How to cook perfect battered fish

As I’ve admitted before in this column, I didn’t taste fish and chips proper (by which I mean not involving the word fingers) until tragically late in life, in part because of a shameful childish antipathy towards things with fins, but mostly because I’m embarrassingly middle class (coq au vin, yes. Fried stuff, no.)

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On my first foray into the glorious fatty fug of the chippie, I ordered what was described as a fishcake, expecting the usual apologetic puck of potato. What appeared, after the mysterious plate of bread and butter and the obligatory pot of tea, was a petrified seamonster the size of a curling stone and standing, self-supporting, on legs of solid batter. Cracking its golden shell was an epiphany of the very sweetest kind.

The cake proved a mere gateway drug: drunk on the joy of dripping, I rapidly graduated to the haddock, when it dawned on me that, with fish and chips, the fish, if fresh and well-cooked, is largely irrelevant, a mere supporting actor to the star of the show, its crispy coating. And boy have I been making up for lost time. I’ve eaten in chippies from Stonehaven to St Ives, Dun Laoghaire to Dalston, I’ve tried frying every sort of sustainable fish Hugh can chuck at me, but I’ve never mastered the secret of proper professional batter.

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The secret of the bubbles

Whether you prefer pollock or gurnard (or a strictly sustainably caught slab of cod), with the skin on or off, everyone agrees that good batter should be light and crisp, which means getting some air into the mixture. There are two principal methods for doing so: adding a raising agent, such as baking powder or yeast, or making up the batter with a carbonated liquid, such as sparkling water or beer.

Rick Stein recipe battered fish
Rick Stein recipe battered fish. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Rick Stein, who, as proprietor of two chippies, ought to know what he’s talking about, uses baking powder – a hefty 3½tsp to 240g of flour, opting for ice-cold water instead of anything bubbly in his batter. It’s lovely and crisp, but quite solid, and lacks much volume. Conversely, The River Cottage Fish Book uses plain flour and beer, which gives a similarly crunchy, but rather dense and dry result, as if the batter might have been a little bit on the thick side. (It has a much better flavour than Mr Stein’s, however: the lager lends a nice, slightly citric yeastiness which works brilliantly with the fish.)

Gary Rhodes is a firm advocate of thick batter, writing in Rhodes Around Britain that the only secret to great fried fish is to “make sure the batter is very thick, almost too thick” so as the fish cooks, it soufflés around it, keeping it light and crisp. “If it’s too thin, it will stick to the fish and become heavy”. He goes for self-raising flour (which will contain a far smaller ratio of baking powder to flour), slaked with lager. The texture of his batter is much lighter – in fact, it’s bubbled up in a way that makes my heart sing, and the reaction around the table is considerably more positive.

Trish Hilferty recipe battered fish
Trish Hilferty recipe battered fish. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Gastropub legend Trish Hilferty, writing in Lobster & Chips, her celebration of the magical union of fish and potato, uses fresh yeast for her traditional beer batter, as well as the eponymous beer. It must rest for at least an hour before use, by which time it’s risen obligingly, like an over-eager bread dough.

The batter has a quite astounding billowy texture, and a good crispness, but it seems to have soaked up more of the oil than the others, and we crunch thoughtfully, trying to put our finger on the flavour. Eventually, Anna hits the nail on the head with prawn toast: it does indeed have a slight yeasty, bready flavour which, coupled with the oil, is quite different from its rivals.

Like Rick Stein, Simon Hopkinson also does without a raising agent in his recipe, in Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which he claims “retains its crispness like no other”, a fact he attributes to the proportion of potato flour (a quarter as much as plain flour) in the recipe, rather than the half pint of beer.

Simon Hopkinson recipe battered fish
Simon Hopkinson recipe battered fish. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

I’m excited about the potato flour, which seems just the sort of thing to constitute a trade secret, but disappointed by the result, which is runny and oddly grainy. The taste team, who are flagging by this point, push it round their plates disconsolately.

Best to rest?

River Cottage recipe battered fish
River Cottage recipe battered fish. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

River Cottage, Trish and Simon Hopkinson insist on resting their batter before use, for up to a couple of hours – understandably in Trish’s case, as the yeast has to have time to get to work, yet they have the heaviest, densest batters. Logic suggests that effervescence decreases over time, which is why Heston Blumenthal stores his batter in a soda siphon.

Allowing a Yorkshire pudding to stand before baking is meant to help the flour absorb the liquid, but here it just seems counterintuitive: we’re looking for rise, not moistness.

Order of ceremonies

Gary Rhodes recipe battered fish
Gary Rhodes recipe battered fish, pre-floured (left), and not pre-floured. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Gary says to flour the fish first, then dip it in the batter, as does Simon: but if your batter is thick enough, this shouldn’t be necessary – in fact, when I try it with Rhodes’ recipe, it gives a slightly soggy, thick result that finds favour only with Alex, who seems to have a slightly perverted taste in fried fish.

Indeed, Simon’s batter is so thin the extra flour is necessary to keep anything on the fish, but it gives an oddly textured, crumby look and taste.

The big chill

A tip from Matthew Silk, co-owner of 149 in Bridlington, current holder of the Fish & Chip Shop of the Year title and the brave man who let Jay Rayner loose behind the fryers, is that batter has to be “seriously cold, say 6C, so that when it hits the fat at 185C the reaction happens.” This fits with Rick Stein’s ice-cold water. I try Gary Rhodes’ recipe with cold beer and chilled flour, and get an even better result: it’s almost ethereally light. Just the thing to douse in vinegar and serve with mushy peas.

Added extras

Adding an egg yolk or milk to the batter, as Simon does, just gives the batter an over-assertive flavour that seems “more about the batter than the fish”. Beer is as far as I’m prepared to go down that route. And, perhaps it’s just our imaginations, but the potato flour puts me in mind of French Fries. The kind that come in Worcester Sauce flavour.

I also, for the purposes of keeping a roof over my head (flatmates tend to prefer their washing not to stink of sirloin, in my experience), fry most of the above in groundnut oil, but, having written the final recipe, I can’t resist giving it a try with my old favourite, beef dripping. It’s absolutely glorious – no real difference in texture, but the rich flavour is far superior. Temperature wise, 195C, as recommended by Trish Hilferty for smaller fillets, browns them too fast for my taste, but 160C, as Rick Stein suggests, leaves them slightly flabby. 185C, like the fryers in 149, is perfect.


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