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Catfish: Totally Underappreciated?

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I just want to rant on how awesome I think catfish is. To be honest, I used to be snobby and knock catfish as being a cheap, dirty, low-class fish. I considered it the pig of the sea in a land where beef and chicken rule. But now, I realized that I've never had catfish that wasn't delicious.

Catfish is wonderfully flavorful and distinct, unlike other fish that can pretty much taste however you want it to taste like. I think the image of catfish as being a poor man's fish is totally unfair and I definitely would like to see it on more high-end restaurants. Catfish doesn't just belong on the fried seafood menu anymore. I think chefs can do so much more with it. It's always fresh and has a high turnover rate. I don't see why it shouldn't be just as appreciated as any other fish out there!

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  1. preaching to the choir.

    1. I love it dredged in cornmeal, pan fried and drizzled with fresh lemon juice.

      1. I love it fried. It is a sweet tasting fish which I thought I would never eat. My hubby encouraged me to try some of his awhile back and I was surprised to say the least at how yummy it was.

        1. man i miss eating fresh catfish. when living in new orleans it was so easy to find it. but now in nc can't find it that easily. especially love it the vietnamese caramel way called ca kho to. but my mom never did it in a claypot.

          1. I'm confused. There is catfish, small whole fish usually breaded and fried, had it in Southern Indiana, and there is "ocean catfish", a larger fish you buy in fillets. Is the term "catfish" derogatory like "dogfish"? are they two species? which is which? I actually preferred the ocean catfish but would love to try the other prepared another way.

            4 Replies
            1. re: cassis

              I just looked up ocean catfish and it is nothing like the catfish I have eaten. Ocean catfish is similar to roughie, and looks nothing like a catfish I know. Catfish we used to catch in New Orleans had "whiskers" on their face.
              I have never seen them fried whole, the catfish we used to catch were much too big to do that, you would fillet them and fry them up with some good cornmeal.......how I miss fish fried in cornmeal.

              1. re: roro1831

                Ocean catfish is a totally different animal, part of the Cod family. It's a very poor quality fish with milky, tasteless flesh.

                Fresh water cat does come in some varieties although they are related. Channel cat can be quite large - often too large to fry whole, so they are almost always fileted. But other catfish (like bullhead) can be small enough to fry whole. When I was in Mississippi, there was an all you can eat catfish place near my base in Biloxi, and theirs were always whole cat, cleaned and then dredged in cornmeal and fried whole. But there were other places that served channel cat, in filet form.

                The muddiness depends on what they've been eating. As bottom feeders, their diet can vary considerably. I actually like a little of the muddiness, it reminds me of the anago (fresh water eel) or carp I grew up with in Japan, also oily fleshed, bottom feeders, living in the rice paddies and the creeks that fed them. I find that the farmed catfish is much less muddy than the fresh caught ones I used to have in the past - obviously they've been fed a cleaner meal - I believe that the same is happening with Tilapia.

                Catfish and Tilapia are both sustainably farmed in the US. The Asian farms apparently don't all meet the same criteria. I just wish they could get the price down some more. It's typically $4.99 to $5.99/lb fileted - I'd eat a lot more of it at $3-$4. The problem is that there aren't a lot of ways to spread out the meat (like stews or ground meat) - so you really need to figure on 8oz per person or more. So it isn't a cheap meal - unless you can catch it yourself! (Stinkbait anyone?)

                1. re: applehome

                  Anago is sea eel. Unagi is fresh water eel. Anago is IMO much more delicate with a sweet taste, no muddy taste at all.

                  High quality unagi hardly has any muddy taste either.

                  1. re: kobetobiko

                    You're right - sorry about that. My uncle would catch them in holes in the sides of the rice paddies when they were flooded.

            2. Sometimes when I had catfish I found the meat to have a "mud" taste. Does that mean that the catfish is of low quality? What contributed to the mud taste?

              8 Replies
              1. re: kobetobiko

                Could be the nature of farm raised catfish. My only criticism of catfish from the local supermarket is that it is often a "wet" fish and sometimes muddy in flavor.

                1. re: kobetobiko

                  I heard if catfish is not cleaned properly, it is very oily tasting. I think they are bottom feeders, maybe the one you ate was snacking on mud? I have never tried catfish because the whiskers freak me out.....

