The easiest way to fry a whole fish is by using a non-stick pan. But not everyone has a non-stick pan large enough to fry a whole fish in. And then there’s that issue of dependence — should we allow ourselves to be helpless and unable to fry fish without the it’s-stuck-in-the-pan issue unless we have a non-stick frying pan? Of course not! Here are a few tips to make sure that your fish won’t stick to the pan even if it isn’t non-stick.
If you’ve watched Chinese cooks at work, they have this technique of bathing the fish with boiling oil before dropping it into the frying pan. This is a screenshot from Eat Drink Man Woman.
The fish is dredged in flour, the excess shaken off, then, holding the fish by the tip, it is positioned vertically over the pan of boiling oil. A ladle is used to scoop oil from the pan and the oil is poured all over the fish. The flour immediately turns into a light crust and when the fish is dropped into the oil, there is no moist surface that will stick to the metal.
If you’re brave enough to do that, go ahead. I am NOT brave like that. The fear that the hot oil will get on my skin scares the hell out of me. So, I use a different technique. These are the steps that I follow.
1. Rinse the fish then WIPE before scoring and seasoning. Excess moisture prevents the fish from frying properly. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation why it is so, I don’t know what it is, but as a cook who has been frying fish for decades, I DO KNOW that a dripping-wet fish is more likely to stick to the pan than one that had been wiped.
2. Heat the pan before you pour in the oil. To test if the pan is hot enough, sprinkle in some water. If the droplets dance around the bottom of the pan and sizzle to invisibility in a few seconds, the pan is hot enough. Time to pour in the oil.
3. Use enough oil to submerge the bottom half of the fish. That will ensure even cooking. With that much oil, the bottom half will cook evenly and, after you flip the fish over, the other half will cook just as evenly. Make sure that the oil is very hot before you drop in the fish. Deep frying requires a very high temperature but how hot the oil can get depends on the kind of oil you’re using (more on that later). The important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t wait until the oil is smoking profusely before you drop in your fish because burnt oil will give the fish a nasty aftertaste.
4. Is it necessary to dredge the fish in flour or starch before frying? Dredging helps — a lot — but is not totally necessary. If you have to coat the fish with flour or starch, keep the coating thin. Dredge and shake off the excess.
5. Now, the actual frying. Hold the fish by the tail (or by the tip if you’re frying a fillet) and lower it into the oil pushing it away from you. This gradual introduction of the fish into the oil ensures that there is no sudden change in the oil’s temperature. Once the entire fish is in the oil, ignore the itch to touch it with whatever cooking utensil you’re using. Leave the fish for a couple of minutes to allow the portions touching the oil to form a crust. The crust is an additional insurance that it won’t stick to the pan. If you try to push a spatula under the fish while the outside is still soft, you will just ruin it. Wait for the crust to form on the bottom half before turning the fish over.
6. How long does the fish need to cook so that it’s crisp outside but soft and moist inside? That depends on three things: (a) the size of the fish; (b) the kind of oil you’re using; and (3) how good a conductor of heat your pan is.
The first is self-explanatory.
The second requires some knowledge about the smoking points of different kinds of oil (see a table of the smoking point of various oils and fats).
The third requires some knowledge about metals and their heat conductivity properties. Aluminum, for instance, is a good heat conductor but reacts with any acid in the food (i.e., bad idea to cook paksiw or adobo in aluminum pans). Stainless steel does not have such reactive properties but isn’t a very good heat conductor.
So, there. If you thought frying fish is just a matter of dropping it in hot oil, now you know that that’s the standard for the clueless. There’s fried fish and there’s well-fried fish.