Forget the old preconceptions, with the right choice of oil, deep-frying can be as straightforward and rewarding as any other method of cooking your fish. Whether you are looking to fry hake or whitebait in the flavorsome street-food style of the freiduría bars of southern Spain, prepare a healthy Japanese tempura, or are opting to cook something more ambitious like a Thai Pla Lui Suan (a whole, deep-fried tilapia), choosing the best oil for deep frying fish is critical to the success of the dish.
How to Choose the Best Oil for Deep Frying Fish
There is an ever-increasing number of oil products to choose from. You could use a seed oil like flax, sunflower or sesame, or one of the many nut oils such as almond, palm, peanut or coconut. There are fruits oils, including olive and avocado, and grain oils made most commonly from corn or wheat. A bean oil like soy is also an option.
These oils are all extracted in two general ways. Either by an ‘unrefined’ one-stage process known as cold-pressing (most commonly associated with the production of virgin olive oil and higher grade nut oils) or by a more complex, ‘refined’ set of chemical procedures (that will yield familiar versions of sunflower and vegetable oil). A variety of animal fats and clarified butters, like ghee or beef tallow, can also be used. The character of the oil and its suitability for deep-frying depends entirely on these two factors – the source ingredient and the process used to produce it.
Here are a few simple rules of thumb to help you along the way: In the first instance, cooking oils that can be heated gradually to a very high temperature (between 320 and 465°F) without burning or producing fumes are essential. Unrefined sunflower, peanut, avocado, soybean, corn, and canola are all examples of oils with a high ‘smoke point’. Although many guides recommend only using cold-pressed oils for cooking, if you want to use an oil with a naturally lower smoke point such as olive oil, a refined version may be the better option as it is capable of reaching a higher temperature. Claudia Roden, one of the foremost authorities on Mediterranean cooking, in her book The Food of Spain, recommends that you deep-fry fish with refined rather than virgin olive oil.
The next big thing to consider is the flavor. Some experts suggest using neutral oils such as sunflower, peanut, grapeseed or canola, and on the whole, these oils are a safer bet than some of the more pungent oils that could change the character or risk overpowering your fish. Most deep-frying from Southeast Asia utilizes one of these passive oils anyway. Chef Ching-He Huang’s delicious Hong Kong-style fried fish recipe, for example, recommends using canola (or rapeseed) oil in the wok (a great tool for anyone interested in any style of deep-frying).
However, never be afraid to do as Claudia Roden suggests and use a more flavorsome oil if you’re looking for an authentic provincial taste. Olive oil is a legitimate choice when cooking fish in a southern European or Middle Eastern style, just as corn oil would be if you were attempting a traditional Mississippi catfish recipe.
Top 10 Best Oil for Deep Frying Fish
Nutritionists recommend avocado oil if you want to explore healthier ways of deep-frying. An artisan oil company, La Tourganelle’s handcrafted Delicate Avocado Oil is the best of these. Over its 150-year history, La Tourganelle has grown from humble beginnings in France’s Loire valley to become a trans-Atlantic concern. Many of its excellent products now derive from a mill in Woodland, California.
- A very high smoke point, which will enhance the crispiness of your deep-fried fish.
- A versatile kitchen oil, it can also be used to make dressings or mayonnaise.
- Rich in vitamin E, healthy omega-9 fatty acids, and lutein.
- Natural moisturizing for skin and hair are amongst its proven cosmetic uses.
- An expensive choice.
- A nutty, some say buttery flavor that, while not overpowering, will change the taste of your fish slightly.
If it’s a traditional British fish and chip dinner you’re looking to recreate, consider using Essential Depot’s authentic beef tallow product. Tallow, or dripping (as it’s known in the UK), produces a strong aroma when cooking and gives a distinctive meaty flavor to the fish. It also guarantees a perfectly crisp batter and will fry longer without degrading than many common oils, so you’ll have more time to deliver multiple portions.
The doyenne of British seafood, Rick Stein, certainly swears by it. “The best fish and chips in the world come from Yorkshire because they use pure beef dripping, and that’s what we use here,” says Stein, himself an owner of two fine chippies in Cornwall. Carefully heat the tallow to a temperature of between 320-380°F and gently lower in your battered cod or haddock steaks.
- Lasts longer when subjected to high heats than many other oils.
- Healthier than you think… In moderation. It contains fats that are essential to digestion and vitamins E, D and K.
- Produces a strong aroma at high temperatures that some might find off-putting.
- High-calorie content.
