Fried fish and a cast iron skillet are a match made in heaven. Cast iron provides the right heating properties, good heat retention, and a weighted skillet. You can use these skillets on the home stove top or over a campfire. Frying fish on a cast iron skillet is also pretty simple and the clean up is a breeze.
A seasoned cast iron skillet is always recommended. However, even with a brand new skillet, a good fish fry will introduce enough oil to the porous material to season it. An added bonus is that the fish won’t stick to the bottom.
How Long Do You Fry Fish In a Cast Iron Skillet?
The short answer is 2-3 minutes per side. But, as with all things culinary, there are a few simple steps to prepare both the fish and the skillet for frying. For the skillet preparation, heat the skillet over medium-high heat for 8-10 minutes or until the handle is hot to the touch. Then add the oil and let it heat up for 2-3 minutes. Add a few drops of water: if the water sizzles, the oil is ready for frying.
A heavier cast iron is recommended as it retains heat better than a lighter-weight skillet. The thinner the skillet, the more uneven the heating will be. When fish is fried, it is critical that the whole filet is fried at a consistent temperature. If not, parts of the filet will overcook while part of the filet will be undercooked.
Preheating the skillet before adding the oil ensures that the oil will not get too hot. Also, if the oil is too cool, the fish will become a soggy mess. An easy option is to purchase a digital thermometer to ensure proper temperature.
For a small batch of fish, you can fry the fish at 375℉-400℉. Any temperature above this will be too hot. The more fish you have in the skillet, the more the temperature drops, so you will want to adjust the temperature accordingly if you’re going to fry a larger batch.
A rule of thumb is to not crowd the pan with too many filets, as this brings the temperature down too low and will make the fish soggy. Adding fish to oil that is too cool can also make the coating come off. This dirties up the skillet and does not produce a nice finished product.
While the skillet is heating up, prepare the fish with coating. The filets need to be patted dry with a paper towel first. This ensures that the filets won’t add excess water into the dry coating. Next, dredge the filets, one side at a time, either in cornmeal or flour, or both. Cornmeal is much easier and produces a nice mouthfeel.
If you are using a 10 or 12-inch skillet, add 3-4 filets at a time. If you are shallow frying (only half the filet is coated with oil at a time), fry for 2-3 minutes on each side. If you are deep frying (where the whole filet is submerged), the filets will float when they are done. The outside of the filets should be crispy and the inside should be white.
When frying fish do not cover the skillet with a lid. This could cause the oil to boil over, causing a fire. The second reason for not using a lid is that not using a lid allows the moisture to escape.
It is best to use a skimmer spoon to pull the fish out of the oil. This allows the excess oil to drain back into the skillet. Using tongs can result in breaking the filets. Place the cooked filets on a plate lined with paper towels to drain the remaining oil. Before adding new filets to the oil, make sure the oil is back up to proper temperature. This should take no more than a minute. This is where that digital thermometer comes in handy.
Generally, as the finished filets are stacked on top of one another, the bottom filets will stay warm. Another option to remain proper temperature is to place the cooked filets, 3 or 4 at a time, back into the hot oil for just a few seconds. Repeat the straining and draining process to shake off any excess oil.
How Do You Keep Fish From Sticking To Cast Iron?
Heating the skillet before adding oil is the key to keep the filets from sticking to the skillet. This allows the skillet to reach the correct temperature and adds a flavorful crust to the fillets. The oil should also be at the proper temperature before frying. Properly heated oil allows the filets to float, thereby the filets never touch the bottom of the skillet.
Cast iron is porous, so the more it heats up, the more non-stick it becomes. Using a heavier cast iron skillet also helps the filets not stick to the bottom of the skillet as the weight provides better heat retention. It is also important to make sure the temperature is adequate in between batches of fillets.
As you fry fish, it is inevitable that bits of the coating will come off and dirty the skillet. Keeping a clean skillet throughout the frying process helps with temperature control. After a batch of filets is removed from the skillet, it is a good idea to skim any excess coating from the oil with the skimmer spoon while waiting for the temperature to rise for the next batch.
Is It Better To Use a Cast Iron Fish Fryer (pan) Instead Of a Regular Skillet?
As stated above, a cast iron skillet is a prime option for frying fish. However, there is a second option: A cast iron fish fryer (pan). These pans were created to host the perfect large family fish fry and are nostalgic American classics.
The original fish pan was invented in the 1960s but was discontinued in the early part of this century. They have become prized collector’s pieces. Now, new fish pans are being manufactured due to consumer demand for a large and portable way to fry fish.
The fish pan is a long rectangular cast iron pan with two removable metal handles on each side for moving the pan around the kitchen. The handles are removable because the pan can also be used in the oven, on top of the stove, or on the grill. A great option for a large fish fry is to purchase a heating well similar to the ones used in a commercial restaurant. That way, you can keep the pan stationary.
My name is Jason Phillips and I cooked for many years, primarily aboard Merchant Marine vessels and in fast-paced commercial kitchens. My passion for culinary arts led me to attend a culinary arts academy in 2019 where the instructor piqued my interest in food and beverage writing.