For many in the U.S., a fish fry is a great opportunity for community socialization and fundraising. And we see them everywhere during the Lenten season. However, fried fish isn’t restricted to just one season.  Let’s talk about the U.S. history of a fish fry, what a fish fry dinner consists of, and some tips and tricks to make your next fish fry a success.

Fish Fry History

In the Southeastern U.S., a community fish fry originated out of economic necessity. For most low-income farmers, fish was a dietary staple since it was free and abundant. However, due to warm southern temperatures and lack of refrigeration, fish had to be eaten quickly. If a family caught more fish than they could consume, they would host a party for their friends and neighbors. These eventually became social events taking place on Saturday nights or after church on Sunday afternoons.

In the Midwest and Northeastern U.S., a fish fry would be commonplace among Catholic communities who were taught to abstain from meat on Fridays. Most modern Catholics now only abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, so fish fries have become more prominent on the Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, in Wisconsin, a fish fry remains a year-round Friday night tradition for everyone. Whether in Wisconsin or the rest of the Midwest or Northeast, fish fries are often hosted by non-chain restaurants, local community groups (Knights of Columbus, VFW’s, VFD’s), Catholic or Protestant churches, and even some public schools.

People in the Northern U.S. and parts of Canada might know a fish fry better as shore lunch. The only difference between these two events is when and where they’re held. A shore lunch is an outdoor event happening in the warmer months. A fish fry is typically indoors in the winter.

Fish Fry Meals

A typical fish fry meal features battered or breaded fish. The fish might also be served with a side of french fries, coleslaw, or hushpuppies and a flavoring such as lemon slices, tartar sauce, hot sauce, or malt vinegar. Most meals also come with a dessert.

The fish you eat and how it’s battered depends on your location. Those in the Southeastern U.S. may use bream, catfish, flounder, or bass (whatever is local) battered and deep fried in cooking oil. The batter is usually made from corn meal, milk, buttermilk, and some seasonings. In the Northeastern U.S., particularly in upstate New York and northwestern Pennsylvania, people prefer battered or breaded local haddock or cod.

Fish Fry Tips & Tricks

The main ingredient of any fish fry is good, local fish. You don’t need to get too fancy with your fish selection. You also have lots of different options when it comes to the batter. Two common batters include tempura batter and buttermilk batter. Tempura batter will create a lighter fry while buttermilk batter leads to a thicker, darker, crunchier fry. Beer batter is another common option. Many chefs use alcohol, like beer or vodka, to add a crispier texture to their fry.

Other tips to create a crispier fish fry include:

  • Replace 1/5 of the liquid with vinegar
  • Add one or two tablespoons of mayonnaise
  • Substitute cornstarch for up to 1/4 of your flour
  • Use cake flour instead of all-purpose flour

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