Crispy, golden brown fried catfish fillets served with a side of creamy cheese grits. The centerpiece of any southern fish fry.
There's just something about fried catfish with cheese grits that brings back an amazingly nostalgic feeling for me. Some of my fondest young memories involve cornmeal fried catfish filets served with creamy cheesy grits cooked by friends and family.
You might not think that growing up as I did in a tiny southern town would afford one many social gathering opportunities. Oh, how wrong you'd be! We used every possible opportunity to get together with family, friends, and neighbors.
We had teas and showers, club meetings of all kinds, even church services became a social get-together. And no social gathering was complete without food of some kind.
There were very specific foods for each type of occasion. Teas and showers called for little finger sandwiches, cheese straws, and petit fours. Club meetings might mean dips and chips with a selection of soft drinks.
But one of the most fun gatherings was a bunch of friends and neighbors getting together for a good old-fashioned fish fry. Most south Georgia fish fries back in my day were impromptu events prompted by a lucky fisherman having a good day on the water.
The catch in our area was typically either bream or catfish. After the day's catch was cleaned, the call would go out to friends that a fish fry was being prepared. You just can't beat Fried Catfish with Cheese Grits!
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 have that craving satisfied at one of the local fish camps. 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 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 yet I 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 fried catfish. I sometimes have some at a local seafood place when I go home to visit my Mama, but I couldn't remember the last time I'd cooked any myself. And, since neither BeeBop nor I are fishermen, 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 :-)
How to Make Fried Catfish with Cheese Grits
I always like to show you the photos and step-by-step instructions for my recipes to help you picture how to make them in your own kitchen. If you just want to print out a copy, you can skip to the bottom of the post where you'll find the recipe card.
It was really difficult for me to write measurements for this recipe since I've 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 need to.
Prepare the Catfish Fillets
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 peanut oil to a depth of approximately 1 ¼ inch. Allow the oil to come to frying temperature while preparing the fish.
Dredge the Fillets in Seasoned Cornmeal
Combine the cornmeal and salt in a shallow pan. Some cooks like to add a bit of cayenne with the cornmeal. If you like that sort of thing, then go for it!
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. Prepare all the fillets before you begin frying.
I often do my frying outdoors on the side burner of BeeBop's gas grill. It eliminates the lingering greasy fishy smell in the house and any splashes and pops are much easier to clean up.
Fry Until Golden Brown
Carefully lower the catfish fillets, one at a time, into the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan. Instead, fry 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 so if needed to fully develop a golden brown color.
Remove the cooked fillets to a baking pan lined with parchment paper and keep them warm in a 200-degree oven while you finish cooking.
For a traditional fish fry menu, serve your golden brown and crispy fried catfish with cheese grits, coleslaw, french fries, and hush puppies. And don't forget the traditional accompaniments of onion, lemon slices, and pickles - both sweet and dill.
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. It was one of the first recipes I ever posted here on the blog and it's still a good one! Visit my original post on Cheese Grits for that recipe.
This is one thing that I don't recommend storing. It will keep for several hours in a very low oven or at room temperature. But, like most fried foods, fried catfish is best eaten right away. Refrigeration or freezing will cause the crispy fried crust to turn mushy and unappetizing.
The traditional sides for a southern fish fry are French fries, coleslaw, hush puppies, and in some areas swamp gravy. And be sure to include the pickles, onions, and lemons I talked about in the post.
If you can't find catfish, you can still have yourself a southern fish fry! Tilapia, cod, and halibut are suitable alternatives.
I always use peanut oil for frying fish. Actually, I use peanut oil for any type of deep frying. Peanut oil has a higher smoking point that 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 has 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.
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.