Is there anything more fun than a big Fish-Fry? The crunchy outer crust, coupled with the tender flakiness of the inside, is a taste sensation that it hard to beat. Whether you fry your own fresh-caught fish, or bring them home from the market, fried fish is always a treat.
There are all kinds of deep-fryers for fish on the market. You might think that they all do the same thing…just get oil hot enough to fry in. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Some deep-fryers are better-suited to particular tasks. Some are too small to be useful, as far as frying fish is concerned. Some are lacking important safety features. In addition, there are other factors that greatly affect the finished product, such as type of batter or coating, temperature, time, type of oil used, etc…. And, of course, the quality of the fish you are starting with. We’’ll go into each of these factors, and try to help you find the best fish fryer for your next Fish-Fry.
What Is Deep-Frying?
Believe it or not, there is a considerable difference in the finished product when deep-fried, as opposed to just frying, also known as, “pan-frying”. Deep-frying means the food is completely immersed in hot frying oil or fat, There is no need to turn the food as a rule, because it is floating in the oil, and in theory, is cooking on all sides simultaneously. Of course, most of us know that when the food floats in the oil, it is often necessary to flip it over a few times so it will brown evenly.
Deep-frying works by dehydrating the outer surface of the food, in what is known as a Maillard Reaction, causing a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars in the food. For all the chemistry and physics buffs out there, it looks like this:
What this means in the real world is that your food will have a wonderful crunchy exterior, and a tender succulent interior.
Lately, there has been a lot of self-styled, “Health Gurus” that have raised questions about the safety of eating deep-fried foods. But if you listen to most of them, just breathing air is dangerous. The truth of the matter is that, when properly done, deep-fried foods are no more dangerous than any other food with similar calories, and nutritional make-up. In some extreme cases, there is very slight circumstantial evidence that the Maillard Reaction can form infinitesimal amounts of acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen. This is from an obscure study cited by the Swedish National Food Administration in 2002, and the results were contentious, at best, and highly controversial. To state it in real-world terms, no one has ever been diagnosed with cancer as a direct result of eating deep-fried foods. Calories, on the other hand…well, that’s the consumers dilemma. Again, deep-fried foods are no less nutritious, or have more calories than any other comparable foods prepared in oils or fats.
The secret is that the oil has to be hot enough to immediately dehydrate the outer layers, blocking the absorption of more oils. The exact temperature depends on the smoke-point of the oil you use, but it is usually 350º F or higher.
How To Deep Fry Fish
There are 4 main considerations to deal with when deep frying fish:
- The item to be fried
- Type of oil used
Deep-frying works best for thinner items like chicken breasts, chicken parts, fish, sliced pork, sliced veggies, whole peppers, etc… Larger items like whole turkeys and chickens can be deep-fried, but will require some special preparation beforehand. Very thick items should be split, or sliced. Anything much thicker than a chicken breast should be split.
The type of oil you use is somewhat important. You need very high temperatures, and a lot of cooking oils are not up to the task. Every oil has a smoke-point, which is the temperature at which it begins to smoke, and break down. When oil breaks down chemically, it is no longer suitable for cooking, and can ruin your food. Some oils, like sunflower, safflower, and olive oil, have a very low smoke-point, as low as 225º F, making them unsuitable for deep-frying. Suitable oils include peanut and cottonseed oils, canola oil and lard, all of which have smoke points of over 400º F.
To deep-fry properly, your oil needs to be as hot as it can be before it begins to smoke. This is usually over 350º F, and the hotter the better, under most circumstances. The exception is for very thick items, over 2” thick. For these, you can either reduce the temperature slightly to give the inside more time to cook, or even better, simply pre-cook the item before you deep-fry it.
Deep-fried foods cook very quickly, so the thinner the piece, the quicker it will cook. As a rule, when the item floats, it is done. However, just to be sure, it is always a good idea to let the item continue to fry for a few minutes after it begins to float, especially if it was frozen. You never want to over-fry food, as it will become tough, and burned. No one wants their prized catch turned into Crispy-Critters….
In the case of fish, how you handle the fish before you cook it is of the upmost importance. Fillets work best for frying, and the skin should always be removed. Deep-frying can make the skin tough and bitter, and the skin is not needed to hold the fish together during cooking. If you do it right, the coating will hold the fish together by itself. Fish and seafood should always be kept very cold right up until the time it is coated and immediately lowered into the cooking oil. Fish can be pre-coated and frozen, then just dropped into the fryer when ready.
While not always necessary, most items to be deep-fried are coated with a spiced flour or cornmeal mixture, or a semi-liquid batter. This gives the food a wonderful crunchy outside, and a beautiful golden-brown color. Some things may not allow the batter of mix to stick to it, so you will have to add an egg wash, or similar step so the coating will stay on during frying.
If you use common-sense safety procedures, you should have little trouble using any deep fryer. Never introduce water into the hot oil, as it will cause spitting and overflow. Never over-fill the tank, or it will overflow with hot oil. Always use the lid while cooking. Use oven mitts when handling things around the fryer, and never try to clean or drain the fryer until it is completely cool. Unplug the fryer anytime you are not actually about to cook something.
Do you need a special deep-fryer? The simple answer is no, but they are nice to have. It is very do-able to have great deep-fried fish using nothing but a large wok, Dutch-oven, or cast-iron pot. But a deep fryer is so much easier to use, safer, and does a better job, in addition to not being very expensive for what it is, that it is almost ludicrous not to have one if you plan on frying at all.
