Secrets to the perfect battered fish
It’s the Eldorado of the modern Australian kitchen, the perfectly crisp, light fried fish.
Golden on the outside, tender and juicy in the middle. Crisp light batter is something customers expect and a skill chefs can spend a lifetime mastering. There are many different techniques and methods that chefs swear by. Before we explore them there are some fundamentals, we should have a quick look at.
The objective of any batter is to be a coating that hardens as it fries to form an insulating layer so the fish doesn’t get too hot, instead steaming in its liquid. The batter should complement the flavour of the fish but not overwhelm it. So, use good quality flour and scant seasonings other than salt. If you’re using beer to make a beer batter, use a light lager style beer, but not light beer.
Keep it cold and quick
One of the biggest traps for beginners is overworking the batter. Whenever you add water to flour the proteins combine to form gluten. Gluten is the stringy, elastic protein that gives bread dough its structure. As you know, when you apply heat to bread dough, it turns hard and chewy. The same with batter. If you mix the flour and water in the water too hard or too long gluten strands will form and you’ll have tough batter. Use a light touch and don’t worry about a few lumps.
Your batter needs to be cold. The colder the better. The crispiest crust on your fish happens when ice cold batter hits bubbling hot fat. Keep the batter in the fridge. You will find some chefs who cook a lot of fish during service, keep their batter cool in a stainless bowl sitting in a slightly larger one full of ice.
The fish needs to be a fillet of a size that will cook in under the 5 minutes it takes for the batter to become golden at 180-190°C. So the fish can’t be too thick otherwise the centre won’t be cooked through. The length of the fillet should be able fit onto the plate, so it does not overhang. Fish needs to be dusted in season plain flour before dipping in batter.
Now, some chefs swear by raising agents such as baking powder or self-raising flour. Rick Stein, famous for his seafood restaurants in Cornwall, UK and South Coast NSW uses 3 ½ teaspoons of baking powder to every 240g of plain flour, 1 teaspoon salt and 270g iced water. Some chefs add a teaspoon of active dried yeast to 500g of plain flour and 550ml of tepid water and a teaspoon of salt. It is left at room temperature for several hours to allow the yeast to multiply and bubble away. The resulting batter is riddled with CO2 bubbles that expand when the batter is fried.
Some chefs swear by using equal parts self-raising flour and water with a little salt. The raising agent in self raising flour is activated by heat, releasing gas that expands in the batter creating lots of tiny holes.
Beer in batter?
Then there are the beer batter crusaders. Sydney icon Neil Perry is a big fan of beer batter. His method is to pour a stubby of chilled beer into a bowl and add enough plain flour to make a batter the consistency of pouring cream. He uses the Japanese tempura technique of using chopsticks to mix the batter. He lets the batter stand in the freezer for 10 minutes then adds a handful of ice cubes to chill down the batter. A trend in batter making is the use of vodka. The idea is that the alcohol in the vodka evaporates leaving a very crisp, dry batter. The recipe goes one part self-raising flour, ½ part chilled water and ½ part vodka plus salt for seasoning plus a little honey to take off the slightly bitter edge.
British cooking expert and lover of fried fish, Felicity Cloake, suggests using 440g of plain flour and freezing it before making it into a batter. She also uses 3 teaspoons of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of salt and 550ml of ice cold beer. This makes a thin batter that is very crunchy and light. It is important to note that when using beer or soda water that the bubbles don’t linger forever in the batter and should be made close to when the fish is going to be fried. Soda water can be used instead of beer but the beer adds a light zingy hop note. Some chefs offer Champagne batter but the price of the fish reflects the cost of the bubbly!
Season it, quick!
Finally, don’t forget the salt! Season the fish straight out of the fryer. Salt sticks best to hot crisp batter. Cornish Sea Salt Flakes are perfect. Serve with wedges of lemon and a good tartare sauce.
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