                  1. re: kobetobiko

                    I think freshness has something to do with it. Because I agree that catfish can have that tilapia kind of mud taste to it. My dad used to go fishing and would sometimes bring home freshly caught catfish. While there was still a mud like quality, it was nothing like what I've eaten from catfish from the stores and restaurants. Freshly caught catfish was the biggest difference in the world. It was so delicious and sweet and I just could never get enough.

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      Hi Miss Needle,

                      Thanks for the info. I bought live catfish in Chinatown that were still swimming in the tank, but they still had the mud taste. If I were to buy fillet or whole fish on ice, how can I tell what is good quality vs not?

                      Thanks in advance!

                      1. re: kobetobiko

                        Hey Kobe. Too bad you purchased live catfish and they still tasted like dirt. I think the catfish from Chinatown are farm-raised. My dad used to fish in streams. Perhaps that's where the difference is. Not sure where you can find a source for live wild catfish, though. And even though the catfish I ate was really fresh and wild, there was still some mud-like taste to it. So I think preparation method is kind of important as well. I think it's better to fry it then to do a simple steam with ginger and scallions kind of deal. As to telling how to spot a good filet or whole fish -- I never know how to spot a good filet. That's why I only buy filets in more upscale shops like Citarella and only buy whole fish in Chinatown by looking at the eyes and gills.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          The mud taste seems to be a common description in flavor of catfish. I love catfish and tilapia. But my friends hate it, describe the muddy taste, and hate the fact that catfish are bottom dwellers.

                          1. re: rumgum

                            Yeah, I'm not the largest fan of tilapia -- haven't had it deep-fried though. And I'm generally not a fan of catfish with the exception of the ones that my dad used to bring home from his fishing trips. The quality made a humongous difference.

                          2. re: Miss Needle

                            Hi Miss Needle,

                            I think you pinpointed the problem: I steamed mine with just soy and ginger and scallion. It probably needed some stronger flavor, like black bean sauce, or just like you said, deep fry.

                            I guess that's why most of the time I see catfish fillets being seasoned with cajun spice.

                    2. yea you right! my friend had a cajun restaurant on long island and came up with an amazing recipe.he published it in his own cookbook later.the 1st time i had my (future) wife for dinner i made it.it was panfried catfish smothered in a crawfish/mushroom/cream sauce.what a great dish!

                      1. huh. guess I'm cheap, dirty and low-class to some people them. I assume others share your former views?

                        I like catfish.

                        1. I've never eaten catfish (that I know of). Since it seems to be a far-from-endangered, sustainable food source, I'm open to any suggestions re. selecting and preparing catfish. I'm ready to introduce this new (to me) food into my diet.

                          1. We eat it often, dredged in a mix half cornmeal and half flour, panfried, sprinkled with Emeril's seasoning, and served with some cooked up fresh jalpenos.

                            I think it tastes great and the fact that it's always under $8/pound makes it even better. I never feel like I've sacrificed taste or quality when I make catfish.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Rick

                              What do you look for when you buy catfish at the store? I'm ready! The "bottom feeder" thing bothers me not at all.. heck.. I've eaten pig for years.

                              1. re: fromagina

                                I just stick with a high quality fish monger and neither myself nor my wife have ever noticed any muddy flavor. I usually pay about $8/pound for it in filet form. It's always been farm raised and I've also always soaked it in buttermilk for at least 30 min. prior, I forgout about that part!

                            2. i love blackened catfish with conch fritters. YUM.

                              1. Maybe I've only had good catfish? Perhaps I grew up thankfully w/o any of this trashfish/bottomfeeder nonsense(it's both, but the onus placed upon the fish in some areas is frankly odd)??? Try catfish in the Texas Hill Country...a food memory I treasure from my childhood: Camp Warnecke/New Braunfels, Guadalupe River rapids, and tensile, fresh, snow white-fleshed catfish fried to perfection in pepper-speckled cornmeal batter. Oh, and hushpuppies. Failing that "catfish in claypot" is a favorite Vietnamese preparation and couldn't be more different than the one described before.

                                1. This amazes me. I've never had catfish that didn't have a somewhat muddy or ick flavor, and I've tried to like it. And I'm a seafood lover! I'd think I've only had farm raised.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Vetter

                                    growing up in the southern plains,, the channel cat and blue cat were the ones the we caught to eat. Flatheads and bullheads-no.

