We went to the Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria yesterday and, while we were there, stopped to have a late lunch. The setting was wonderful but our fish and chips were both expensive and mediocre. They weren’t terrible or anything,—no dripping oil or soggy batter—they were just unremarkable.
Living on Vancouver Island, with Victoria nearby, it’s not surprising that fish and chips are on our menu several times a year. Nor is it surprising that we’re picky about the way it’s cooked and served. After all, Victoria can be more English than England and the island is surrounded by water abundant with fish.
Still, yesterday’s meal got me thinking: What makes a good plate of fish and chips?
Local fish is an excellent place to start. Depending upon where you are in the world, fish and chips can be made from cod, halibut, haddock, plaice, pollock, whiting, barramundi, shark, flounder, or even catfish. Whatever firm white fish is locally available and in season can be pressed into service for this dish. As long as it’s fresh, sustainable, and local, it’s likely to be a good choice.
The fat the fish and chips are fried in is very important. The first fish and chips vendors fried their fish in either beef drippings or lard. Lard still makes an excellent choice because it adds a fine flavour to the finished dish, but I don’t recommend buying it commercially processed. The lard you find on your grocery store shelves is partially hydrogenated to extend its shelf life. The same is true of most lard you buy at the butcher’s shop. If you are going to fry with lard, take the time to render it yourself. If this seems like too much work, then opt for more convenient (but less flavourful) canola or peanut oil.
The batter used on the fish needs some consideration too. Traditionally, fish and chip batter is either made from a combination of water, flour, baking soda and vinegar, or from flour and beer. Either option will provide carbonation that serves to lighten the texture of the finished product. The batter should be kept very cold and the fish should be dredged lightly in flour before it’s battered.
A correct cooking temperature is essential. If the oil is too cold, the fish will be soggy and oily. If the oil is too hot, the fish will not be cooked through. If you start with your oil at about 360ºF, it will decrease to about 350º once the fish is dropped in. That’s pretty nearly exactly right. The fish should be cooked until it’s golden brown on both sides.
Proper seasoning is important. Season the fish and chips with salt and pepper as soon as they come out of the fryer, while they are still slightly moist and will hold on to the seasoning.
Thick cut potato chips that are crispy outside and light and fluffy inside are the essential other half of your plate. They need to be chunkier than American fries and they need to be soaked in ice water for at least an hour before they’re cooked. When it’s time to cook them, you must pat them completely dry and then fry them twice: First for 5 minutes at 350ºF and then again at 375º, to crisp the outside of the chips and give them colour.
In an ideal world, this perfect meal of fish and chips would be served wrapped in white paper and then in newsprint, both to keep it warm and to blot up any excess oil. It would be accompanied by malt vinegar, tartar sauce, and crispy coleslaw and it would be eaten while still piping hot. I can see it (and taste it) in my imagination now.
What’s your favourite fish and chips shop? And where would you most like to enjoy that fish and chips meal?