Let’s face it, fried fish is delicious. You know it. I know it. Maybe that’s why nine times out of 10, my family’s catch goes straight into a bath of oil before it hits the dinner table. It’s a classic for a reason. But it’s also easy to put on blinders when you get into the kitchen, continuing to do things because that’s the way it’s always been done. Frying is no exception.
For some reason, freshwater fish, particularly warmwater fish like catfish, panfish, and bass, tend to get this treatment more than most. It’s generally “fry or die,” leaving all sorts of other options off the table. I think this occurs for a few different reasons. First, there’s a misconception that the aforementioned species are only fit for frying, that they’re “fishy” or may taste a little “off.” Or, second, that any other dishes are difficult.
As you’ll see, in most cases both of these reasons are off base. In fact, I’ve pled my case for blue catfish before because I think they’re so underrated. The same is true for panfish, walleye, pike, and—blasphemy in Texas—the largemouth bass. They’re all versatile, firm, and unexplored in so many ways. As for the difficulty, the recipes I’ll highlight below are proof that, if anything, deep-frying fish may be the most difficult method on this list.
By thinking beyond the fryer and trying out some alternative methods, we can not only vary our dishes in the kitchen, but also explore the versatility of these quality meats. So, with that in mind, here are six ways you can branch out with your next fish dinner.
Try a Gentle Braise As MeatEater’s own Danielle Prewett mentions in this recipe, braising fish is a great option because it’s really hard to mess up. It’s simple because you’re just adding fish to a gentle heating method in some sort of warm liquid for a few minutes. Don’t overdo it and you’re in for a treat. And, if you’re eating a fish that may have a stronger flavor, like some catfish species or certain pike, you can season your dish to your heart’s content to hide any off flavors.
Pan-Seared Perfection In my opinion, this should be your first option, especially if you’re trying a species for the first time. I grew up in the “fry only” tradition and assumed that meant you just couldn’t eat catfish any other way. But was amazed the first time I pan-seared blue catfish in butter. It was delicious. I felt like my whole childhood was a lie. OK, maybe a bit dramatic, but this tried-and-true method is a great way to introduce yourself to a species’ flavor. Give your crappie, bluegill, bass, or walleye some light spices, maybe even just salt and pepper, add to a sheen of butter in the skillet and see what happens. You may be amazed by the results.
Throw it on the Grill Second in the “so simple it’s genius” camp is a grilled fish, preferable grilled whole. Now, this may seem crazy once you step out of saltwater, but it can be done and with surprising results. Descale your catch, cut some slits along each side, and throw on a hot grill for a few minutes. In my opinion, this “in your face” method is a great way to dive headfirst into fish cuisine. You’re not hiding anything with a fish laying on your plate, fins and all. Here’s a great recipefrom Danielle Prewett involving speckled trout, but this can be done with just about any catch from panfish and bass to walleye and even catfish. Just be sure to oil your grate, keep your catch dry, and don’t overdo it.
Mix it up with Dips and Cakes For this year’s Super Bowl, to mix things up and ease the pain of “America’s Team” missing out on the big game for nearly three decades, I tried out Jesse Griffith’s smoked fish dip recipe with a recent creel of blue catfish. It was a great reminder that just because a dish needs to appeal to the Sunday football crowd, doesn’t mean it has to involve chicken or chips. Smoking fish is simple and turns it into the perfect meat for mixing with creamy ingredients for dips. Smoked trout dip or fritters are two favorites of the MeatEater crew living up in the mountains. Or, take Lukas Leaf’s advice and simply sauté your fish in chunks for use in his incredible fish cakes recipe.
Take and Bake One segment of the freshwater angling cadre who aren’t beholden to the deep fryer are salmon fishermen. This fine-fleshed fish doesn’t hold together with the skin off and thus often doesn’t get fried (although it does work). A large percentage of sockeye and Chinook simply go in the oven with a little butter, lemon, salt, and dill on top—or a wide variety of other coatings. That works just as well with warmwater fish. Just check out this baked catfish parmesan recipe from MeatEater contributor Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley.
Whole Fried and Fantastic Lastly, we’ve got a bit of a curveball. I know this article isn’t supposed to involve frying, but I’m making a special exception in this case. While most fried fish simply involves a fillet, some batter, and a deep fryer, applying the same treatment to an entire fish can make for an entirely different experience. Jesse Griffiths has a great example of the preparation here, and the result is a crispy and flavorful dish that uses pretty much the entire fish. You can dip your toes into the art of eating fins—a worthy and crispy endeavor. This is a great preparation for most small fish, including bluegill, crappie, and smaller bass.
More than any specific preparation, I want all of us anglers to start thinking differently about our catch. The saltwater folks seem to have it all figured out, using their daily limit in imaginative and tasty ways, but the freshwater crowd is a bit behind. We’re stuck in our fryer ways and don’t seem to have enough respect for our meat to test out something new and adventurous. So, next time you hook that smallmouth, try passing up a gallon of peanut oil and dip your toes in the wild side.