Southern Fried Catfish

Southern Fried Catfish is easy to make and this restaurant-quality recipe won’t disappoint! You’ll love this 3-step, 7-ingredient recipe and it’s ready in less than 20-minutes! The crispy fish coating contains no egg or flour so if you’re on a gluten-free diet, this fish is for you! Tartar sauce recipe included!

Fried catfish filets with tartar sauce in a ramekin and lemons on the side.

Ingredients

The batter and seasonings for Southern catfish fillets are: buttermilk, cornmeal, frying oil (use a high heat oil like canola, vegetable or peanut oil), cayenne pepper, salt and pepper, a little fresh lemon juice or a splash of Louisiana Hot Sauce for finishing touches. Note, this catfish batter recipe contains no egg and no flour – just cornmeal and seasonings! How simple is that?

How to make crispy fried catfish

Simple, 3-step recipe that’s proven time and time again to work! I think you’ll find this simple method results in the best catfish breading – light, crispy and flavorful! First, soak the fish filets in buttermilk; then dredge them through a seasoned cornmeal mixture and place in a piping hot skillet with frying oil.

Here’s a visual overview; see recipe card below for details.

Numbered three step fried fish preparation.

If you thought frying fish was an all-day event, you are wrong! I use a 10″inch cast-iron skillet and cook two fillets at a time.

Fried catfish with lemon and tartar sauce on a white platte.

Serve individually or on a platter! Complete your fish dinner with some of these favorite Southern side dishes!

Expert Tips

Frying fish isn’t hard, but requires a little practice and expertise.  Here are tips to help your catfish turn out superb!

  • Type of frying pan – I recommend using a cast-iron skillet or a tall stock pot or Dutch oven so when you flip the catfish fillet, it doesn’t splatter all over.

  • Type of oil- This is important and key to this recipe. Use a high-heat oil: either canola, vegetable, walnut, grapeseed or peanut. Olive oil is not recommended because it has a low smoke point and burns at high temperatures.

  • Temperature- This is the most common challenge for homemade fried fish. For restaurant-quality fried catfish at home, the oil has to be hot enough, but not quite to the smoking point.Restaurants fry at 350ºF, but that’s too hot for me, so at home, I fry fish around 312-325ºF

The best way to determine if it’s hot enough for frying is to use a good thermometer. Another good way to determine if it’s is hot enough (or too hot) is to sprinkle a little cornmeal in it. If it sizzles, it’s hot enough. If it doesn’t sizzle, raise the temperature and re-test.

Catfish frying tips and how to keep the batter from falling off

  • Fry the catfish fillets in batches, usually one or two fillets at a time.
  • Once the fillet is placed in the pan DON’T TOUCH IT for at least 3 minutes. As tempting as it may be to turn it–don’t. Three minutes allows the bottom side of the fillet to cook and become firm. Once the bottom is a light golden brown, flip the fillet.
  • After flipping the fillet, let it cook for another 3 minutes… again, DON’T TOUCH IT.
  • Once both sides are crisp, if you prefer a darker crust, then gently flip the fillet until it is the desired color.
  • Place cooked fillets on a paper towel to drain, then place them in a 200ºF oven uncovered. (When covered with foil, they get mushy and all your patience is in vain.)
  • The first batch always turns out lighter than the others because the oil is fresh. If the darker color bother you, start over with new oil for each batch

If you’re wondering what to serve with fried catfish, here are some delicious sides that are quick and easy to make.

Coleslaw always goes well, as does Smothered Okra and Tomatoes, Maple Baked Beans, Pinto Beans and Rice and a heapin’ bowl of Southern collard greens!

If you’re not in the mood for a full blown catfish dinner, then cut the fish into bite sized pieces and make catfish nuggets! These are great for a quick snack or appetizer!

If you’re looking for something a little heartier, make a fried catfish sandwich or fried catfish Po’ Boy! Just get a hoagie bun, add a little Louisiana remoulade sauce or tartar sauce, some lettuce and a fried catfish fillet!

Storage

Wrap in foil and store for up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Freezing is not recommended.

Make in advance and reheating

Wrap the cooked and cooled catfish fillets in foil and refrigerate. Make sure the fillets are cooled before wrapping them in the foil, otherwise, they’ll get soggy in the fridge. When you’re ready to serve, remove the foil and place fillets on baking sheet in a 450ºF oven for about 15-minutes.

Why do I need to soak the catfish in buttermilk?

Soaking fish in buttermilk is a method for minimizing the “fishy” smell. Catfish are bottom-feeders, meaning they swim on the bottom of the lake or reservoir floor.

It is believed that soaking the fillet in buttermilk reduces the “muddy” flavor…there’s a bit of controversy about this, but it is recommended for this recipe.

Fried catfish filets with tartar sauce.

