Making your own fish and chips can be daunting. Successful frying, for one, is an often-fraught process (you're supposed to use how much oil, again?), and what's the point of eating it at all if it's not perfectly golden-crisp? Isn't it better to leave this one to the professionals? But according to Chris Gawronski, executive chef of Chicago’s The Gage — a gastropub known for its interpretation of the classic — you don't need special skills (or a passport) to make a stellar version of the iconic indulgence of the British Isles at home. You don't even need a deep fryer.
What you do need, Gawronski explains, is a good firm white fish, flour (we'll get to that), a cast iron skillet, and alcohol — a lot of alcohol. The Gage's recipe uses three different kinds: Guinness, to bring out the dish's malty sweetness; Bass Ale, which adds a citrusy, hoppy finish; and vodka, which "brings in that potato feel." The result is "a boozy, boozy, boozy batter," but all that booze gives the fish a unique depth of flavor. Also, it's a good excuse to drink while you cook (cautiously).
But while Gawronski emphasizes that The Gage's approach is classic ("I mean, fish and chips have been done a certain way for so very long, and done really well"), they do have one secret ingredient: rice flour. It's the rice flour, he says, "that gives it that really nice, airy, crispy texture" and helps avoid sogginess, enemy number one of good fish and chips.
And for the fish itself? At The Gage, they use Atlantic cod, unless it's halibut season (mid-March through early November), in which case, "we're definitely going with halibut." The excellent flakiness and flavor, he promises, is worth the added cost. Whichever fish you choose, you want to make sure it’s cut into strips. Big fillets won’t work as well, he cautions, since "the more surface area you’re able to cover with that batter, the crispier it will be and the more evenly it will cook."
If there is a secret to frying, it is this: use hot oil (hitting 350 degrees is critical, so enlist your kitchen thermometer), and use enough oil. "Enough oil" is a lot of oil — your pan should be half-full, and your fish should be 2/3 submerged — but it's essential for success. "Go for broke," Gawronski advises. It you’re making fish and chips, make fish and chips. Or at least, make fish. For the requisite "chip," Gawronski suggests a roasted rosemary potato instead. "For me personally, fried on top of fried has a tendency to get a little bit heavy."
And you could stop there and you would be justified and triumphant and probably very full. But since we’re going for broke, you're going to want to make your own malt salt. It gives all the traditional flavor of malt vinegar, Gawronski says, without any of the condiments usual pitfalls (sogginess, overpowering pungency). Sprinkle it on top of the finish product, or get crazy and try adding some to the batter — either way, you’ll get a malty zing without "that vinegar essence basically invading your dining room.' Even the classics have room for a twist.
(A note: while this recipe makes enough batter for ten pounds of fish, Gawronski cautions against cutting it. "It's always the most depressing thing to run out of batter mid dip," he notes. Make the whole thing.)
Chris Gawronski of The Gage's Fish & Chips
For the Fish:
- Cod or halibut, cut into strips and pat dry with paper towel (assume 8-12 oz per person)
- 12 oz. Guinness
- 12 oz. Bass Ale
- 8 oz. vodka
- 2 cups rice flour
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- salt (or malt salt — recipe to follow) and pepper to taste
- Enough vegetable oil (Gawronski prefers soy bean oil, but canola is fine) to fill your skillet about half way
- Lemon wedges, for serving
For the Malt Salt
- 1 cup malt vinegar
- 1 cup kosher or sea salt
For the Roasted New Potatoes (serves 4-6)
- 2 lbs of small potatoes (Yukon Gold or fingerling)
- 1/2 cup of olive oil
- 1 tbsp fresh rosemary
- Sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
- Lemon zest and chopped parsley, to finish
For the Fish:
- Whisk all batter ingredients together until blended thoroughly. If it’s too thick, add a little bit more ale. Season according to taste.
- Dip the strips of fish in the batter to cover.
- Meanwhile, fill your cast iron skillet with vegetable oil until half full, and heat oil 350 degrees (use a kitchen thermometer to test).
- Submerge the battered fish strips into the skillet of hot oil.
- Fry until golden brown, turning it as it goes (about 3 minutes per side).
- Remove from oil, sprinkle with malt salt, and serve with wedges of lemon.
For the Malt Salt:
- Mix salt and malt vinegar together by hand until it looks like wet sand. Dry on a tray in the oven overnight. (Note: the oven should be off for this.)
For the Potatoes:
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Season potatoes evenly with oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper.
- Place seasoned potatoes into a roasting pan just big enough to hold them in a single layer.
- Roast for 30-45 minutes.
- Finish with zest of lemon and chopped parsley.