                                  2. In a recent edition of "Cooks" magazine, they recommended soaking Catfish (or any other "muddy" tasting fish in buttermilk for 30-60 minutes; I did this then dredged in cornmeal & fried & it was divine! Highly recommended.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: johnecampbell

                                      This is a good idea.

                                      There is no way to tell by looking at catfish or tilapia in the store whether you will get the 'muddy' taste or not - perfectly fresh catfish or tilapia can have this flavor and you cannot tell until you eat it.

                                      The flavor of these fishes does depend on what they've been eating, and if farmed, the freshness of the water in which they are raised and harvested.

                                      With a wild-caught fish, it's a crapshoot. Some plants that these species eat can cause the muddy flavor.

                                      With farm-raised, it can reflect less-than optimal raising or harvesting practices. Crowded conditions and not transferring the fish to be harvested to a clean-water area for a period of time before harvesting can cause problems. Tilapia, in particular, are cheap for a reason. Sometimes shortcuts are taken.

                                      Soaking in milk, buttermilk or even coconut milk can help improve the flavor of these fish.

                                      Catfish *is* a poor man's fish - but that doesn't mean it can't be wonderful if raised and prepared properly. There are a lot of foods considered 'poor people food' that are wonderful if prepared right. I've got a pork butt in the fridge right now, with a nice dry rub on it - it'll go in the oven tomorrow morning and by dinnertime, it'll be ready to go - and divine. And only 88 cents a pound.

                                      And you've probably noticed the trends lately of chefs using all kinds of organ meat (other than liver) - another traditional 'poor man's food' that is being elevated to heights heretofore unknown. I expect with the recent rise in food prices, more will be made with less and it'll actually turn out to be a good thing as folks discover that's not such a bad thing after all.

                                      1. re: johnecampbell

                                        This is exactly how I make my catfish and I've never once would have described it as muddy.

                                      2. One of the reasons catfish became known as a "poor mans fish" is that basically all you need is a cane pole and fresh water access. They are pretty easy to catch, don't really require expensive bait, and can live in varied types of fresh water as opposed to,say trout which requires a bit more finesse and has more limited range. Through out the South you will frequently see folks with a cane pole fishing by the side of the road catching catfish. The farm raised fish (which really seemed to start taking off in the late "70's) generally have a cleaner taste and more consistent size & texture than the wild caught fish. Some prefer farmed, some prefer wild...

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: meatn3

                                          Honey, they may be easy to catch, but they are a pain in the a$$ to clean. The skin is very well attached, and tough.

                                          That said, fresh caught, cornmeal crusted and fried is as good as low country food can get.

                                          1. re: caviar_and_chitlins

                                            Guess that extra effort is another reason it is "poor mans food"! Sometimes you have more time than money...

                                            But you are so right, when they are prepared correctly it doesn't get much better.

                                        2. Another factor may be ocean vs. fresh water. A friend of mine who was raised in Arkansas liked only fresh-water fish. I prefer sea fish. Even fresh-caught mountain trout cooked over a campfire at 8,000 feet (with cornmeal and bacon) isn't as tasty to me as say, rex sole from the market.

                                          Social status, unfortunately, also cnters in. Catfish has often been considered a poor people's dish because it's less expensive to catch then say, salmon.

                                          I've caught catfish that didn't taste at all muddy to me. Tough to skin, though. Nail them to a tree and go to work with pliers.

                                          1. First, catfish rocks. I agree with many, fried is the best way to eat it. Almost as good is steaming it chinese style. Steam first with scallions, pour hot oil over it with some soy and wine mixture. Excellent.

                                            1. "Catfish nuggets" are even more underappreciated. They are the flap of belly that is cut from the fish prior to fillet preparation.

                                              They cost about 1/3 the price of the fillet. I like to think of them as "Catfish Ventresca", and get them regularly for $1.49, often .99 on sale.

                                              They are like a finger-sized piece of meat, and you can quickly trim them to yield nice pieces (already bite-sized) for either cornmeal frying or for steaming with scallions and black beans. The trimming "waste" can be used for chowder or mild fish salad.

                                              The only drawback is that you need to examine (by sliding your finger along) each piece, as occasionally some stub of ventral fin will be present and needs to be cut out. That takes maybe a total of one minute per pound.

