One of the foundations of southern comfort food is the classic recipe for Fried Catfish and Cheese Grits. You’ll find these tender, crispy, and golden brown fried fish fillets at the center of any southern fish fry.
There’s something about Fried Catfish with Cheese Grits that brings back an amazingly nostalgic feeling for me. Some of my fondest young memories involve cornmeal coated fried catfish fillets cooked by friends and family.
Some of the most fun get-togethers we had while growing up in south Georgia involved friends and neighbors getting together for a good old-fashioned fish fry. Most fish fries back in those days were impromptu events prompted by a lucky fisherman having a good day on the water.
A Good Old Southern Fish Fry
Now, if you weren’t the fishing type or you just had a craving for some fish in between one of those occasions, you could always make a trip to one of the local fish camps. A “fish camp” is a locally owned restaurant where loads of delicious fish, with accompanying side dishes, are cooked and served.
I remember Mama and Daddy loading up me and my sisters in the station wagon and heading for Pace’s Fish Camp. Pace’s, like every other fish camp around there, was not a fancy eating establishment. In fact, it was the complete opposite of fancy.
As I recall it from the early ’70s, there were probably six tables each with six straight-backed wooden chairs around them – the kind that made that screeching noise when you pulled them across the concrete floor…you know what I mean. No tablecloths, of course, and a roll of paper towels on each table. Like I said, not fancy.
But they served the BEST fried catfish south of Macon. It’s been at least 50 years since I’ve eaten there with my family and I still remember it like it was last night!
No Fish Camp Nearby? Make Your Own!
A while ago I decided it was high time for some home fried catfish. I sometimes order it at a local seafood place, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked any myself.
And, since no one in our house is a fisherman, I just trusted my local grocery store to provide the fillets. Even though it had been years since I cooked fried catfish myself, I found that I hadn’t forgotten how :-)
About the Ingredients
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- Catfish Fillets (If you don’t have access to fresh catfish, frozen is fine! Just remember to allow time to thaw – either overnight in the fridge or under slowly running cold water in a colander.)
- Milk or Buttermilk (Use either to soak the catfish before dredging and frying. Catfish are bottom feeders which can cause them to have a somewhat “muddy” taste. A little soak will remove that.)
- Fine White Cornmeal (Unlike many fried foods where flour is used for the coating, catfish are breaded with finely ground cornmeal. If you can’t source this product, you could try combining medium cornmeal and flour. You’ll need plain cornmeal, not cornmeal mix or cornbread mix for this recipe.)
- Salt (of course)
- Oil (You’ll need a high-temperature oil for frying. I always recommend peanut oil for deep frying. You can also use grapeseed or canola.)
It was really difficult for me to write measurements for this recipe since I’d never measured any of the ingredients. Like many home cooks, I just do what “looks right.” So use the measures as a guideline and add more or take away some if you think you should.
You’ll find detailed measurements for all ingredients in the printable version of the recipe at the bottom of this post.
How to Fry Catfish
Prepare the Fish
- Rinse the catfish fillets under cold water and place them in a shallow baking dish or pan. Add enough milk to cover the fillets.
- Cover the dish and refrigerate for approximately one hour. Remove the fillets from the refrigerator about 10 minutes before you’re ready to cook.
- Place a large cast iron frying pan over high heat and pour in the oil to a depth of approximately 1 1/4 inches. Allow the oil to come to frying temperature (350 degrees F) while preparing the fish.
TIP: You can use a thermometer to test the oil or do it the old-fashioned way and sprinkle in a little of the cornmeal. If it sizzles on contact with the oil, it’s ready to cook.
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Dredge the Fillets in Seasoned Cornmeal
- Combine the cornmeal and salt in a shallow pan.
- Remove the fillets from the milk letting most of the excess drip off. Place one fillet at a time into the cornmeal, gently turning the fillet several times until it’s coated well. Discard the used milk. Prepare all the fillets before you begin frying.
Fry Until Golden Brown
- Carefully lower the catfish fillets, one at a time, into the hot oil. Cook until golden brown (about 3-4 minutes) on the first side. Turn and cook on the second side until nicely browned as well. Return the fillets to the first side to cook for an additional minute or so if needed to fully develop a beautiful golden color.
- As you finish cooking each batch, remove them to a baking pan lined with paper towels and keep them warm in a 200 degree oven while you finish cooking.
