Light and Crispy Fish-n-Chips

One of my favorite seafood dishes to eat has always been Fish-n-Chips with a lot of tartar sauce. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and my mom would always bring home some cod fillets, bread them in Italian bread crumbs, and then pan fry them off.

I later moved to Boston in 1982 and started to have Fish-n-Chips in a variety of preparations. Sometimes the fish was dredged in buttermilk then coated with a fish fry-flour coating mix; other times it was breaded with assorted dried breadcrumb or even the Panko style crumbs, but of all the ways I tried it from Newburyport to Providence, my favorite place was a small joint in a North Attleboro, Mass., strip mall called Norm's Seafood.

Norm's used fresh-caught, local schrod, which most of the time is a market-sized codfish fillet. They fried the fish with what I thought at the time was his "top secret" batter mix. It was the crispiest battered fish I had ever seen, and it stayed crispy even after if had cooled off! I was working at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, where our preparation was the buttermilk-and-seasoned-flour dredge method, which I did not care for very much. So one day, I asked Norm if he cold at least tell me the brand of batter he used or how he made it so light and crispy.

"No," he said.

"Well I'm just a cook in a hotel 50 miles north of here," I said, "and it would not hurt your business to explain your process."

"No," I can't tell you," he said. "I'm a businessman, and how do I know what your intentions are?"

Well, I never did get Norm's recipe, but a few years later I discovered a few secrets that uncovered ways to make any store-bought tempura batter the crispiest it can be.

I will say the average box of tempura batter mix you buy in the stores is 14 to 16 ounces. To make your batter super crispy follow these tips:

  • Add ½ to 1 cup corn starch
  • Add 1 tbsp baking powder
  • Use cold beer
  • Always save a small amount of the dry mix to dredge your fish fillets so the thin batter can adhere well.
  • Most important is to not make the batter too thick. You want the batter to be on the loose side.
  • Make sure the oil is at 350 degrees.

Thick batter means excess on your fillets, which will only puff up into a soft pillow. Start with thin batter that fully covers the fillet, and if you have to fry a large amount, you will have to thin down the batter as you cook. I have also seen cooks use seltzer water, but I prefer the beer.

Corn starch, beer and - above all - baking powder will work together to give you a well leavened, light and crispy tempura batter. The next time you are in the mood for fried fish, gives this recipe a try.