Flaky white fish in a crispy light beer batter with golden fries with a crisp, salty exterior, but creamy and sweet on the inside? It may appear to be an unassuming and simple dish, but it’s not easy to make good fish and chips. Just getting the chips (ahem, fries) right is tricky enough. After living in New England for a long time, I often get a craving for fish and chips, but I don’t even bother trying to make this at home. Why? Well number one, I don’t have a commercial deep fryer, which in my opinion is essential to maintaining the correct temperature for perfect fish and chips. Trying to maintain a temperature of 350°F for pot of oil on a home stove is simply too difficult, producing a result that is either too burned or soggy and greasy. Number two, it’s just plain messy. Better to leave it to the professionals.
For those of you who are determined, here is what the professionals do:
Let’s start with the fries. First you need the right potato. Sugar to starch ratio is everything when it comes to getting crispy fries. Waxy potatoes such as red bliss or yukon golds are too high in sugar and moisture and too low in starch to produce a good french fry. Save them for boiling or using in soups and stews. What you need is a good baking potato like a russet or Idaho potato. Industry wide, the preferred potato for making french fries are the GPOD brand Russet Burbank potatoes. Compared to other producers, they simply have the perfect starch content. There is always a time of the year when they are in short supply and our purveyors have to send us substitutes. They are never as good. The fries come out either too soggy or you have to burn the hell out of them to get them crispy.
Once you have the right potato (we like the GPOD90 size – that means 90 potatoes per 50 lb. case), you’ll want to peel and cut them, then soak them in water for a few hours, if not overnight. This washes off some of the excess starch and helps the fries to cook up golden instead of brown. Now cooking french fries is a two step process. First you blanch them, that is, cook them in oil at 300°F until they are cooked through but not brown. Then, just before you serve them, fry them at 350°F to get the outsides golden and crisp. This is the tricky part about doing this at home. You have to have a big enough pot of oil, and cook the fries in small enough batches so that you can maintain the oil temperature high enough to get them crispy without burning them. Drain and season each batch immediately with salt.
Now for the fish. I like to use either cod or fluke. Pollock and hake are less expensive substitutes. All are mild white fish. Cod tends to be a larger fish and will come in thicker fillets with a larger flake pattern. Fluke will give you thinner fillets with a firmer texture and a slightly more mineral flavor. I like to portion them into 3 oz. pieces and serve two per person. Fluke or hake will give you larger thinner fillets when portioned this way. Cod or pollock will be chunky, unless you get the tail end. My go-to batter is adapted from James Beard’s Crispy Beer Batter. It’s the only recipe I’ve come across that stays crispy for a while after coming out of the fryer. Once you have made your batter, if you happen to be a home cook with a commercial type fryer setup, or using a fryer with a basket, there is a trick to dropping the fish into the oil so it doesn’t stick to the basket. After dipping your fish fillet into the batter, dangle the dripping mess over your fryer setup so that half of the fish (but not your fingers) is in the oil. Once the part that is in the oil starts to set, drop the rest of it in and let it go until it is golden brown and cooked through. As with the fries, drain and season immediately with salt. Again the trick here is maintaining an oil temp of 350°F. If it drops to low and doesn’t climb back up when you put your fish in, it will be soggy and greasy.
Finally, for me, fish and chips would not be complete without a couple wedges of lemon, maybe some malt vinegar for the fries, and a chunky, tangy tartar sauce. I came up with this recipe while working with my chef friend Steve Linares. He hates mayo and always wanted to cut it with something else. So the addition of Greek yogurt is unconventional, but I really like the way it gives the sauce a nice creamy texture and lighter flavor. Even if you don’t bother making fish and chips, this sauce is worth making and is perfectly good for dipping potato crisps (chips, to us here in the US).
My Favorite Tartar Sauce, yields about 2 cups
1-1/2 cups mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
1/2 cup greek yogurt
1/4 cup finely diced bread and butter pickles
2 Tbsp. finely diced cornichons
1 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1-1/2 tsp. cornichon liquid
2 tsp. chopped fresh dill
1 tsp. chopped fresh tarragon
1 tsp. kosher salt
Simply mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. The sauce should keep for about 3-5 days in the fridge.
Crispy Beer Batter, yields about 1 quart
Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery
12 oz. (by weight) flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. canola or blended oil
2 cups beer
1 tsp. Tobasco
Put flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Whisk to combine.
Make a well in the center and add the liquids. Whisk until combined.