Simple Southern Fried Catfish

If you’re not a seafood person, I guarantee you’re still going to want to try this Southern fried catfish recipe. A “clean” and delicious-tasting fish, this recipe is simple and so easy to make.

Fried catfish on plate with lemon wedges.

Does it get any more classic than this Southern fried catfish recipe? Yes, but only when you pair it with a smattering of Southern side dishes, like coleslaw or hush puppies. A staple in every Southern kitchen, beyond this recipe, I honestly have never even given seafood a fighting chance, as my mother was not a seafood person.

Fortunately, I think catfish is the least-fishy-tasting fish of them all. It tastes even better (and tender) when you add the traditional crunchy cornmeal crust and a squeeze of lemon. All that’s missing is a side of crispy fries, right?

This simple fried catfish recipe without buttermilk is exactly that – simple. Simply add the cornmeal coating and fry the catfish fillets until golden brown. Your delicious pan-fried catfish will be crispy on the outside, flaky on the inside, and ready to eat in minutes. Now who’s ready for a fish fry?

Try paring with 3-Ingredient Buttermilk Biscuit RecipeCheesy Mashed PotatoesSouthern-Style Fried Okra RecipeFresh Green Beans, and Easy Creamed Corn to make the perfect Southern meal.

Fried catfish recipe ingredients

Recipe Ingredients

  • Catfish fillets (pond raised if possible)
  • Oil (for frying)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Cornmeal

Helpful Kitchen Tools

How to Make My Southern Fried Catfish Recipe

Pouring oil into skillet.

Pour about a half-inch of oil into your skillet.

I’m using my cast iron skillet here but you don’t have to. If you are more comfortable cooking in a regular or nonstick skillet, go for it. Whatever cranks your tractor.

Cornmeal in bowl.

Put about a cup of cornmeal in a bowl.

This is where you can get creative if you like. Add a bit of cayenne pepper if you want some heat to your catfish or just season your meal with seasoned salt.

Salt and cornmeal in bowl.

Add a little salt (about 1/2 tsp)…

salt, pepper and cornmeal in bowl.

and about 1/2 tsp of black pepper.

This is totally to your taste.

Stirring cornmeal, salt and pepper in bowl.

Now my meal is seasoned just fine for me.

Stir up the catfish breading a bit.

Dipping catfish in cornmeal mixture.

Dredge catfish fillets in the cornmeal mixture and press down gently.

Pressing catfish into cornmeal mixture.

Repeat with the other side.

Catfish fillets frying in oil.

Place the catfish fillets into the hot oil. 

The most important thing to do is not overcrowd the fillets. Only fry two fillets at a time.

Deep-frying tip

This is the part that gives folks the most problems. When frying, your oil should be hot enough to sear the outside of what you are cooking but not so hot that it burns before it gets done inside. If your oil isn’t hot enough, whatever you are frying will absorb more in absence of that immediate searing and thus be greasy.

What I do is heat my oil while I am preparing the dish. I heat it on medium-high for three to five minutes and then I turn it down to medium a minute or so before I’m ready to cook.

Fried catfish fillets in oil.

Deep fry fish fillets until golden brown (about three to five minutes) and then turn them over to brown the other side.

Once done, place fillets on a paper towel-lined plate or a wire rack to drain.

If you have a big batch, I recommend placing them on a wire rack set on a lined baking sheet in a preheated 200-degree oven so they remain crispy while you cook the fish in batches.

Fried catfish on plate with lemon wedges.

I love to serve mine with lemon wedges because I LOVE to squeeze lemon all over my catfish.

Storage

  • Store the cooked (and cooled) fish fillets in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days. When it’s time to reheat, either place them in your air fryer or in a regular oven to ensure they’re nice and crispy once more.
  • You can also freeze leftovers for up to three months in an airtight container or plastic bag. Just make sure the bag is sealed to avoid freezer burn.

Recipe Notes

  • You can use whichever cornmeal you prefer in this fried catfish recipe. I like white cornmeal, while my mother uses white self-rising flour and just puts in a little less salt (self-rising already has salt in it). You can also use yellow, plain, or self-rising cornmeal. When in doubt, go with what you have on hand.
  • If you’d prefer to use a deep fryer, heat it to 350 degrees. Once the oil is hot, drop in the catfish fillets, and let them cook for 7 to 10 minutes or until they’re golden brown. Most importantly, cool the deep-fried catfish on a wire rack to make sure they’re nice and crispy when it’s time to serve.
  • You can add a variety of herbs and spices to your cornmeal mixture.
    • For those who like heat, add a sprinkle of cayenne pepper or a teaspoon of paprika.
    • Opt for a tablespoon of ranch seasoning.
    • Add a teaspoon or two of Season All, Lawry’s, Old Bay Seasoning, lemon pepper seasoning, hot sauce, or garlic powder.
    • Add a 1/4 teaspoon of celery seed. The choice is yours!
  • Remember to not overcrowd the oil. This will lower the temperature and result in soggy fish, which we definitely don’t want!
  • If you have leftovers, transform this recipe for fried catfish into fried catfish tacos or sandwiches.
  • You can also use this recipe to fry any kind of fish if catfish isn’t for you.