Tips for Deep Frying
- Don’t crowd the pan. Instead, fry in several batches if necessary.
- After you lower a fillet into the hot oil, leave it alone. Do not fiddle with it at all for at least 3 minutes. Then gently turn it over to cook the second side.
- Choose an oil that can withstand high temperatures. Peanut oil is my preference for both heat tolerance and taste. Other choices are grapeseed, sunflower, and canola oil.
- I often do my frying outdoors on the side burner of a gas grill. It eliminates the lingering greasy smell in the house and any splashes and pops are much easier to clean up.
- Cooking oil can be reused a few times. After the oil has completely cooled, strain it into a container and store it in a cool, dark place.
- Don’t discard oil down your sink. Pour it into a container or soak it up with paper towels and dispose of it with your household trash.
- It should go without saying, but — safety first! Never, for any reason, leave frying food unattended. Wear an apron and closed toe shoes.
- If you should ever experience a grease fire, do not throw water on it. Turn off the heat immediately. Then cover the pan with a lid to smother the fire or pour liberally pour baking soda on it if you can do so without injuring yourself.
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Frying Fish Outdoors
Most fish fries in the south are actually held outdoors. It’s so much easier and faster when cooking for a crowd. If you’d like to take your fish fry to the backyard, you’ll want a propane gas fish fryer like the one I’ve linked below. Remember you’ll need more oil when using an outdoor fryer.
- Spice up your fish fry by adding a 1/2 teaspoon of ground cayenne pepper to the cornmeal.
- Season the cornmeal with a seafood seasoning such as Old Bay.
- Make your fried fish into a sandwich! Slather a hoagie roll with some tartar sauce or comeback sauce, and add a fillet with finely shredded lettuce.
- Cut the fish into nugget-sized pieces and create bite-sized treats.
What Goes with Fish and Grits?
For a traditional fish fry menu, serve your golden brown and crispy fried catfish with cheese grits, coleslaw, french fries, hush puppies, and in some areas swamp gravy. Don’t forget the traditional accompaniments of onion, lemon slices, and pickles – both sweet and dill – and, of course, sweet tea to drink!
Add speaking of cheese grits…no southern fish fry would be complete without a pot full of creamy cheese grits. And, wouldn’t you know it, I just happen to have that recipe for you. Visit my original post on Cheese Grits for that recipe.
How to Store
It will keep for several hours in a very low oven or at room temperature. And even though it’s best served fresh and piping hot, it can be stored for 2 or 3 days in the refrigerator. Reheat on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes.
Questions About Fried Catfish
If you can’t find catfish, you can still have a southern fish fry! Tilapia, cod, and halibut are suitable alternatives.
I always use peanut oil for frying fish. Peanut oil has a higher smoking point than other oils and doesn’t break down nearly as quickly. If you just can’t get peanut oil, you can use safflower, canola, corn, cottonseed, or sunflower oil.
Wild caught catfish have a “muddy” flavor that some people find objectionable. Soaking in buttermilk helps remove that taste. Farm raised catfish tend to have a milder flavor and can be soaked in regular milk.
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Fried Catfish with Cheese Grits
- 2 pounds catfish fillets
- 2 cups milk
- 3 cups finely ground white cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Peanut oil
- Rinse catfish fillets under cold water and place in a shallow baking dish or pan. Add milk to cover fillets. Cover the dish and refrigerate for approximately one hour.
- Remove the fillets from the refrigerator about 10 minutes before ready to cook.
- Place a large cast iron frying pan over high heat and pour in peanut oil to a depth of approximately 1 inch. Allow oil to come to frying temperature while preparing the fish.
- Combine the cornmeal and salt in a shallow pan.
- Remove fillets from milk letting most of the excess drip off.
- Place one fillet at a time into the cornmeal and turn it several times to coat well. Prepare all the fillets before you begin frying.
- Carefully lower the fillets, one at a time, into the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan frying in several batches if necessary. Turn the fillets when golden brown on one side. Cook on the second side until nicely browned as well. Return the fillets to the first side to cook for an additional minute or two if needed to fully develop a golden brown color.
- When done, remove from the oil and keep warm in a 200 degree oven.
Nutrition information is calculated by software based on the ingredients in each recipe. It is an estimate only and is provided for informational purposes. You should consult your health care provider or a registered dietitian if precise nutrition calculations are needed for health reasons.
— This post was originally published on September 28, 2010. It has been updated with new photos and additional information.