Crisco’s Canola oil is made from pure rapeseed and is ideal for those wanting to use a light, neutral and inexpensive oil to deep-fry their fish. This is a versatile product with a high smoke point and can just as easily be used to fry firm, fleshy cuts of white fish like cod as well as more tender fillets like hake or mackerel.
- All-purpose oil that suits most frying jobs.
- A cheap addition to any kitchen cupboard.
- Not the healthiest.
This is the light or refined version of Filippo Berio’s wide range of olive oils and is suitable for deep-frying. An Italian brand originally, Filippo Berio now also use olives from Spain, Greece, and Tunisia to produce their oils. Ideal for authentic Spanish or Italian recipes like Hake a la Romana, Bunyols de Bacallà or Fritto Misto di Mare.
- A refined version of olive oil meaning it is better able to sustain the higher temperatures required for deep-frying.
- A taste of Southern Europe.
- A less healthy and flavorsome version of olive oil than the extra virgin products.
- More expensive than most refined oils.
- It can be more prone to degradation than other oils.
Coconut is durable, heat-resistant oil. Wellness and superfood enterprise Viva Natural has produced an excellent organic version that is certainly worth trying out. Particularly good if you like the idea of a hint of coconut flavor, or are exploring the numerous Indian, Caribbean or Latin American fried fish recipes out there. This coconut oil has a few other uses too. Like Avocado oil it can also be used in topical applications to skin and hair. It can even spread on toast as a healthy alternative to butter.
- High in saturated fats, coconut oil can withstand high temperatures without degrading.
- Boosts the immune system and digestion.
- An organic, cold-pressed product.
- Several culinary and cosmetic applications.
- Not as fashionable as it once was, and recently the subject of some conflicting reports around its health benefits.
Peanut or groundnut oil is considered by many to be the most neutral of all the cooking oils. It is clean and odorless, and so makes a very good choice for deep-frying. Snappy’s offering is a refined cooking oil so it has an even higher smoke point (450°F) than unrefined versions. It is also relatively cheap. This gallon bottle has an expiry date of many years if kept in cool, dark conditions so should serve anyone looking to do the occasional, bulk fry well.
- Very neutral oil with a high smoking point.
- Suitable for most deep-frying jobs.
- Refined through a complex chemical process.
- More prone to oxidization which can be harmful to health than some other oils.
Once overlooked, ghee has recently emerged as a real and effective option for those considering deep-frying. A real clarified butter that has been a prized essential for Indian cooks for many millennia, it is now being endorsed by some of the world’s best chefs. Australian seafood maestro, Steve Hodges values ghee for its high smoke point and capacity to crisp fish skin. As chef Charlie Yusta points out it gives anything fried in it a little more complexity, a nutty, buttery richness.
- Suitable for Paleo, Keto, gluten-free, Ayurvedic, Whole 30 or FODMAP lifestyles.
- Chefs suggest its high smoke point is ideal for crisping fish skin.
- Unhealthy in excess.
Sunflower oil is another versatile, neutral oil with a high smoke point. As with the majority of their product, La Tourangelle’s organic version is a hit. Processed without the use of chemicals and high in Vitamin E, this is an everyday cooking oil that every larder should have. One of the largest producers of deep fryers, Tefal, recommends using sunflower oil with their machines.
- Recommended for use in deep-fat-frying machines.
- High in Vitamin E.
- Long-lasting and with a high smoke point.
- More expensive than some other brands.
- Sunflower oil not considered to be one of the healthier options.
This grapeseed oil has a smoke point of 450°F and a very mild taste making it a clean and easy oil for deep-frying. Made from Chilean or Portuguese grapeseed that is leftover from winemaking, the seeds are dried and then pressed to produce an oil that boasts several health benefits thanks to the high levels of linoleic acid that fight bad cholesterol. It comes in an elegant tin that helps preserve the quality of the oil for longer.
- Unobtrusive, all-purpose oil with a high smoke point.
- High in Vitamin E.
- A lower shelf life than some alternatives.
- Relatively expensive.
- The tin packaging can sometimes dent during delivery.
Palm oil might be the perfect way to get started with an array of new cuisines. Nutiva’s red palm oil is a fairly delicate and neutral example of an ingredient that is a staple to the fried fish dishes of West Africa, Malaysia, Brazil, and the Caribbean, amongst others. Crucially it is also farmed in a more sustainable and small-scale way than some of the other versions out there. Nutiva is committed to the international ‘Palm Done Right’ campaign.
- Relatively healthy and natural oil, rich in antioxidants.
- A much milder flavor than many other palm oils.
- A good introductory product.
