room temperature water will also work quite well. I believe a could liquid will inhibit the rising action of the baking powder. Finally, as a rule of thumb, spices are a matter of personal taste and their use need to be limited so as not to over power the subtle yet distinct taste that many of our fresh water species presents to the palette.
Preparing the fish for cooking can be an often under considered component of deep frying. We’ve found that “chunking” the fish into smaller pieces produces a more consistently cooked end product. Having pieces in the fryer that are of equal size and thickness takes a lot of the guess work out of whether the fish is cooked or not. Making sure all of the bones are removed before cooking is a necessity as there’s nothing worse than the uncomfortable feeling of having a fish bone caught in your throat. Once the fillets are removed from the fish it is also important that the chunks be washed and dried so that the batter to be applied will stick to the flesh.
The batter itself is what this whole approach is all about. Too much baking powder and you’ll end up with puffy, batter-bound fish that’ll probably be too greasy. Too thin a batter on fish that has not been properly dried will result in a fish that is just deep fried. To arrive at the proper batter consistency is the underlying secret to deep frying success. I’ll generally start with about a cup and a half of tempura flour and a two teaspoons of baking powder (spices to be used will vary according to the type of batter being prepared) and then water/beer until you get the appropriate thickness of batter. What’s appropriate? Well I go by the idea that the batter will drip of the fish for at least ten seconds.
Next step is the second most important link in the deep frying process the actual deep frying. Absolutely important (and its kind of interesting how there are absolutes when cooking) when deep-frying is managing the temperature of the oil throughout the cooking process. The actual temperature that you should keep your oil at during the cooking process is a key to success. 360-385 degrees seems to be a temperature range that most agree upon. Keeping an eye on the temperature as you are cooking means the difference between an oily or a crispy piece of fish. Be sure to lower the piece of fish slowly into the oil with a pair of tongs so that as it falls to the bottom it will not stick. As the fish starts to cook it may be necessary to lightly stir the fish so as to help it avoid sticking to the bottom of the pan. Finally you’ll know when the fish is done when there’s a lot less bubbles around the fish. These bubbles are an indication of the amount of moisture being released through the cooking process. Once again there is a fine line between fish being too dry/crispy (blackened) or not cooked…… just right is an art.
I’ve definitely learned a lot in the short time that I’ve been deep frying fish. It is easy to see why there’s an English tradition around fish and chips. When carefully spiced, and properly cooked in oil heated and maintained at the proper temperature the resultant fish can be very gratifying.