Fried Catfish

Fried Catfish

In secondi piatti by Frank Fariello8 Comments

While Italian or other European dishes appear on our table most days, once in a while I do like to cook a dish from the New World, too. American food has a less than stellar reputation abroad. For many Europeans, it usually brings to mind junk food, fast food and just plain bad food. The stereotype is not totally unjustified—like many stereotypes there is some truth behind the caricature—but what most non-Americans and even a lot of Americans don’t realize is that the US does have its own repertoire of wholesome, authentic traditional dishes. And not all of them are heavy, either, like this simple but tasty Southern dish: fried catfish.

In this recipe, catfish fillets are simply dredged in seasoned cornmeal and fried in vegetable oil. Since catfish, a bottom-feeder, can have a slightly gritty flavor, it benefits from pre-soaking in buttermilk (or just plain milk) before frying.

Ingredients (for 4 servings)

4 catfish fillets
Buttermilk (or milk) to cover the fillets
Cornmeal for dredging
Salt and pepper
1-2 tablespoons of Old Bay seasoning (optional)
Vegetable oil
Lemon wedges (for garnish)


Place the catfish fillets in a wide bowl and cover with the buttermilk or milk. Let it soak for about an hour (although even 30 minutes will improve the flavor).

Remove the fillets from the milk and dredge them in the cornmeal. Pat them on both sides to make sure the cornmeal coating adheres well.

Fry the fillets in about an inch of moderately hot oil, about 5 minutes per side, until nice and golden brown. Serve hot with lemon wedges.

Lively but gentle bubbling is a good sign…

NOTES: As you can see, the recipe is simplicity itself. Like all frying, though, you do need to take care to regulate the temperature of the oil: too hot, and the coating will brown too quickly or even burn, not hot enough and your fish will turn out greasy. Your temperature is right when the oil bubbles in a lively but gentle fashion around the edges of the fillets.

The simplest recipes call for seasoning the cornmeal with just salt and pepper, but living as I do on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, of course I add a dash of Old Bay seasoning. Many southern recipes I’ve seen, on the other hand, call for Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, cayenne pepper, paprkia or Cajun seasoning. Some recipes will tell you to mix flour with the cornmeal and/or add some baking powder, which I assume will give you a ‘puffy’ crust—although I have yet to try it.

The frying medium, too, can vary. While most recipes call for vegetable oil of some type, you will see recipes that use butter or another kind of oil (even olive oil, which I assume is a modern adaption) or—and I tend to think this is the most traditional—bacon drippings. Many (perhaps most) recipes call for deep frying but I think shallow-frying works just as well.

I like simplicity, so for me this dish needs nothing more than some lemon wedges as garnish, but, of course, some people will want to use ‘tartar sauce’, a combination of mayonnaise, capers, and finely chopped pickles and shallots (or onions). As a side dish, to keep it simple, I find a rice pilaf goes very well, followed by a simply dressed green salad. More classic accompaniments include ‘hush puppies’, deep-fried cornmeal beignets, braised collard greens and—what else?—macaroni and cheese. Any of these will make for a much more substantial meal.

Frank FarielloFried Catfish


  1. italicious

    I ran into those same food stereotypes when I was living in Italy, I'm so happy that my Italian husband has now discovered lowcountry cuisine and loves it now that we are living in Charleston. Mmmmm fried catfish

  2. mangiabella

    I love the simplicity of it, the lemon wedges would be just fine for me as well. I bet a potato au gratin would be lovely with this as well. Here in New Mexico, the cuisine is like nothing I have ever tasted. Very different from “mexican” food, new mexican food has it's own finesse and the combination of red and green chiles made into sauces just puts me in a groove of emotion I can hardly contain. This friday I am going to post my version of a knish, but with new mexican fusion :) tonight I am eating some green chile chicken linguine alredo…so creamy and delicious! have a glorious week!

  3. Frank

    Thanks, folks, for all your great comments!

    @Drick, well you know, I am from *southern* (Italian) heritage, lol!

    @Nicole: Yes, indeed, it is fascinating to see all the parallels among different cuisines of the world, isn't it? Even among cuisines that superficially seem totally different.

    @Emily: Great minds think alike, I guess… or is it karma?

    @Toby: Glad I could bring back some good memories for you! That's what this blog is all about. :)

    @Joanne: You could certainly soak flounder, but it is so usually so mild in flavor I'm not sure it would make much of a difference–but if you try it, do let us know how it turns out!

  4. Joanne

    Ok – now I'm a vegetarian (I do eat fish though), but I could make my husband totally swoon if I fried my fish dishes in bacon drippings. I never thought of that (prob. because I like to keep my fish meat free) but I bet that is so good.
    The suggestion of the soak in buttermilk is terrific. I wonder if that will work ok with flounder? I usually simply douse the fish with lemon juice.

  5. Toby

    Fried catfish always brings back childhood memories. There is no better fish for frying in my opinion!

  6. Nicole

    It looks fantastic! I am from Romania and we do fry fish in exactly the same way:couted in corn, roughly grounded( we dont have corn flour) and we eat it with something like polenta, but more thick, named mamaliga. We usualy add some sauce made with garlic, salt and water. It is so nice seeing how people from such a distance a part have the same solutions to the similar problems. We are more alike then we imagine it!

  7. Drick

    I knew there was a southern boy in there somewhere…. nothing better than a plate of crispy fried catfish and maybe a creamy coleslaw side…. you explain it well ….

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