How to Cook Catfish

When it comes to catfish cooking, traditional Southern recipes are the best
Joe Cermele Avatar
fried catfish

It's hard to beat fried catfish. Getty Images

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The saying applies to a lot of things, but it’s especially true when talking about how to cook catfish, specifically Southern catfish cooking. I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to get experimental with fresh catfish, of course. It’s a mild, white-meat fish, which means you can do anything with it that you would with flounder, or walleye, or crappie. 

It’s just that I’ve never eaten catfish that tasted  better than when I’ve had it in states like Louisiana and Mississippi. And Southerners haven’t strayed from traditional cooking methods for a reason. If you’ve got a bead on a hot catfish bite and want to honor your harvest properly in your kitchen, it’s hard to beat these two timeless preparations.

How to Cook Catfish: A Classic Southern Fry

Fried catfish
Fried catfish ready for hot sauce. Photo by Natalie Krebs

This recipe—or a darn close version of it—is leaned on at family fish fries and roadside catfish joints across the South. It’s actually very simple, the caveat being the oil. Small deep fat fryers automatically maintain their temperature setting throughout the cooking process, but if you’re using cast iron on a stove top, it’s critical that you adjust the burner as needed so the oil doesn’t get too far above or below 350 degrees. A kitchen thermometer is essential for control, and without it, you can easily wind up with oil-soaked soggy fillets or a pile of burned catfish.

Ingredients

  • 4 to 6 medium to large catfish fillets, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp black pepper 
  • 1 tbsp cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 2 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tbsp yellow mustard
  • ½ cup hot sauce
  • 1 ½ cup corn meal
  • 1 ½ all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • Canola oil

1. Start by mixing all the dry spices in a small bowl. Make sure they’re thoroughly combined.

2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, corn meal, and 2 or 3 tablespoons of the spice mixture. After the dry batter is thoroughly mixed, transfer it to a one-gallon zip-seal bag and set it aside. 

3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the two eggs, then add the mustard, hot sauce, and the remainder of the dry spice mix. Whisk until these ingredients are incorporated and have a paste-like consistency.

4. Drop the catfish fillets into the wet mixture and toss them with your hands to ensure an even coating on all sides. Now is the time to make sure your cooking oil has reached the correct temperature.

5. Drop a few fillets in the zip-seal bag, close it tightly, and give it a good shake. Transfer the coated fillets from the bag directly into the hot oil.

6. Let the fillets fry for 3 to 5 minutes depending on thickness, or until the breading is golden-brown and crispy. Place finished fillets on a mesh drying rack to cool and drain while you shake and drop the next batch.

Finishing Tip

While hot sauce is arguably the most popular condiment for slathering on fried catfish, consider some alternatives. A sprinkle of malt vinegar pays tribute to English-style fish and chips and plays well with Southern-style seasoning. If you want something a bit richer and creamier, mix a quarter cup of mayonnaise with the juice from half a lemon, 2 tablespoons of hot sauce, a teaspoon of garlic powder, cracked black pepper, and a little minced horseradish.

Read Next: How to Fry Fish: The Ultimate Guide on Everything from Oil Temperature to Batter Recipes

How to Cook Catfish: Blackened Catfish

Blackening is a preparation used on a wide variety of fish, but it works especially well on catfish. Though you can make it in any pan, cast iron is preferred for its ability to heat evenly and maintain a scorching temperature. Blackened simply means heavily coated in a spicy seasoning and seared in fat or oil very quickly at high heat. Though there’s no shortage of pre-made blackening seasonings on the market, here’s how to make your own.

Ingredients

  • 2 to 4 medium catfish fillets, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 stick of salted butter
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp cayenne pepper 
  • 1 tsp garlic powder 
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp dried basil
  • ½ tsp dried oregano
  • ½ tsp dried thyme

1. Combine all the dry spices in a small bowl. Make sure they are mixed thoroughly.

2. Melt a quarter stick of butter in a small bowl in the microwave. Brush it on one side of the catfish fillets.

3. Liberally coat the buttered side of the fillets with the spice mix. 

4. Melt the remaining butter in a cast iron skillet. Ideally, the temperature will hover around 400 degrees. 

5. Place the fillets in the skillet coated side down. Now brush the exposed sides with melted butter and liberally coat them with the rest of the spice mix.

6. After approximately three minutes, flip the fillets and cook for another three minutes. Monitor the temperature and adjust as needed so the skillet stays hot.

Finishing Tip

While blackened catfish is delicious by itself, it’s often paired with a starch. It’s decadent served over a heap of cheesy grits, but I’ve even seen it accompany Cajun mashed potatoes. I’ve also had it served over pasta with a creamy, spicy Cajun version of Alfredo sauce. Too rich? Blackened catfish on top of a fresh salad works well, too. 

Read Next: What Do Catfish Eat? 

Final Thoughts on How to Cook Catfish

Sure you can get wild with catfish recipes but you should start with the basics first. You won’t be disappointed with either of these recipes and once you’ve got a good understanding of how good catfish can be, then you can experiment with it and see if other recipes stand up to the traditional ones.