Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Fear of frying

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 Fear of frying I'm awfully nervous about hot oil for a Southern boy, so I get a little help with a mess of fried fish.
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Fear of frying

I'm not fond of frying. Never have been.

This may sound like a strange thing for a journeyman chef to admit, considering that I'm born and bred in a region where just about every foodstuff is fried (except for a few un-fryable items like lettuce, which are dipped in ranch dressing to achieve a similar effect).

But please note that I didn't say I don't like to eat fried dishes. Crunchy, salty, golden-brown and delicious, what's not to like? It's just that I don't much care to cook them. Too much oil. Too much spattering. Too much mess ... and the slight fear that one false step might find me and the cats desperately dodging a napalm-like spill of sizzling oil at 360 degrees Fahrenheit.

So when I spotted a beautiful pile of smelts on the fish counter - sweet, delicate little silvery fish not much larger than sardines, a delicacy that in my opinion absolutely demands frying - my course was clear: I talked my long-suffering bride into taking over the chef's job for the evening.

Happily, she's not the least phobic about frying, and does a great job of it. I watched and learned as she went through the classic three-part "bound breading" technique, and herewith present the following recipe. (It'll do for any fillets of fish, actually, or for that matter just about anything else you might want to fry. Except maybe lettuce, but I've got a lead on a stir-fry rendition that might just work. I am not kidding about this.)

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 pound fresh smelt, about 20 small fish; or firm fish fillets of your choice
Black pepper
1 cup (240g) flour
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
1 cup yellow cornmeal
Vegetable oil for frying (don't use olive oil)


1. Rinse and dry the fish very well, and salt and pepper them to taste. If it's possible to wrap them in an absorbent linen kitchen towel to dry in the refrigerator overnight, it's even better. You want those fishies dry.

2. Line up three wide, shallow bowls such as soup bowls - put them in the sink or on paper towels if you want to avoid a mess. Put the flour in the first bowl and salt and pepper it plentifully; whisk the egg and milk together and put into the second bowl, and put the cornmeal in the third bowl.

3. At least one hour before cooking, bread the fish, taking them one at a time. Roll the fish in the bowl of seasoned flour. Make sure the fish is entirely covered. Holding the smelt by its tail, whack it gently against the side of the sink (if your flour bowl is in the sink, this job is easy) so any excess flour falls off. You want a light, thin and even coating. Then, still holding the fish by its tail, dip the flour-coated fish into the egg-milk mix all the way up to the tail (you don't need to submerge the tail in the egg), letting any excess drain back into the bowl. Finish by dredging it in the cornmeal, following a similar procedure. Holding it by the tail as you do the egg and cornmeal treatment ensures you don't bread your fingers in the process, which can be quite messy. As you finish each fish, place it on a cookie sheet or tray lined with paper towels. Make sure they don't touch. Give them all at least an hour, or even two, at room temperature. You want the breading to dry and firm so it won't fall off the fish during frying.

4. Put vegetable oil in a large skillet to a depth of 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches, enough to cover the fish. Bring it up to frying temperature over medium heat. If you have a frying thermometer and know how to use it, bring the oil to about 365 degrees. Otherwise, eyeball it by dropping in a fragment of breading. If it sizzles and pops and starts browning, you should be ready to go. Put in the fish, a few at a time; you don't want to get them so crowded that they touch or put in so many that they dramatically reduce the oil temperature. Take care about spatters and don't accidentally dip your fingers into the oil ... I wasn't kidding when I likened this stuff to napalm. Fry on one side for about 2 minutes, then gently turn them and fry on the other if they didn't submerge enough to cook completely. When they're golden-brown all over, carefully lift them out to a tray lined with plenty of paper towels to absorb any fat, and fry another batch. As you build up a supply of cooked fish, you can keep them warm on a plate in an oven set to about 140F ... they'll stay crisp for a good while as you work.

Serve when ready, with lemon wedges or tartar sauce or cocktail sauce if you like, although I find them so addictive as-is that they really need no accompaniment other than a green salad and crusty bread or rolls.

VARIATIONS: There are all sorts of breading alternatives. Add paprika or 11 herbs and spices to the flour; substitute flour or bread crumbs for the cornmeal. (Crunchy Japanese panko crumbs make a great breading.) For now, though, I'm sticking to the basics. Maybe if I gain a little confidence I'll try frying some chicken one of these days.

WINE MATCH: For the record, it doesn't have to be wine. Sweet iced tea is traditional, and of course cold beer makes an outstanding accompaniment to just about anything fried. Any dry white wine will do, though, and I was very happy with a crisp, bone-dry and aromatic Austrian white: Freie Weingärtner 2004 Wachau Riesling.

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this article or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by the Food & Drink section of our online WineLovers Community, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Fear of frying,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Beef pot roast (Feb. 23, 2006)

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Thursday, March 2, 2006
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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