The Best Fish Fryers: A Chef’s Favorite
Deep-fryers are such a simple appliance that it is not even worth doing a diagram of one. They consist of a tank which holds both the food and the oil, and heating element at the bottom of the tank to heat the oil, and a thermostat to control the temperature. Most have a lid to protect against spattering oil. Most will have a basket to lower and remove food from the tank. That’s really all there is to them. The main differences between different models are the size, power, and how many bells and whistles they have on them. They range in price from around $20.00 to over $1000.00. My favorite is my Presto extra-large multi-pot, which works as a deep-fryer, slow cooker, and cooking pot. It is basically just an electric cooking pot with a thermostat, lid, and a basket. There are few parts to break or go bad. It is large enough to fry several pounds of food at a time, and is easy to clean. I’ve had mine for around 30 years now, it still performs like new, and I fry a lot… I bought it brand new at Walmart in the 1980s for around $18.00.
Some of the bells and whistles you may come across are digital electronics that control temperature, cooking times, and auto shut-offs. Some larger units may have a drain spigot to make draining the oil easier. Some have dual tanks, so you can fry several different things that may have different frying times, at the same time, such as french fries and fish. You can set each tank at a different temperature, or time. Some are free-standing, and some are counter-top models. Is one any better than the other?… I would say no. It just depends on what you want. Bells and whistles are nice, but remember, the more things something has on it, the more that can go wrong
That’s all there is to deep-frying fish. I have written a review of a deep fryer that I think represents a good value, just to help you get started right.
As always, Bon petit…
Masterbuilt 20010610 Indoor Electric Fish Fryer Review
- temperature control, to 375º F.
- 1650 watts
- Break-away magnetic power cord
- Thermostat, temperature control, and a digital timer
- Folding lid, built-in viewing window, and grease filter
- Extra large basket, detachable handle, and a 1-gallon oil capacity
- Size: 17.3” x 14.8” x 10”
- Weight: 12.1 lbs.
I acquired one of these from a local Ace Hardware store to test out. They let me have one of the older units they were going to pull to make room for new ones, on the condition that I would give them a plug in the article. The fryer was around 2 years old. The only difference between this one, and the newer ones is the box graphics. Consider them plugged. Seriously, I have done business with them for several decades, and all of their employees have always been knowledgeable and very helpful. They have worked with me on several local fund-raisers and charity events. They are the kind of company that makes communities great.
The unit was well-packed, and I was very happy to find that the only required assembly was the basket handle. It seemed to be very well made, with no sloppy tool marks or seams that I could find. It felt solid. Another great surprise…the manual was in English, and was easy to understand. I only found one mistake in it, which was that the manual says that the timer will ‘beep’ at the end of its cycle, which is incorrect. There is no ‘beep’, and the factory said it was a misprint, already corrected in the new models. One other improvement in the manual I might suggest would be to tell people that when you unplug the unit, the timer will still keep going if there is time left on it. It is powered separately by a watch battery.
Setting up the unit was as easy as plugging it in, filling it with cottonseed oil, and setting the temperature. I measured the oil with a measuring cup, and filling it to the fill line was exactly 1 gallon of oil…perfect. I set it to the maximum of 375ºF, which is plenty for almost any deep-frying. It heated up in just 16 minutes, and I checked the temperature with my cooking thermometer. It was actually slightly hotter than the setting, at 382ºF. Great!
I fried 10 lbs of rainbow trout, several catfish, and some carp fillets. Each piece came out textbook perfect. I also did a few pounds of french fries and some onion rings. All my Guinea Pigs (uh…guests….test subjects…whatever….) said that everything was perfect. As the ultimate test, the next morning I made Scotch Eggs and Sopapillas, difficult items to fry properly…and everything was fantastic.
Clean up of the unit was easy, with minimal disassembly required. It fit neatly on a kitchen shelf, awaiting its next call to duty.
I would not hesitate to recommend this unit to any consumer, with no reservations. Considering the price, this unit represents a great value, by anyones standards: my fish fryer of choice.
History of Deep Frying
The actual origins of frying are hidden in archeology, but it’s a good bet that it was discovered very soon after the advent of cooking pots and skillets, maybe a turtle shell, or a scooped out rock, etc…. Early humans probably noticed that the fats from meat heated in the pan and created a wonderful crunchy outside. We do know for a fact, from hieroglyphics, that ancient Egyptians were deep-frying food as early as 5000 BCE.
The ancient Greeks were also fond of fried foods, especially seafood. Around the 1st century, the Romans listed deep-frying in one of the earliest cookbooks known, the Apicus. Fried foods became popular all through the Middle Ages. Funnel cakes were common by the 13th century, By the 18th and 19th centuries, deep-frying had come into its own with the advent of French Fries, Onion Rings, Fried Chicken, culminating in the creation of one of the greatest fried foods ever…the Corn Dog, introduced at the Texas State Fair in 1938 by Carl and Neil Fletcher.
It is interesting to note that although the technique of deep-frying has been around for a few thousand years, the actual term, “deep-fry” did not come into common use until after 1916. An internet search for the invention of deep fryers credits Australian race car driver James Joyce in the 1970s, but this is clearly incorrect. How do I know this? Because I was working in the early 1960s at McDonalds, and we had a deep fryer for french fries. McDonalds has had deep-fryers for french fries since 1949. Maybe Joyce just came up with the first consumer models, like the Fry Daddy, etc…, but he certainly did not invent the first deep fryer. The first specialty appliances for deep frying were patented in the 1920s. It seems that several people invented them simultaneously, most likely due to the spread of electricity to most parts of the civilized world.
Modern deep-fryers come with all kinds of bells and whistles, and no matter how often you fry, or what you fry, chances are, there is a perfect model for you somewhere.