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ISO: Perfect fish-frying batter

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When we recently opened a second restaurant, we knew that fish & chips would be a major part of our stock-in-trade. We're in a fishing area, for one thing, and the east-coast fish fry is a strong tradition here. Also, it's what the tourists expect (come summer).

My fiancee had a reliable beer batter she'd used for years on onion rings and (her personal choice for battered fish) smoked salmon. We thought we were good to go, until we tried it on haddock. The only adequate description of the result is...blecch. The batter didn't crisp up or colour properly, and was doughy on the inside.

We pounded our way through hundreds of recipes in books and on the 'net, and were unable to come up with something that satisfied us. The beer batters were all much of a sameness, involving roughly equal portions of beer and flour by volume, with various other additives more or less on the whim of the individual. None of them worked worth a hoot. I also looked at several non-beer batters, some of which came close but failed us in one way or another: either not colouring enough, being too doughy, not crisping, not staying crisp for more than a few seconds after cooking... you name it.

What I'm looking for is a thin batter that puffs nicely, colours to a nice golden-brown, and remains crisp for some minutes after the fish comes out of the fat. The ideal recipe would not involve an unreasonable number of steps or ingredients, nor be procedurally finicky, since this will be used in a production kitchen (in my case, anyway).

Ultimately, failing to find a suitable recipe in the limited time I had available, I went with a commercial product. Two, actually, since we found that a blend of the two was better than either of them in isolation. My personal gold standard is the fish and chips at the Saint John Alehouse, which is far and away the best I've had in years. I now have a nasty case of batter envy. I wonder how much hooch I'd have to pour into Chef Jesse to get his recipe?


"The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

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In Japan, "tara" (cod, relative of haddock) is not much used for tempura, presumably because the flesh is rather watery.

Not all of these ideas will suit your kitchen set-up, but here goes...

You could try adding some vinegar to a standard (non-beer) batter, which should improve both crispness and color.

You could substitute cornstarch for some of the flour in your batter, with or without egg...and add a very little sugar (or vinegar) to improve browning.

You could use eggwhite instead of whole egg in your batter - either gently beaten; or with flours blended in to whipped eggwhite.

You might even want to skip the batter, and try one of these two methods:

"Kara-age" style: marinade the haddock pieces in just a little of your preferred seeds, herbs, or other seasonings (including a little salt, soy sauce, or small amount of some other salty sauce that won't burn when fried) and lemon juice/wine/vinegar, then add a generous amount of cornstarch so that all pieces are well floured, drop straight into hot oil. That and the following method are used for chicken in Japan, as chiicken sheds moisture very easily. Works well for soft fish too.

Cracker coating: Dip in flour, pat off excess (unlike previous method), dip in loosely beaten eggwhite, dip in crushed crackers (however coarse or fine you like), fry.

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In addition to, or instead of, cornstarch, you could also try subbing some rice flour for some of the flour.

If you are willing to try a completely different direction, I'd go with panko. Stays crisp for a long time, and doesn't seem to get as greasy as batter. That might be heresy in your area, though.

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The traditional English batter is quite thin, and made with flour and water. It can be superb done with skill. A 'special self raising flour' is available from Chinese shops which does particularly well here.

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look up thomas kellers batter that he uses on salt cod cakes in the bouchon cookbook. its real easy and stays nice and crisp. cake flower,baking powder, corn starch salt and beer.

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Cod is closely related to haddock, but cooks differently. The flesh is firmer and has less moisture. Haddock is in some ways less than ideal, but it is the standard fish-and-chips fish in my area and is very cost-effective.

My stopgap solution of commercial batter is not a bad one, it's just unsatisfying to me intellectually. I have a perfectly acceptable product, but dammit I don't want to settle for "perfectly acceptable"!

The closest I've come was with thin flour-and-water batters that had varying degrees of chemical leavening. The best was with baking soda and lemon juice or vinegar, but getting the proportions just right was maddening (and was costing me a lot of fish).

I have no issue with breaded haddock, but to my mind it works best when pan-fried rather than deep-fried. Panko I wouldn't use because I'm in a very conservative area: I've had people send fish back on occasion because it wasn't cooked to dryness. For the same reason, Helen, I'd probably not use your kara-age suggestion. Not at this location, anyway.

Thank you all for your suggestions. I'll experiment with several of them, and report back. In the meantime, if anyone else has anything to offer, by all means let me know.


"The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

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I wondered how different the two fish were...please keep us updated on your experiments!

What about oyster fritters (battered oysters)? Since they are pretty wet, would the same treatment suit your haddock if you want a heavier batter? I think your thin batter is probably better eating with soft fish though.

Kara-age...despite the photos I see on the web, kara-age usually doesn't look much different from a battered fry - difference is really just that the fish/chicken flesh provides most of the moisture. Take a look at this Mebaru karaage. The dark coloring comes from the fish skin - the fish is black rockfish - and also from the use of soy sauce to marinade the fish. I use this technique with western seasoning.

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I work in the fish business.. i dunno why... but i have this product called Dogfish... it is in the shark family... and is relatively small... and so easy to fillet... its almost like sharpening a steel.

