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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Home Cooked British Traditional Fish and Chips

Cod and haddock are the traditional fish of choice for this dish, but there are concerns about sustainability and over-fishing; please consider this when buying your fish.  In the UK, gurnard and pollack are currently a good choice.  Consult your fishmonger (or the internet) for ethically sourced fish in your area.  And do use fresh fish – a defrosted previously frozen fillet will be tasteless, and give a “cotton wool” texture.

Also, please do not attempt this in the old-fashioned “house fire waiting to happen” chip pan full of boiling oil on the hob.  I once saw Ken Hom do a sketch on TV, cooking fish and chips at a fire station in a wok full of oil that teetered on a gas burner.  You could just see the crowd of firefighters tensing, while grinning for the cameras, waiting for the flames, and desperate to say “Don’t try this at home!”   Instead, use an electric, thermostatically controlled deep fat fryer.  I use a 3L stainless steel machine, which doesn’t take up too much worktop space, and stores away neatly (when cold) in the cupboard.

A note for non-UK readers: when the British talk about chips, we mean a thicker, chunkier version of French Fries.  Full instructions below.


The fish – 6-8oz/170-225g white fish fillet, from sustainable stocks, skin on, per person
The chips – about 8oz/225g raw weight of chips (cut from floury potatoes) per person
The batter – 8oz/225 gram self raising flour (important), a pinch of ground turmeric powder (optional), plenty of salt and ground white pepper,  enough cold water to mix to a coating consistency (see method).  One tablespoon/15ml/1fl oz malt vinegar.
(Or try Beer Batter – see very end)

Also, enough plain flour, liberally seasoned with salt and pepper, in a dish, to coat the fillets before battering – this helps the batter to cling to the fish
A large pan of boiling water
Oil for deep frying – see second paragraph above for safety advice


The chips – choose fairly large, floury potatoes.  Peel, then cut chips; we want old-fashioned chunky chips here, so try to get them about 4in/10cm long, and 0.5in/1.5cm deep and wide.  If you want to be cheffy, you can get them to an exactly uniform size, and square off the ends.

Step one – tip the raw chips into boiling water, reduce to simmer, watch carefully; when they are just starting to soften, and can be penetrated by a sharp knife/skewer, but before they become fragile and start to fall apart, drain and plunge immediately into cold water to stop any further cooking.  Dry thoroughly with a cloth, and leave to go cold.

Step two – heat oil to 140C/275F.  Lower chips in the fryer basket and let cook for five to ten minutes.  After five minutes or so, remove a chip and “taste test” it.  At this stage it should be fluffy inside, but not particularly crispy on the outside (this comes at the next stage) – if the chip is not fluffy, give them a little longer, then repeat the taste test until satisfied.

Step three – raise oil temperature to full blast; depending on your machine, this will probably be around the 190C/375F mark.  Return chips to hot oil, shaking and agitating now and again, until the chips are golden and crispy, and will make a “rustling” noise when you lift the basket to shake off excess oil.

Note: you can omit step one, and compensate by giving the chips at step two a little longer to cook and soften.  You are, however, going to get a fluffier, crispier chip by doing all three stages.   For convenience, you can do step one way ahead and refrigerate until ready.

The batter – mix all the dry ingredients.  The turmeric, although optional, adds a nice depth of colour to the cooked batter.  Whisk thoroughly by hand or machine, adding the water carefully – it is impossible to say how much to use, as flour varies so much in its capacity to take up fluids.  What you are looking for is a consistency somewhere between double and single cream.  Frankly, the best test is to dip your finger in it, and see that the batter clings to your digit.  Don’t worry about any little lumps and bumps in the batter, these all add to the character.

Add the vinegar, whisking well, just before you are ready to coat and fry the fish – the acid in the vinegar reacts with the bicarbonate of soda in the self-raising flour, and makes for a lovely, airy-yet crisp cooked result.

Cooking the fish: Oil temperature to 190C/375F, as for chips step three.  Dust the fillets in the seasoned flour, then dip into the batter.  Immediately, and carefully, lay the fillet into the hot oil away from you so you don’t splash yourself.  The basket in the fryer should be down at this stage.  After a second or two, give the basket handle a good shake, so the batter doesn’t cling to the mesh and the fish comes free.  You probably won’t want to do more than two fillets of fish at a time, or they will be too crammed in, won’t cook properly, and will stick together.

Continue to fry for six to seven minutes, depending on the thickness of your fillets.  After a couple of minutes, the fish will tend to rise to the surface, indicating that the batter is sealed and the air bubbles are expanding.  Using tongs, turn the fish occasionally.  When the batter is a nice golden brown all over, the fish is ready.

Remove from the fryer, and leave to drain.

How to get it all to your table, piping hot, when using a single domestic-type deep fat fryer.

Cook the chips as step one (remember, this can be done well in advance, even the day before) and step two.  Tip the chips into a bowl, cover with a towel and fry the fish as above.  When the fish is ready, remove to a rack in an suitable heat proof dish or tray, and rest in a warm oven.  Cook the chips as step three, shake off excess oil, then tip into a warm bowl.  Immediately return the fish to the hot oil, for only 30 seconds to one minute, which will ensure the batter is as crisp as possible.

Plate the chips, and pop a fish fillet on top of each pile of chips.  Add extras and garnishes such as a grilled tomato, peas (mushy or otherwise), tartare sauce, tomato sauce, a sprig of parsley, a lemon wedge, vinegar and more salt at your preference.

This meal will be the fantasy fish and chips that you’ve always wanted, but sadly, rarely get nowadays from a fish shop – all too often we are served tasteless once-frozen fish in a soggy batter, and lacklustre chips, probably also from a frozen bag.  If you have a good local chippy, treasure it, use it, and, if necessary, nag them about sustainable alternatives.

On the ethically-sourced fish note, I went to a fish and chip shop a few years back, and asked what they had apart from cod and haddock, as, I said, I was concerned about the sustainability, over-fishing, and general decline of the fish stocks.  “Don’t worry,” I was told, “We’ll always be able to get cod and haddock”, rather missing the point, I feel.

Note: Beer Batter.  This is another traditional batter used for fish.  If you’d like to try it as an alternative, follow the batter recipe given above, but substitute beer for the water.  Mix just before you are ready to use.  You will not need to add any vinegar, as the beer will react with the bicarbonate in the flour to aerate it.  Any alcohol will be cooked out by the frying process.

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