The recipe – Fish in Better Beer Batter
With the annual holiday season upon us, now is perhaps a good time to present the results of a rather in-depth investigation into the magic of deep-fried, batter-coated fish.
Based on past personal experience, I accept that a significant proportion of Namibians, who will spend the holiday season at the coast, will do some fishing. This means that, if you are lucky, there would be some fresh fish lying around the fridge, and I am prepared to bet good money, that at some point you’d contemplate deep-frying some of it. So I thought I’d be useful for a change and help you find that ultimate recipe that would add most appropriate value to the outcome of your fishing endeavours.
Let’s begin by understanding why we fry fish in batter. First and foremost, the batter protects the fish against the vicious temperature associated with deep-frying. Thus, it keeps the fish moist and succulent – just as fish should be. Second, the batter adds a crunchy texture to the dish. Lastly, the batter adds additional flavour to your fish. When all three elements come together, fried fish-perfection is achieved.
Deep-fried fish is in essence a very simple dish. It has only a few ingredients, the cooking time is short, and it does not require elaborate technique. Yet it is easy to mess up: over or under-cook the fish; produce a crust that is heavy and soggy; or have the batter separating from the fish altogether. In addition to the fish itself, the following elements are crucial in preparing the perfect deep-fried fish that is moist, succulent and crispy: moisture, air, and temperature.
Let’s start with the fish. The fish should be a white fish (not the fatty or oily variety) that is as fresh as possible. The fish should be filleted and portioned properly. As far as possible portion the fish in a manner that ensures near even thickness throughout each portion. This ensures that the entire portion is cooked evenly and at the same time (no over- or under-done pieces on the same portion). Remove the bones. Whether the skin should be removed or left on, is a matter of personal choice. If the skin is left on, you might want to score it to prevent the fish from curling up. Leaving the skin on will add additional flavour and texture.
Although the fish should be moist on the inside, it should not have moisture on the surface. One way to ensure the fish remains moist is to brine it for a short time. The brine is usually a mixture of water, sugar and salt. Finally, the surface of the fish should be as dry as possible. If you are using frozen fish, make sure the fish is properly thawed and dried. Leaving the fish on a cooling rack set over an oven pan in the fridge for an hour or so will help to get rid of surface moisture. Some coat the fish in flour before adding it to the batter to ensure the batter will stick. An even more effective way to making the batter stick is to dunk it in a gel made from methylcellulose (methocel) and water. Methylcellulose is a water-soluble polymer that sets when heated, thus binding the batter to the fish.
Surface moisture will thin out the batter and cause it to run off the fish. Once the battered fish is added to the very hot oil, moisture will turn to steam, which will help to lighten the batter and make it crispy. Too much moisture will cause the batter to remain heavy and soggy. In pursuit of a light and crispy batter, it is advisable to add alcohol: something flavourless and strong such as vodka (at least 40% proof). Since alcohol boils and therefore evaporates at a lower temperature than water, the steam given off by the alcohol will help drive off surface moisture and thus ensure a crispy batter. It also suppresses the formation of gluten in the flour which further adds to the lightness of the batter.
To create a light batter air has to be incorporated into the mixture. One popular way of achieving that is to use a carbonated liquid, such as beer or sparkling mineral water. Beer adds flavour, carbonated water does not: the choice is yours. Once the carbonated liquid is added to the dry ingredients, the mixture should not be over-mixed. This will cause all the bubbles to be knocked out of the batter, which defies the purpose. Do not worry about lumps.
Tempura chefs discovered lumps add texture and crunch – i.e. exactly what you want. Leavening agents such as yeast, baking soda or baking powder are also commonly used. If you are going to use yeast, the batter has to set aside for some time to ferment before use. Once the yeast is active and bubbles appear on the surface of the wet batter, it is ready to use. A far more modern way to incorporate air into the wet batter is to use a cream syphon (cream whipper). Simply add the batter to the syphon, charge it with one or more CO2 canisters and leave it in the fridge for an hour or so to absorb the gas. Decompress and use, it is that simple.
The type of flour used for the batter also has an effect on the quality of the finished product. Flours that are low in gluten, such as rice flour, cake flour, and tapioca flour, generally make for crispier batter. If regular bread flour is used, it should be mixed with one of the low gluten flours to get the desired effect.
Cooking the fish should be done at viciously high temperature. Use only neutral oils with a high smoking point such as sunflower seed, vegetable, grape seed and canola oil. The oil should be very hot – around 190°C or even more. Thus, use a digital thermometer if you want to avoid a soggy batter. Fry the fish in small batches and allow the oil to come back up to temperature before adding the next batch. The high temperature at which the fish is cooked will prevent the absorption of too much oil; hence, your fish will not be greasy. Once cooked place the fish on a cooling rack to shed access oil. In true English tradition, add malt vinegar. Then tuck in. I however like mine with tartar sauce, a rustic sauce has been around, in written form at least, since the 19th century. Simply mix some chopped boiled egg and green onions, capers, gherkins, lemon juice and tarragon into good mayonnaise and a little Dijon mustard and serve. Fish does not get much better than this.