My extra virgin olive oil is the most frequently reached for bottle in my cupboard. But while the virtues of olive oil are many, there are some situations for which it’s not a good option. If you’re getting ready to fry up some delicate, flaky, tender-on-the-inside and hot, crisp-battered-on-the-outside fish, put the olive oil down!
So what is the right oil for frying fish? You’ll need to decide how you want to cook your fish and go from there. I’ll discuss the mechanics and recommend some specific types of oil, too.
Let’s Get Frying!
The first questions you’ll want to answer are what kind of fish you’re frying and whether or not you’ll be coating your fish in batter. Whether you batter fry or not will have an impact on the type of oil you’ll be using.
Pan-seared (no batter)
Different types of fish will taste and cook differently. You’ll want to take the flavor of the fish into account when you’re deciding how to cook it. Fattier, less delicate fish like salmon or tuna are typically cooked without a batter, as their fatty meat can be pan-seared to delicious effect with a crisp exterior and moist interior. In these cases, a small bit of olive oil will actually work well, and the oils of the fish itself will also do some of the work.
Take a look at this tutorial for some tips on how to get a perfect, crisp pan-seared salmon:
Deep Batter Fried
- The question of what oil to use gets trickier when you’re planning to batter and deep fry your fish to make a fish-and-chips style fried fish.
- Battering your fish is a good idea when you’re working with a delicate fish such as cod, tilapia, haddock, and other flaky white fishes. These fish cook very quickly and can become tough if exposed to high temperatures. The layer of batter protects the fish’s meat, taking on the direct heat of the oil so that the fish is effectively steamed inside this layer of batter.
- Proper technique is hard to master and takes some trial and error. For example, the temperature drops when you place your fish in the oil, something to keep in mind when deciding how much oil to use and how many pieces of fish to fit into your pan.
- It’s also good to have a plan for when you remove your fish from frying, like letting the pieces rest on a cooling rack.
- Take a look at this video for some more tips on deep frying your fish:
- The next important thing to learn about cooking oils when choosing the best oil for frying fish is the smoking point. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which a cooking oil will begin to break down and smoke when heated. When this starts to happen, the oil will impart off-flavors to your food, and even more significantly, potentially cancer-causing free radicals!
- But in order to get your batter nice and crisp and cooked through (no soggy half-cooked batter, please!), you need to be able to hit fairly high cooking temperatures. Oils with a comparatively low smoke point simply cannot reach the temperature you need and will not be well suited for this style of cooking. This post from Serious Eats goes into more detail about smoke points and includes a chart of different oils and their smoke points.
- Oils with a high smoke point include: Safflower oil, Peanut oil, Soybean oil, Corn oil, Sunflower oil, Vegetable oil, Canola oil, Avocado oil, and animal fat oils like beef tallow, chicken fat, and clarified butter. Olive oil has a low smoke point, and is better suited for low-heat sautéing or dressings.
- Here’s a round-up of some of the attributes and benefits of different oils for frying fish.
As mentioned, olive oil isn’t necessarily the best option for high heat frying. But it’s still worth your consideration because it’s one of the healthiest oils and widely available. For the right fried fish dishes, olive oil can still work well.
Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil should be used primarily for dressings and low heat frying like sautéing. You might use it for a sautéed shrimp dish, for example. Keep in mind that extra-virgin olive oil has a strong flavor, so you’ll want to be sure it complements the dish.
An excellent extra virgin olive oil is made by Papa Vince. This one is cold-pressed and unfiltered from olive trees in Sicily. This is my favorite choice—a family-owned company, an excellent, delicious olive oil! Try this when you sauté some shrimp for these shrimp sandwiches with saffron aioli. Yum!
You can also use lighter olive oil, such as “virgin” or “pure” olive oil, for a fish fry at a higher temperature, like pan-seared salmon. These lighter olive oil options still have some flavor, but much less so than extra-virgin. Here’s a classic, simple recipe for pan-fried salmon with dill butter.
I’m a fan of good old Bertolli Extra Light Olive Oil for this use. It is easy to find, inexpensive, and consistent in quality.
Peanut oil is an especially good choice for deep frying. It has a very high smoke point (450ºF) and doesn’t have a strong flavor. It is fairly easy to find and is moderately priced.
One drawback to peanut oil is that peanuts are a common allergen. Most peanut oils are safe for people with peanut allergies (though not cold-pressed or expelled “gourmet” peanut oils), but you may want to avoid it just to be safe.
Another drawback is that peanut oil is typically extracted chemically, which may be of concern to some people.
Snappy Popcorn Peanut Oil comes in a big gallon jug—very cost-effective if you’re planning to deep fry with it. Users, myself included, find it has a very neutral taste and is perfect for getting a crisp batter that’s not too greasy.
Canola oil or vegetable oil is another one of the best choices for frying fish. It has a high enough smoke point at 400ºF that can work for deep-frying fish, and it is actually high in Omega 3’s, which is an added benefit. It is also fairly cheap and easily found in large grocery stores.
Some cooking forum commenters note that they find canola has a peculiar and unpleasant taste. Others find it to be neutral. I have never experienced an unpleasant taste with canola, but you’ll have to taste for yourself. The smoke point of canola oil is high, which is a benefit because then that flavor will not transfer to your fish.
Another issue is that canola is usually genetically modified, which may also be of concern to you. Unless the oil is organic, it is likely extracted using hexane, a chemical that, while found in very trace amounts in the oil, makes some cooks nervous.
I like to go with an organic option here, to avoid concerns over chemical extraction and GMO’s. La Tourangelle canola oil has a nice, neutral flavor that works well for whatever type of fish you’re frying up.
Avocado oil is an alluring choice as a very healthy option. It’s high in Vitamin E and has a balance of monounsaturated fats. It also has a high smoke point, so it can work well if you’re batter and deep frying your fish.
The primary drawback to avocado oil is the price. It’s typically quite expensive, and particularly when deep frying and using a large amount of oil, it won’t be very cost-effective.La Tourangelle is a beautiful avocado oil that works well for frying fish. As a bonus, many users also find it is great for hair and skin!
The Final Word for Frying Up Your Fish
I have been working on my technique for getting pub-style fish and chips. My first attempt at deep-fried fish left my fish soggy. My second attempt left my fish overcooked. On my last attempt, I finally approached something like a perfect, batter-fried fish.
My favorite oil so far has been peanut. I really like the light, neutral flavor, and I’ve been able to get that high heat that is needed for a good batter fry.
But I do still reach for my extra virgin olive oil when I’m sautéing or light pan-frying my fish. In these cases, it’s Papa Vince all the way!
What’s your favorite cooking oil for frying fish? Have you mastered a good deep fry? Let us know in the comments!