Southern Fried Catfish

Restaurant-quality catfish fried in a tasty cornmeal batter, served with homemade tartar sauce. Batter is gluten-free and contains no flour or eggs.
5 from 123 votes
Print Rate
Course: Entree
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Soak in Buttermilk: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 fillets
Author: Anecia Hero

Ingredients 

Catfish Coating Ingredients

  • 4 fillets catfish a little over a pound, total
  • cups oil vegetable, canola or peanut oil (you may need more or less; depends on how deep your skillet is) See Recipe Notes
  • 2 cups cornmeal yellow
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper (red pepper, ground)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

Tartar Sauce Ingredients

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • tablespoons relish , (dill or sweet); squeezed in a paper towel
  • ¼ teaspoon onion powder
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon

Instructions 

Catfish Fillet Preparation

  • Pat fillets with paper towel
    4 fillets catfish
  • Place fish in a large baking dish or plastic storage bag, pour in buttermilk; coat well; allow to sit for 10-minutes in refrigerator
    1 cup buttermilk
  • Meanwhile, make tartar sauce; After the tartar sauce is made, coat and cook the fish

Coating Preparation

  • In a large bowl, add cornmeal, salt, pepper and cayenne; stir with fork till blended
    2 cups cornmeal, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • Using a cast-iron, or heavy bottom skillet, pour oil into skillet and heat to medium; 
    1½ cups oil
  • While oil is heating, take a fillet directly from the buttermilk and place it in the cornmeal; pat the cornmeal on the fillet; coat it all over, twice; repeat with remaining fillets
  • Check your skillet; the oil needs to be around 312 - 350ºF; you can sprinkle a few pieces of cornmeal in the oil to see if it sizzles; if it does sizzle, the oil is ready
  • Cooking in batches of two fillets, place them in the hot oil; DO NOT MOVE THE FILLETS until they've cooked for 2 1/2 - 3 minutes on one side
  • After 2 1/2 -3 minutes, use tongs and flip the fish over and cook for an additional 3 minutes
  • Use a thermometer to measure internal temperature; it should be 145ºF
  • Remove fillets from oil and place on a paper towel
  • Repeat until all fillets are cooked and drained
  • Plate fillets and serve with lemon and tartar sauce

Tartar Sauce Preparation

  • In a small bowl, combine all ingredients; refrigerate until ready to serve
    1 cup mayonnaise, 2½ tablespoons relish, ¼ teaspoon onion powder, ¼ teaspoon garlic powder, ¼ teaspoon sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vinegar

Notes

  • If using frozen catfish, thaw fish first by rinsing in cold water in a colander or allowing to thaw in the refrigerator
  • Use a heavy-duty skillet (cast-iron) or Dutch oven 
  • The amount of oil depends upon the size of your skillet; you want about 2" inches of oil
  • If the oil starts to smoke, turn the heat down and remove the skillet from the burner for a few minutes. After the heat has been reduced, put the skillet back on the burner. Keep an eye on the oil.
  • Do not move the catfish fillets for the first 3-minutes; if you do, the coating will fall apart. Just stand there and watch...and wait
  • When flipping the fillets, use tongs or a spider
  • Your second batch of fillets will be darker than the first; that's because they're being cooked in oil that's already been used. If this really bugs you, throw out the first batch of oil and start over.
  • Use a thermometer; internal temperature should be 145ºF
Don't have buttermilk?
Make your own! Add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice to 1 cup of plain milk. Stir it and let it sit for a few minutes at room temperature. Now you have buttermilk!

Nutrition Estimate

Serving: 1filletCalories: 1469kcalCarbohydrates: 65gProtein: 11gFat: 131gSaturated Fat: 15gPolyunsaturated Fat: 51gMonounsaturated Fat: 61gTrans Fat: 1gCholesterol: 27mgSodium: 1252mgPotassium: 403mgFiber: 8gSugar: 6gVitamin A: 604IUVitamin C: 2mgCalcium: 84mgIron: 3mg
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50 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    This was crisp and delish. The instructions were easy to follow making it easy to be successful. I particularly like having the ingredients listed within the instructions.

  2. 5 stars
    Perfect! Hubby says “It’s better than our go-to catfish spot”. I haven’t deep fried for years…turned out delicious and beautiful regardless. Highly recommended!

  3. 5 stars
    I made this last night, turned out Amazing!!!!! I’m not apprehensive about frying fish anymore. Thank you. Can you use the coating for other fish?

    1. You can make buttermilk by adding fresh lemon juice to plain milk. I use 1 tablespoon fresh lemon per 1 cup of milk. Let it sit for a few minutes and you have buttermilk!

  4. 5 stars
    Have fried catfish like this for years. Can’t beat tried and true recipe like this one. Great recipe. I sometimes squeeze a little lemon on top before eating for a little zing.

  5. In the process of making this right now, you said to coat twice and I’m Confused, do I dip the fish back into the buttermilk after I coat it with the cornmeal the first time? Hopefully I will get a response soon, if not, I’m double Dippin! Hope it works.

    1. I coat it twice with the cornmeal. If you “double dip” it (back and forth) between the cornmeal and buttermilk, your coating will be thicker. You can do it either way!

  6. 5 stars
    I tried the cornmeal batter, along with the tartar sauce and it came out delicious. I will be using this recipe for the catfish from now on. Very… very delicious!!!

  7. Cooked catfish like this my whole life. Great recipe! Like to know if this would work for flounder/cod ?. Thanks

    1. Hey Jim! Thank you for your comments about the fried catfish! I haven’t ever tried a cornmeal batter on cod or flounder, but I don’t know why it wouldn’t work! For cod, I usually use a pub-style batter!

      1. Growing up my parents fried fish , any kind of fish in cornmeal❤❤ put cornmeal in a brown bag add fish and shake, shake. The best!! Did the same with chicken but with seasoned flour.❤❤

  8. 5 stars
    I can’t believe how easy this is. Used a thermometer to get exact temperature. Followed your instructions to a T. Nothing better than this recipe. No need to look any further. Compliments to the chef!!!