Recipe FAQs

What do you soak catfish in before frying?

I didn’t in this recipe for Southern fried catfish, but you can soak your catfish in milk or buttermilk for an hour before frying. In the past, people soaked wild-caught catfish in buttermilk to remove the muddy flavor.

Why do you soak catfish in milk before frying?

You soak catfish to get rid of any leftover fish taste.

Do you need to soak catfish before cooking?

No, you don’t have to soak catfish before frying it. 

Why is my fried catfish mushy?

If your fried catfish fillets turn mushy, it’s usually because your oil isn’t hot enough. Ensure it’s at the correct temperature and don’t overcrowd the oil with the fillets, as this lowers the temperature. If your fried catfish is mushy, place the fillets in the oven or air fryer to crisp up.

How do you keep fried catfish crispy?

You keep catfish fried fillets crispy by either resting them on a paper towel-lined plate or wire rack or by following the oven instructions above.

What kind of oil do you fry catfish in?

Any vegetable oil is good for frying catfish. However, peanut oil is a popular choice because it gives the fish a tasty, nutty flavor.

How long do you deep fry catfish?

I’ve got detailed deep-frying instructions above. But you want to deep-fry the catfish for 6 to 10 minutes.

What is the best cooking method for catfish?

The best and most common cooking method for catfish is deep-frying. But it can also be grilled, baked, or pan-fried.

Can you fry catfish in the air fryer?

Yes. Here are more detailed instructions for air-fried catfish. But you want to fry the fish in a 400-degree air fryer for about 8 minutes on each side.

Does fried catfish have bones?

Yes, catfish do have an orderly set of bones. They have a main bone, like a spine, and smaller bones like ribs. Fortunately, when you purchase pre-packaged catfish fillets, they’ll be boneless so you don’t have to worry about deboning a fish yourself.

Do you take the skin off catfish before frying?

Yes, you only fry the catfish fillets.

Why do you put flour on fish before frying?

You put flour or cornmeal on fish before frying it because it gives the fish that crispy coating. It also prevents the fish from soaking up too much oil and helps bind the fillet so it doesn’t fall apart. So yeah, don’t miss that catfish batter!

What do you serve with fried catfish?

One of the most classic Southern main dishes, you can keep things simple and serve the fried fish with a lemon wedge, vinegar, and some tartar sauce. But you can opt to serve your fried catfish dinner with your favorite Southern side dish:

Looking for more sensational seafood recipes?

Easy Southern Salmon Patties

Cold Crab Dip Recipe

Quick Fix Shrimp Scampi

Fried Catfish

Simple and inexpensive to prepare, this Southern fried catfish recipe is a quick and easy main course you can combine with your favorite side.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Keyword: catfish
Servings: 4
Calories: 1427kcal

Ingredients

  • 4 catfish fillets
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper

Instructions

  • In a large skillet, heat 1/2 inch of oil over medium-high heat.
  • Place the cornmeal in a medium bowl, add salt and pepper, and stir.
    1 cup cornmeal, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper
  • Dip each fillet into the cornmeal mixture on both sides to coat.
    4 catfish fillets
  • Turn the stove down to medium and place each fillet into the oil to cook. Turn the fillets once until golden brown on both sides (about 3 to 5 minutes on each side).
  • Remove the fried fish fillets to drain on a wire rack or a paper towel-lined plate. Serve with lemon wedges, vinegar, or tartar sauce.

Nutrition

Calories: 1427kcal
Tried this recipe?Mention @southernplate or tag #southernplate!

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106 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Used your recipe tonight for fried catfish!
    Perfect instructions for someone like me who doesn’t usually cook fish.
    Simple ingredients. Perfect recipe – the catfish were delicious!

  2. 5 stars
    I have eaten catfish all my life!! Mama and Daddy worked in the cotton mills in Gastonia and they did not have a lot of money to eat out. The ‘fish camp’ was a gourmet dinner for us or catfish caught in a lake or river that Mama cooked at home. This is exactly how she cooked hers.. cast iron skillet and all..

  3. Girl, I can tell you’re from the SOUTH! Loved your stories, sounds like stories from my Momma. Enjoyed the fish, thank you so much.

  4. For folks who don’t know…..catfish is not “seafood”. Catfish is pond raised and Seafood comes from the sea (ocean) aka saltwater fish/seafood. Totally different tasting types of food.

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