People often stick up their noses at the funny-looking, whiskered, bottom-feeder we call catfish. But if you’ve ever been to the South, you know better. Adding catfish to your diet can open up a lot of exciting dishes! Plus, catfish are extremely affordable and very easy to prepare. Let’s dive in.
What Does Catfish Taste Like?
Most catfish are mild, slightly sweet, and their flesh is firm when cooked. They’re closer to chicken in texture than a flaky white fish, such as cod. Some people consider them to be “fishy tasting,” but the “fishy” flavor can be minimized with the right preparation, and by ensuring your catfish is fresh.
Depending on whether catfish are wild-caught or farm-raised, they can have a slightly different flavor.
Where Does Catfish Come From?
Catfish can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They are opportunistic bottom-feeders that will eat just about anything they can find. Depending on the environment they live in and their diet, the flavor of the fish may vary slightly.
Most of the catfish you will eat in the US are farm-raised in channels in the South. They are grain-fed and therefore, they have a consistently sweet taste. These are known as “Channel cats.”
If you find yourself eating a wild catfish, it’s likely that the meat will taste more earthy. Some people describe this flavor as “muddy.”
If you’re preparing or breaking down a whole catfish, you might consider removing the belly (the thinnest part of the filet) to help avoid this taste.
Where Can I Buy Catfish?
If you live near the ocean, catfish might be available to you at your local fish market depending on where you’re located and if catfish is popular and plentiful in that area. If you live inland, the freezer section of most grocery stores will have individually wrapped filets of catfish.
How Do I Know if Catfish is Fresh?
The same basic rules apply to catfish as any other fish regarding freshness. If the fish is whole, look for clear eyes, firm skin, and no unpleasant odors.
For filet freshness, Seafood Source says: “Fresh catfish meat is white to off-white, sometimes pinkish, with noticeable translucency and iridescence. Cooked meat is opaque and white. Don’t buy it if it is reddish or slightly yellow. Uncooked catfish smells almost like raw chicken.”
When buying frozen fish, it's never a bad idea to look for an “IQF” label on the bag. This stands for “Individually, Quickly, Frozen.”
Just because a bag isn’t labeled “IQF” doesn’t mean it isn’t fresh, but you can be sure you’re getting a product that was frozen within hours of being caught if it has that label.
What’s the Best Way to Cook Catfish?
Catfish is delicious in a variety of preparations. The three most popular methods in the US are battered and fried, breaded and fried, or blackened. All three methods have become very popular in Southern states like Louisiana and Mississippi where catfish is easily accessible.
Fried catfish is also commonly used as the protein for a Po Boy sandwich. And I can tell you first hand, a catfish Po Boy is delicious.
How to Make Blackened Catfish
Pat your catfish filets dry with a paper towel.
Pour a ½ cup of your favorite blackening spice into a shallow bowl.
Dredge the catfish on both sides, it should be well-coated (most blackening seasonings contain enough salt that you don’t need to add any extra).
Heat a non-stick sauté pan, or a cast iron pan to medium-high heat. Add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom.
When the pan is hot, add your catfish filets and allow them to sear until they’re browned, and release easily from the pan, 1-3 minutes.
Add a bit of butter to the pan if you like before flipping for additional flavor.
Cook the other side for an additional 2-3 minutes. The fish is done when the flesh is white all the way through and no longer translucent. Serve immediately.
How to Make Battered & Fried Catfish
This one is a little tricky. The fish is delicate so going from the batter to the hot oil can be a bit of a learning curve.
The basic process is to heat a few inches of oil (use a neutral oil with a high smoke point, like canola) to 350°F in a deep, sturdy pot like a dutch oven.
Have your batter and your catfish at the ready, along with a slotted spoon, tongs, and a paper-towel lined plate. Have some salt or old bay spice nearby as well.
Dip your catfish filet in batter and carefully transfer it to the hot oil. If it sticks to another filet, use the slotted spoon or tongs to move it around gently (be sure not to crowd the pan)!
When the batter is crispy and the catfish is floating, (about 3-4 minutes) transfer it to the paper-towel lined plate. Sprinkle it with salt or Old Bay while it’s still hot.
Try this recipe for a battered & fried catfish.
How to Make Breaded & Fried Catfish
Breading is a 3-step process that takes a little more time than dunking a filet in batter, but breaded catfish is easier to handle. Cornmeal is commonly used when breading catfish for flavor and crunch.
Follow the same steps above for deep-frying, or you can pan-fry a breaded catfish filet following the steps in the blackened catfish recipe. Omit the added butter as it can make the breading greasy.
Try this recipe for Southern Fried Catfish.
How to Make a Catfish Po Boy
Po Boys (poor boys) originated in 1929 in New Orleans, during the StreetCar strike. While they’ve become very popular in modern-day cuisine, at their core, Po Boys were a very simple, cheap sandwich meant to feed large groups of people.
The original Po-Boys could be made with all sorts of odds and ends from bits of roast beef, potatoes, and gravy, to oysters and eggplant.
Po Boy’s always come with a sauce, either a mayonnaise-based sauce or a gravy.
For a fancier twist on a Po Boy, try this Catfish Po Boy with Pickle Remoulade from Food & Wine Magazine. This recipe boasts over 2,000 5-star reviews.
For a more classic, simpler sandwich, try this Catfish Po Boy from Blue Plate Mayonnaise.
What to Serve with Catfish
Some of my favorites are:
- Cheesy grits
- Collard greens
- Buttermilk Biscuits
- Mac & Cheese
- French Fries
Catfish are mild in taste and generally sweet when farm-raised. Most catfish in the US are farm-raised in the South, and are known as “Channel Cats.” Wild-caught catfish can have a more earthy flavor. Catfish are delicious when blackened, fried, or served in a Po Boy, so don't miss out on this seafood delicacy!
Seafood Source, January 23rd, 2014: Catfish
Po Boy Sandwich, 64 Parishes, by MICHAEL MIZELL-NELSON, PHD, September 23, 2013https://64parishes.org/entry/po-boy-sandwich#:~:text=The%20so%2Dcalled%20poor%20boy,during%20the%201929%20streetcar%20strike.&text=Poor%20boy%20sandwiches%2C%20commonly,house%20of%20New%20Orleans%20cuisine