Fish Fries Are Hard (Bonus: Pulled Pork!)


My favorite. It’s so simple: a beer batter, a decent — but not expensive — piece of fish, and fries. And tartar sauce, which probably should have more but you can just mix some mayo and relish and you’re good.

The beer batter’s easy. I looked at a few recipes to be sure, but with flour and beer making up the main components, it’s tough to miss. You can put in too much salt, of course, but stay under a teaspoon and it won’t taste like the ocean. So flour and beer. About a cup of each, give or take, was the general consensus from a few websites I checked. That seemed a little basic — even for me — so I also shook in some garlic powder and paprika. A few shakes of each, the paprika obviously easier to tell when I thought I had enough because it shows up against the flour.

Pour in the beer. It’s tough to judge at first because it’s so foamy, but you should mix until it’s basically pancake batter. I don’t think you want actual lumps, though (you don’t want to bite into that, do you?). Dip your fish in, then into the fryer, let it turn a nice gold color, enjoy!

Kinda.

It was good. It was what I was thinking when I started craving it on the way home and went to the store, so I can’t be unhappy. But it wasn’t good enough to be like, “cool, I’m gonna make this again!”

Here’s what was wrong with it and what I think I can do differently next time:

First, it wasn’t crispy enough and the beer batter was a little underwhelming. Second, i didn’t love the flavoring. It was fishier than I wanted it and I think the batter gave it an odd flavor — I swear, I think I was tasting banana from the beer? I don’t know. But it was noticeably… not good. Not bad, really, it just didn’t work with the fish.

Looking up the beer online1, it has “a sweet, crisp citrus finish with just a hint of honey.”

Ok, then. There you go. It was probably the honey?

So how to make it better? Well, there’s plenty of room between this and the actual good fish fries I’ve had in my life, so improving can’t be that hard.

Here’s what I think right off the bat: make the batter more substantial. Add some corn starch to it so it really holds up. Aiming for the consistency of pancake batter probably isn’t enough to hold up with the fish and the fryer. And while I still don’t want it lumpy, maybe 50-50 flour to beer is wrong. Should probably tilt more in the direction of the flour. And when I do get the batter right, find a way to stick it to the fish better. Is that dipping the fish in flour or something before it goes into the batter? Not sure. (Maybe that’s where the corn starch comes in….)

Once it’s in the fryer, I need to give it longer. I always either pull things out of the oven too early because I’m scared of them burning (or just too hungry) or wait too long because I’m scared they’ll be raw, but they end up dried out and overcooked. It’s the same with the fryer, apparently. And pancakes, now that I think about it; I always flip pancakes too soon.

Second: flavoring.

Ugh. I’m not great with flavors, which seems like a super basic problem to have (?), but I mean that I tend to stick close to simple, unadventurous recipes and offer not a ton of imagination toward making my own variations or even finding flavors I like. I’ve been trying to work on this lately and this seems like a good exercise:

Ok, beer, flour, salt is fine, but I can add more things. Go!

The paprika and garlic powder seemed like a good instinct, but I should be afraid to add more next time. Maybe Old Bay or Lawry’s (I honestly can’t tell the difference between the two) instead next time, and use more of it. 

And the beer flavor was wrong, which has happened doing pulled pork, too — a dish that’s very hard to screw up. Again, like beer batter, the formula for pulled pork is as simple as it gets: throw the pork — try shoulder instead of tenderloin — into your slow cooker, pour in beer until it’s covered, walk away, and enjoy not needing to think about it for several hours. Then, smother it with Famous Ray’s or whatever barbecue sauce you prefer, et voila: everyone wants to invite you to their potluck! 

Dark beer, light beer, doesn’t matter. You can’t screw it up. 

Except I got ambitious with the last one and tried replicating some carnitas I had recently at an awesome little taco stand here in Pittsburgh called Bea’s Taco Town and I managed to make it almost inedible. Here’s how i did that:

The carnitas on their menu said they’d been cooked in Coca Cola and orange. Coca Cola is easy, but did “Orange” mean orange juice or orange soda? It didn’t say. Recipes I found online said juice, so I went out and bought juice. The recipes said to do like a cup of Coke, a half cup or three-quarters or something of orange juice, and then water to finish drowning the pork in the crock pot.

I thought I could replace the water with beer.

So to the fridge I went, to a random mix pack of beers that was in there, to — for some reason — a super citrussy one.. Actually, two reasons: I thought the citrus would go well with the orange juice (it didn’t) and it was the one in the rack I thought I was least likely to actually drink (I still think this).

Well, I swung for the fences and hit a high foul ball that popped up behind the plate and still hasn’t landed yet. It was awful. Just the worst. And it taught me that I shouldn’t stray away from either crisp, light lagers and pilsners, or earthy, too-heavy-to-rise-above-the-other-flavors-in-the-pot dark beers. So I am learning.

Back to the fish: a better beer will do, and by better, I mean something that’s willing to support from the background without needing to ever step out for a solo. A rhythm guitar player, if you will (you will). Like a Sam Adams or a Genny Cream Ale.

And a third improvement occurs to me, now that I think about it: what it, instead of a beer batter, it was like a buttermilk batter? I love buttermilk but I hate using it because I can never find it in a small container, so I wind up buying like half a gallon when I need half a cup. But if, after I made my buttermilk fish fry, I made buttermilk pancakes the next morning and then a batch of buttermilk biscuits that afternoon, maybe it’d be worth it.

I don’t want to leave the beer behind, but after tonight, I’m willing to give it a shot.

  1. New Belgium Dayblazer. I don’t know, I just pulled it out of the fridge. Not sure how it got there, but I’m more likely to rid the fridge of odds and ends by cooking with it than I will drinking it these days. It’s a weird situation, I know. I need to go back to just keeping a case of Molson Canadian in the house. And this isn’t a swipe at Dayblazer; it’s probably a pretty good beer to drink, just not for making fish, which probably wasn’t what they were going for anyway…


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