Some of the best camp meals are those that feature the fresh catch of the day – fillets covered in a light, crispy, flavorful coating – laid down into a skillet of oil heated over the blazing campfire. A good mixture of coating ingredients, either “store bought” or “secret family recipe” needs to enhance, not overpower, that delectable flavor of walleye, crappie, or whatever the species du jour.
The foundation/base of most coatings is typically either corn meal or flour. As a kid growing up in Missouri, the only coating I had ever tasted was the seasoned corn meal crispness of a pan-fried catfish. Flour based coatings were more of a Minnesota thing to me, dedicated to delectable walleyes or a mess of sunnies and other small panfish. Both added a special texture to the already heavenly natural taste of those fresh morsels of fish.
Corn meal based coatings, from my experience, tend to create a more crispy texture, albeit sometimes a bit grainy/gritty depending upon how much meal is incorporated into the mix. Flour bases, on the other hand, tend to be more crust-like in their texture and taste.
In kitchen testing one of each bases, the one difference I noticed between two popular brands (corn meal-based Andy’s Fish Breading and unbleached flour-based Sturdiwheat’s 10,000 Lakes Cajun Fish Coating) was that the flour based had a very slight bread toast aftertaste to it. Not at all unpleasant or distracting, but definitely noticeable compared to the corn meal coating.
The key to frying a fresh fillet of fish is the temperature of the oil. Most sources recommend oil heated to right around 375ºF; none recommend higher heat while a few suggest slight lower by ten degrees or so. As in all forms of frying, too high a temperature of the oil and the coating will start to burn; not hot enough and the coating/food starts to absorb the oil. In my kitchen test, both the corn meal and flour came out perfect although the cornmeal tended to be more uniformly golden across the fillet.
Coatings can be applied dry to a bare fillet or added after the fish is dipped in a wash made from combining egg and milk (Andy’s) or water (Sturdiwheat). When coatings are applied to fish that will be baked or broiled, the seasonings used in each are more noticeable than when fried. The flour-based Sturdiwheat can be made into a tempura-like batter as well – Yummy!
Another tasty use of fish coatings, particularly the corn meal base, is as a dry coating on veggies such as potato slices (quite yummy!) and zucchini sticks.
Both types of coatings are easy to carry along and quick to coat – making them great staples for the camp kitchen. Again, make sure your oil is just the right temperature by simply dropping a test piece into the oil and watch your heat – and then let your taste buds do the rest!
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