How to Fry Catfish to Crispy Perfection

Grab your filets and soak up these expert tips from pitmaster Rodney Scott.

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Photo by Jerrelle Guy
Photo by Jerrelle Guy

There’s nothing better than a crispy piece of catfish on a slice of white bread—drizzled with hot sauce, of course. A true delicacy of the South, perfectly seasoned catfish makes appearances at fish fries, post-church gatherings, and at tons of restaurants all claiming theirs is the best.

But frying it yourself at home isn’t that hard, and with the help of James Beard Award-winning pitmaster Rodney Scott, you’ll be a frying pro in no time. 

Although Scott—who co-founded Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina—specializes in smoked meat techniques, his cookbook Rodney Scott's World of BBQ: Every Day Is a Good Day contains recipes for a variety of stove-cooked dishes, including one for fried catfish. His recipe is based on his late grandmother’s, which he says he tried to replicate through memory. 

“I remember her cooking it in cornmeal and I remember mostly eating fish on Friday for some weird reason,” he says. “It was so well-seasoned that you could just eat the fish by itself.” 

Scott would eat it accompanied by rice or grits, or just in between two pieces of bread for a delectable fried fish sandwich. When he first opened Rodney Scott’s, he knew his grandmother’s dish had to be on the menu. He, of course, uses cornmeal like his grandmother and adds cayenne and Jesus’ Tears (what Scott lovingly calls MSG) for extra kick. “It reminds me of my childhood every time I bite into a piece of that catfish,” Scott says. 

Rodney Scott’s BBQ

When you bite into your catfish, the first thing you should get is crispiness, followed by the dust of cayenne, which Scott said is the only ingredient different from his recipe versus his grandmother’s. “It’s tender on the inside, but still has that outside crunch. Not too crunchy, but just a nice little crust with that flaky white center,” he says.

For first-time catfish fryers, Scott’s first piece of advice is to make sure that, if you don’t like the smell of fried fish in your house, fry it outside. It definitely permeates. But if you don’t mind the smell and have no important errands to run that day, Scott then advises to make sure your oil and heat temperatures are high enough.

“If you don’t have a thermometer, you can take a pinch of cornmeal and drop it in the grease, and if it floats, it’s not ready,” he says. “If you drop it in there and it kind of sizzles and kind of fries out immediately, then your grease is at the perfect temperature.”

He also says that adding too many pieces of catfish to the pan at once can cook the oil down and lower its temperature. After laying in the first two pieces, take a moment to pause because you don’t want to crowd the pan.

Scott says that the best way to determine if your catfish is done is if you start to see it float in the pan a little. “It's not alive again,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just starting to float a little bit in the oil. That’s when you know it’s pretty much done.”

Rodney Scott’s Fried Catfish Recipe

Serves 4-6

• 2 cups cornmeal, preferably fine ground
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
• 2 teaspoons MSG
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
• 3 pounds catfish fillets
• 4 cups vegetable oil, for frying

1. In a bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt, 1 teaspoon of the MSG, the black pepper, and 1 teaspoon of the cayenne. Mix until thoroughly combined. Coat the catfish fillets in the cornmeal mixture, making sure both sides are completely covered.
2. Set a cooling rack on a sheet pan. Add enough oil to a large cast-iron skillet to fill it by 2 inches and heat over medium-high heat to 350°F.
3. Working in batches to avoid crowding, gently add the catfish, a few fillets at a time, and fry until golden brown on the bottom, 3-4 minutes. Carefully flip the fillets and cook until golden brown on the second side, another 3-4 minutes. Transfer the batches to the cooling  rack as you work.
4.In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1 teaspoon MSG and 1 teaspoon cayenne. Sprinkle this over the catfish while they are still hot.

Reprinted with permission from Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ: Every Day is a Good Day by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie Copyright © 2021 by Rodney Scott’s BBQ, LLC, a South Carolina limited liability company. Photographs copyright © 2021 by Jerrelle Guy. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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Kristen Adaway is a former staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her @kristenadaway.