“FRY” THE BREADING, NOT THE FISH
The appeal of fried fish is pretty clear. The crisp coating is a nice foil for the moist, tender fish and the short cooking time ensures that the fish doesn’t dry out. There’s just one problem—fried fish isn’t a “cook-friendly” recipe. The high moisture content in fish guarantees a lot of splattering so the stovetop becomes a mess. And then there’s the ventilation issue. Do you really want to wake up the next morning to the stale odor of fried fish?
Moving the operation to the oven is the standard workaround for home cooks. But talk about disappointing. The coating is never all that crisp; in fact, it’s often downright soggy. While frying proceeds very quickly and at very high temperatures, in the oven the process is much slower and there’s plenty of time for the fish to exude a lot of moisture.
But don’t abandon the idea of crunchy fish fillets. There is a fix to this dish—as long as you’re willing to rethink the process. First off, you must change the coating. Fried fish is generally dusted with flour or cornmeal and then dropped into hot oil. This approach doesn’t work in the oven—flour and cornmeal don’t stand a chance against the inevitable onslaught of fish juices.
A bound breading—dusting the fish in flour, followed by a dip in eggs, and then the application of bread crumbs—builds a stronger foundation. And if you want a crunchy coating, then start with really crisp crumbs. You can transform this dish simply by tossing fresh bread crumbs with butter and seasonings and then “frying” (OK, baking) the crumbs on a rimmed baking sheet until golden brown. Pass on the mess, pass on the lingering smell, and pass that tartar sauce.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Go for Firm and Thick Fillets
For the ultimate contrast between the crust and interior, choose medium-firm cod or haddock fillets. And skip thin pieces—they’ll cook through before the crust has time to crisp. To ensure uniform pieces of fish, buy a thick whole fillet and cut it into pieces yourself.
Fresh Crumbs Are Best
Bread-crumb coatings for fish often disappoint, ranging from thin and sandy to soggy and crumbly. Homemade bread crumbs make the best coating; processing fresh crumbs is easy and making them coarse maximizes their crunch. Toasting buttered crumbs before coating the fish ensures that they are brown and crisp when the fish is done. Minced shallot and parsley boost the flavor of the crumbs. A thick crust is a crunchier crust so pack on as many crumbs as possible, pressing down gently on the crumbs to help them adhere the fish.
Thicken the Eggs
Thickening the usual egg wash with flour and mayonnaise helps the coating stay put. The thick batter forms a barrier between the moist fish and the dry bread crumbs, keeping the moisture in the fish and the crumbs from getting soggy. Paprika adds flavor to the batter and the optional prepared horseradish and cayenne will add further zip if used.
Elevate on a Rack
Baking the fillets on a wire rack set inside a baking sheet allows air to circulate underneath, crisping the fish on all sides and preventing the bottom crust from getting soggy. Make sure to coat the rack with vegetable oil spray so the crumbs stick to the fish, not the rack. And use a thin metal spatula to transfer the fish to serving plates—thicker plastic turners (like you might use to flip pancakes) can shear the bottom crust away from the fish.
A flavorful “glue” helps crumbs coat meaty cod fillets.
Crunchy Oven-Fried Fish
- 40 minutes to make crumb coating (crumbs can be toasted up to 3 days in advance, cooled, and stored at room temperature in airtight container)
- 30 minutes to coat and bake fish (make tartar sauce while fish is in the oven)
- Food processor
- 3 shallow dishes for coating process
- Wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet for baking fish
- Instant-read thermometer (best tool for judging when fish is done)
- Thin spatula to transfer fish to serving plates
Substitutions & Variations
- Cod and haddock are the best choices for this recipe but other white fish can be used, including snapper, sea bass, and even halibut. Fillets must be the proper thickness; thin fillets like flounder or sole will overcook by the time the coating crisps up.
- Replace the shallot with a clove or two of minced garlic. A few teaspoons of minced fresh thyme or oregano could take the place of the parsley in the coating.
- Horseradish adds a subtle kick to the fish, as does the cayenne. If you prefer, add a dash of hot sauce to the egg wash.
To prevent overcooking, buy fish fillets that are at least 1 inch thick. Make sure you buy refrigerated prepared horseradish, not the shelf-stable kind, which contains preservatives and additives. Serve with Sweet and Tangy Tartar Sauce (recipe follows).
- 4 slices hearty white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- 1 shallot, minced
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish (optional)
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 1¼ pounds skinless cod, haddock, or other thick white fish fillet, 1 to 1½ inches thick, cut into 4 pieces
- Lemon wedges
- Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Pulse bread, melted butter, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in food processor to coarse crumbs, about 10 pulses (you should have about 3½ cups crumbs). Transfer to rimmed baking sheet and bake until deep golden brown and dry, about 15 minutes, stirring twice during baking time. Let crumbs cool completely, about 10 minutes. Transfer crumbs to shallow dish and toss with parsley and shallot. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees.
- Place ¼ cup flour in second shallow dish. In third shallow dish, whisk together eggs; mayonnaise; horseradish, if using; paprika; cayenne, if using; and ¼ teaspoon pepper until combined. Whisk in remaining ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon flour until smooth.
- Set wire rack in rimmed baking sheet and spray with vegetable oil spray. Pat fish dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Dredge 1 fillet in flour and shake off excess. Using tongs, dip fillet in egg mixture, then coat with bread-crumb mixture, pressing gently so that thick layer of crumbs adheres to fillet. Transfer breaded fillet to prepared wire rack. Repeat with remaining 3 fillets.
- Bake until fish flakes apart when gently prodded with paring knife and registers 140 degrees, 18 to 25 minutes. Using thin spatula, transfer fillets to plates and serve immediately with lemon wedges.
SWEET AND TANGY TARTAR SAUCE MAKES ABOUT 1 CUP
- ¾ cup mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and minced
- 2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
- ½ shallot, minced 1½ teaspoons distilled white vinegar
- ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- ½ teaspoon pepper
Mix all ingredients together in small bowl. Cover and let sit to allow flavors to blend, about 15 minutes. Stir again before serving. (Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.)
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