Anyways meat wise it is flaky just like cod, with a sweet flavor much like.... tile.... and is DELICIOUS!! and we sell it for just 3.95 Net fillet...

Wherein Haddock net fillet price... going by what we sell it for... is going to bring it up to approx 6.95.... :) u may want to try it...

Its called Fried fish :) not fried haddock :) so you can use any fish as long as it tastes good... its not just the batter people want to eat... its the FISH!!


**********************************************

I may be in the gutter, but I am still staring at the stars.

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I would suggest mixing the flour, egg yolk, beer, seasonings and then blending in egg whites whipped almost to a meringue.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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Dogfish is not readily available where I am, while haddock is cheap and plentiful. More to the point, it's what's expected by my clientele...therefore, it's what I give them. I generally pay around $5/lb CDN (plus or minus a bit), which is about $3.70 USD.

I've looked at several recipes that have the whipped egg whites (Jamie Oliver's, for instance) but I wish to avoid them because of the extra time involved. I do pretty much all things back-of-house myself, and after working 100hr weeks all summer at my other resto I'm not keen to do so all winter as well. Also, batters with the whipped egg whites won't hold their air very well over a four-hour lunchtime service. I could make smaller batches more often, but again that's taking time away from all the other things I need to be doing.

Not to be a sourpuss or unduly negative, you understand. I just have some sharp constraints to work within. If this was easy, I wouldn't have needed the collective wisdom of the mighty Gullet, right?

Have not had time to experiment today, but we'll see what the weekend brings.


"The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

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When I worked on a fish processor in Neah Bay, Wash., we used to haul in tons of dogfish as bycatch and I was told they were popular for fish and chips.

I'm really intrigued by the vodka/beer batter described in the Times article, and as we have access to local oysters, will be trying it soon.

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Well, I played around a bit on the weekend.

I made up three batters on the basic flour/water model: one consisting of just flour, water, and leavening; one with a percentage of cornstarch; and one with a percentage of rice flour. I also had separate bowls of flour and cornstarch for dredging, just in case that was a factor.

I started out with baking soda and vinegar as the leavening, because in my previous experiments I'd found that this combination (or soda and lemon juice) eliminated the need for any extra ingredients to provide browning. I can certainly affirm that leavening is one of the most important factors: when insufficiently leavened, the batter gives a meager and leathery coating.

Initially I tasted soda in the finished product, and I ended up at a ratio of roughly 3.5:1 (vinegar/soda). This left me with no discernible flavour of soda or vinegar, but was still inadequate. Rather than pursuing this any further, since the browning effect was already adequate, I added baking powder incrementally until I got the degree of leavening I was looking for.

The batter made with all flour was definitely the best-tasting. The one made with cornstarch had a curious "non-flavour" in comparison, while the one with rice flour was fine but a bit blander than the one with all flour...nothing additional seasoning wouldn't fix.

Initially, I used slightly over 20% of the alternate starches in each batch. I did a second version of the experiment, increasing the alternate starches to 33%. This time, the cornstarch batter was distinctly the loser in flavour. The rice flour batter was again slightly bland, and the all-flour batter was distinctly superior.

As for texture, there was little to choose between them. All three, once the leavening was sorted out, provided perfectly acceptable crispness. None of them held especially well, though, with the crispness fading rapidly after about two minutes. All in all, I was not especially happy with any of them.

At the last minute, in a spirit of whimsy, I made up a batch of my existing batter from the commercial mix, but with beer as the liquid rather than water. As is often the case, my "just for shits and giggles" experiment turned out to be clearly the best of the bunch. The batter browned to a richer gold than usual, and not only was the batter crisper than before but it also remained that way for several minutes.

I'm very happy to have stumbled onto a significant improvement in my batter, but I'm still somewhat galled at having to use the commercial product. It definitely rubs me the wrong way.

I'm going to play around some more, now that beer is back on my radar. I'll also experiment a bit with corn flour, which I see as an ingredient in the commercial mixes. I will not be re-introducing egg as a factor, since I've found in the past that it makes a cakier, fritter-like batter that's not at all what I'm looking for at the moment.

Further reports as warranted...


"The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

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Apologies for the digression, but

I'm going to play around some more, now that beer is back on my radar. 

sorry are the souls for whom beer is off their radar :cool:

But I'll add that beer is my go-to liquid for fish fry batter.


 

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Thanks for the report....wonder what the commercial batter mix has that's different...

Out of interest, do you think the type/brand of beer makes any difference? I find almost any light beer works fine.

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I'll also experiment a bit with corn flour, which I see as an ingredient in the commercial mixes.

This is probably at least partially responsible for the better browning, since corn flour has more sugar than wheat flour.

Have you thought of using a low gluten flour, such as Wondra, for the batter?


--

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ChromeDome-

I recently came across a Marco Pierre White video on youtube, and he shows his approach to fish and chips. Being a Briton, his approach is different from what I've read so far in this thread, but you may gain some ideas, or just play with it for "shits and giggles".

He simply uses ale, yeast and flour.

Check it out:

Steve


"Tell your friends all around the world, ain't no companion like a blue - eyed merle" Robert Plant

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