- While this is an ethical, fair-trade brand, there are serious environmental concerns about the proliferation of palm tree farming across the world.
- A lower smoke point than many of the alternatives here.
Frequently Asked Questions
What equipment do I need?
There is no one-way of deep-frying, but you will need to ensure you have some of the following utensils. If you don’t have a branded deep fryer, a wok or a tall, narrow saucepan with a heavy bottom such as a stockpot will do just as well. Good quality, heatproof kitchen tongs, frying basket, skimmer or slotted spoons are a must for lowering and lifting your fish out of the hot oil. An efficient kitchen thermometer will also make things easier, but if you don’t have one sprinkle a pinch of flour or drop a crumb of bread into the pan and if the oil sizzles, without burning then it has reached the right temperature. Make sure you have a plate and absorbent kitchen paper to drain your fried fish on once it is fried.
What temperature should I heat the oil to?
The correct temperature of the oil is critical to your success. Generally, this will be somewhere between 300 and 380 °F, but it is always a good idea to have a check online to see what is recommended for your specific ingredients. Let the oil heat up steadily to the right temperature. Fish fried at too low a heat will be greasy, while blasting or overheating the oil will cause it to reach it’s smoke point, ruining your fish.
What should I watch out for?
Deep-frying is a science rather than an art, take care and be precise. If you’re using a pan be sure to only half fill it with oil. Also, make sure that the pan sits securely on your hob. It is always best to allow the oil to reach its optimum temperature gradually, so use a medium heat. Ensure any moist ingredients like fish are patted dry or left to stand before adding them to the pan; water, in particular, can react violently when introduced to hot oil. If you’re coating the fish with batter make sure any excess is shaken off.
Try not to reach across the pan when it is full of hot oil.
If the oil starts to burn, turn off your hob immediately. Resist trying to move the pan. Instead, cover with a lid or dry dishcloth, or use a fire extinguisher. Never put the fire out with water!
What fish is best for deep-frying?
Firm white fish like red snapper, ling, grouper, flathead, whiting, cod, or haddock are ideal for beginners, but thinner fillets like flounder, or small fish like anchovies can also be used. Many other seafoods are ideal for deep-frying: Squid, prawns, cuttlefish, even oysters, all make excellent dishes. You could also try crab cakes.
It is probably best, in the first instance to try to cut any larger fish into manageable and uniformly sized chunks. In this way, you can make sure you do not overcrowd your pan, a common beginner’s mistake. Always take care when placing and removing the fish from the hot oil. Do not drop it in!
How do I know when my fish is cooked?
Timings will depend on the size of the pieces of fish you are using, but you should rarely need to fry for more than 10 minutes.
Keep an eye on your pan. When the fish begins to float near the surface of the oil and the sizzling is slowing down, the fish should be close to ready. Any battered pieces of fish will start to take on a rich golden color.
Can I reuse my frying oil?
It is possible to reuse oil if you are careful to remove any scraps of food. The best way to do this is by straining the oil. This can only be done after it has been left to cool down completely. Use a fine-mesh strainer or sieve to pass the cooled oil through, removing the scraps. Retain the oil in a container, ensuring the lid is on tightly, and store in the fridge. You might get a couple more uses out of your oil if you are careful with it.
Do not attempt to reuse oil that has degraded or burnt. Usually, this will mean it has turned a much darker color, smells acrid or has foam on its surface. Some oils lend themselves better to reuse than others. If in any doubt use a fresh batch.
Any other tips?
When frying battered or crumbed fish you could try turning up the heat slightly at the very end of the cooking process to achieve that delicious crispy texture. Some Chinese cooks like to double fry battered ingredients to get the same effect.
It is best to add seasoning quickly. Lemon, vinegar, salt or pepper should be applied fairly soon after the fish comes out of the oil.
Attempting to deep-fry fish or seafood at home need not be the challenge that some seem to think. A calm and meticulous approach is all you need to see you through. Remember the correct oil temperature is critical and handle your ingredients and utensils with care. Many of the common health concerns can also be overcome with the right choice of oil and the usual moderation in your diet. Think of it like this: What better than succulent flakes of white fish in a light, crispy batter, drizzled with vinegar and a pinch of salt? Or smeared into a tartare sauce or a lime mayonnaise? Bite-size tempura or spicy, spongy Thai fishcakes and a hot chili sauce or a squeeze of lime, salt cod croquetas with aioli, breaded sardines beside a citrusy salad, calamari, lemon juice, a cold, crisp beer or glass of wine on a hot day?
Get yourself the right oil then follow the few simple tips and guidelines that we’ve set out above and get cooking!