Maine Fish Fry
Recipes and Secrets from Weatherby’s
The key to any successful fish fry is first, catch the fish. Of course not just any fish, as some are better than others. I have cooked for my clients over the years numerous species including salmon, trout, smallmouth bass, chain pickerel, blue gills, yellow perch, white perch and fall fish – aka chub. The best fish, in my humble opinion is the white perch, which can be very abundant – unless of course you really need to catch one. Next on the list would be pickerel (yes pickerel) and smallmouth bass. Yellow perch and bluegills are good, but often not large enough to warrant the effort to clean and prepare them.
Okay, so let’s presume we have a good charge of white perch to prep. There is more than one way to skin a cat and a fish too. I like my filets boneless and skinless and there are numerous ways to get there. I want to focus on cooking rather than cleaning here, so we will save cleaning and fileting for later. Before we even build a fire, we need a skillet. Not just any skillet will do, if you want to do this right. Teflon coated aluminum is garbage, stainless is too heavy as it cast iron. You can get the job done, but not as efficiently. The best pan is a steel pan – cold handle steel. It is thin and light, and they are difficult to find these days. They heat quickly and cool fast. One of the most important parts of cooking a good fish is heat and more than that, heat management. The cold handle steel pan allows you to control temperature more easily by moving your pan on and off the fire. Hot grease can be explosive and cold grease makes for a lousy meal.
Next on the list are your heat source – fire – and your fuel. You don’t need much wood to fry a fish, but you do want good dry wood, finely split. It can be hardwood, but does not need to be. Good soft woods, such as pine, spruce or cedar are excellent for quick heat, but they burn out quickly so you need to manage your fire. A few small pieces of hardwood along with your cedar or pine will produce a fine heat source for your fry, but always keep a few pieces of dry cedar/pine handy if you need to boost your heat quickly.
So we have our fish, our pan, and our fire. Preparing the fish to fry is pretty easy but you do need a coating for your fish. Many have secret recipes with spices, but you don’t need to get fancy. In the absence of a coating, it is difficult to brown your filets and the meat will fall apart. Gluten free fish – corn meal works great. I like a little pancake mix. Roll the filets in your coating of preference only moments before you put it into the hot pan. Do not coat them until your pan and grease are hot. As for grease, there are two schools of thought – first traditional and preferred by the author – lard and second for those health conscious anglers, canola or vegetable oil. Bacon grease is also an excellent choice as it adds a nice flavor. Once you have your pan with grease heating you can prepare your filets in your batter. Keep your pan level to evenly distribute the grease, which can easily be done by balancing your pan over two logs and “trimmed” with the assistance of small pieces of kindling called trigs. Trigs are important and work, but they will burn and you will need to monitor the stability of your pan as you are cooking the fish. There is nothing worse than dumping your fish into the fire, although I have never done that myself. Now your grease is hot – enough so that a drop of water sizzles and evaporates. Remember, now you can control the temperature by moving your pan on and off the fire. Add your coated fish, skin side down (these are skinless filets) so you need to pay attention to which side the skin was on. If placed skin side up, the filet will curl drastically and not provide as nice a presentation when done although still edible. The filet should be flipped half way through – literally only a couple of minutes each side – and the finished product is a nice firm, golden brown filet worthy of a photo. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with lemon on the lake shore. Enjoy!
Note of caution for certain populations: The State of Maine issues a consumption advisory for warm water game fish for pregnant women and young children. Consumption is not recommended for these groups. Other adults should limit consumption to no more than three meals per month. See the State of Maine Freshwater Fish Safe Eating Guidelines