                                              At 99 cents a pound, and a sustainably farmed resource, low mercury and decent Omega source, it's a great deal.

                                              7 Replies
                                                1. re: applehome

                                                  It's available at every grocery store here in Oklahoma, and that availability may be regional thing. Since they are also at Walmart, then they may be national. They are always frozen, so they may be "hidden" in the frozen fish section, rather than at the on-ice fish bar. Sometimes they are in a 5 or 10 pound corrugated cardboard box, as are tilapia fillets.

                                                  I'd be curious about your success in finding them in Massachusetts. If unavailable, maybe we could work a swap for some nuggets and a nice hunk of North End soprasetta.

                                                  1. re: FoodFuser

                                                    I've got to find a walmart that has a grocery section, like that huge one on Reno between Macarthur and Rockwell - we stocked up with all kinds of stuff for the RV there. They wanted to upgrade the one up here in Tewksbury with groceries, but the town is headquarters to DeMoula's (Market Basket) and pretty much does what they want done - no building permit for walmart expansion. All the other local ones are where they took over the old Caldor's chain and they're too small for groceries. I think there's one up in Manchester - I'll have to look into it.

                                                    I'll let you know what I find - no problem on the sopresetta or any other north end specialty. Email me at my profile address.

                                                    1. re: FoodFuser

                                                      I live in central NC and the local grocery store I shop at will have fresh nuggets on a semi-regular basis. They're fun to fry up in a beer batter.

                                                    2. re: applehome

                                                      Available here iin southern oregon too. The NW'S south :)

                                                    3. re: FoodFuser

                                                      FoodFuser, I bought these once, soaked them in buttermilk and then dredged in cornmeal/flour mix and fried but I liked the filets much more. But, I didn't do anything to the nuggets after I bought them. What exactly do you trim off of them?

                                                      1. re: Rick

                                                        Sometimes the trimmers miss a little bit of the belly fin, and it remains attached to the meat. It's easy to feel, and remove. Also, sometimes there is a little bit of peritoneal membrane. Rinsing under running water and rubbing will detach it.

                                                        The fat content of this belly meat is higher than in the fillet (one reason for the distinctiveness of ventresca and toro in tuna), so it does have a slightly different taste.

                                                    4. We have lots of catfish farms around here, and even more places to eat catfish. I've had it fried, grilled, blackened, steamed, and with about every kind of sauce that you can imagine. Probably my favorite was a simple grilled catfish topped with some spicy crawfish etouffe...

                                                      I don't know if it is because farm raised catfish are always so easily found fresh around here, but I have *never* detected any muddy taste at all- in fact the fish itself seems pretty mild and lends itself well to whatever is added to it, whether it be a fancy sauce or just some cornmeal. I love the stuff!

                                                      1. On the farm-raised topic: My fishmonger told me that US farm-raised catfish is the way to go if you don't like the "muddy" flavor. If you are at a reputable fish market they will most likely have reputable US farm-raised catfish, that was monitored so that it didn't feed on the muck that makes the muddy taste. However, since most consumers equate farm with bad and wild with good, a lot of fish markets sell wild catfish because wild sells quicker. Best thing to do is find a good fish guy who will learn your tastes over time and be honest with you about what's best to buy.

                                                        And for a side note... I feel like bluefish gets the same rap. I love it but people usually turn up their noses. Too fishy?

                                                        1. Hare are some neat PDF's from the catfish industry:



                                                          Testing for the "muddy flavors"


                                                          1. I am a southern girl through and through, and I adore catfish.

                                                            But I wouldn't call it seafood! For me, it has to swim in salt water to be seafood. I live on salt water; does anyone eat saltwater cats? I'm game to try them if someone says they're good to eat.

                                                            Catfish does have a distinct flavor, although I have eaten catfish that was so mild that I wouldn't have been able to identify it as catfish. i don't think that it's as much of an issue of wild vs. farmed fish.

                                                            My favorite catfish meal is so good and so bad for you! I want the fish cut into fingers and fried with a cornmeal-influenced dredge - a bit on the spicy side, please. I want fried okra AND French fries as sides, and there must be cole slaw and crisp green onions. I want a bite of green onion with every bite of fish. And I want cornbread with jalapeƱos baked in it with my catfish. Collard or mustard greens with pepper vinegar is optional.

                                                            Now I'm hungry!