If you ever go to a market in the Netherlands you will most likely encounter a stall selling fish. A decent chance you’ll find fresh herring, but an even bigger chance that you’ll find fried fish, especially kibbeling. You will smell the fried fish from afar, making you hungry straight away. The fish definitely needs a sauce with it. Ravigotte sauce, a fresh dairy sauce with some herbs or garlic sauce are your most common bets.
At the market stalls they will make it the whole day long. The fish will lie ready in trays and is pulled through the batter mixture and fried upon request. It’s worthwhile the few minutes wait! But, if you want to make it at home (or aren’t in the Netherlands), this post should help you do so (and help you improve any fried fish for that matter!).
Deconstructing the kibbeling recipe
Kibbeling is always made from pieces of white fish. Traditionally, it used to be made with cod, nowadays though, that is not always the case anymore. Whether or not that’s a good thing? Opinions tend to differ.
Once you’ve got your fish cut into pieces, making kibbeling tends to take a mere five steps, starting with pre-seasoning the fish and making the batter mix and end with battering and frying the fish.
Whenever you’re frying fish though, flavouring is important, but not your main challenge. The main challenge is to get a well cooked (not over, nor under) piece of fish with a crunchy (definitely not soggy!) coating on the outside. A crust won’t be crunchy, unless it has dried out and is thick enough. This balancing act of moisture is really common in food preparation, we also try to achieve it with apple pies or samosas.
When you fry fish, the oil is well above the boiling point of the water in both the fish and the batter. As a result, that batter will evaporate and bubble up through the oil (you can see this!). The crust dries out more quickly than the fish will, resulting in a moist soft fish with a dry crunchy crust (bit like how chicken skin becomes so crunchy!). So that’s what we want to happen, but how do we really do it?
Creating crunchy fried fish
There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to create that crunchy fish crust:
- Dry your fish on forehand – drying the fish with a paper towel and then coating it in flour (or a spice mix as we do in the recipe below) helps to create a more crispy fried fish. It will also make it a lot easier to handle the fish later on and prevent the batter and flour from clumping.
- Make a batter that sticks to the fish, but doesn’t form too thick a layer. If your batter is too thin and runny, it will be too thin to form an actual. The moisture of the fish is too close and will prevent it from really drying out. If the batter is too thick and clumpy on the other hand, it is hard to handle and fully coat the fish. Also, you run the risk of being left with some undercooked batter. We’ll dig into batter just a little further down.
- Choose a good frying temperature. You’ll probably have to try out some, but if you fry at too high a temperature it will burn while the inside is still raw. The other way around also goes up, at a too low temperature the fish won’t get a nice brown colour before everything being overcooked! Generally speaking, a temperature of 160-180C (325-350F) works really well.
Choosing a batter mix
I’ve read and seen a lot of different frying/fried fish batters. They often contain, amongst others: beer, carbonated water or baking soda. What’s the common denominator? Correct, it’s the fact that they can ‘make’ air bubbles. These air bubbles will make a crust lighter upon frying.
Besides the ‘bubbling’ components there’s always some sort of flour in a fried fish batter mix. I’ve read that a higher proportion of rice and cornflour generally make for a crispier final result. Regular flour is important for the batter to adhere to the fish. Quite a lot of ratios will work, but important to note is that you shouldn’t over mix a flour batter, it will make you crust tough.
The ratio of flours : liquid in my recipe is about 1:1, in most other recipes I saw it’s something like that as well. Adding to much water will make the batter drip off your fish, adding too little will make the batter to thick.
Want to be updated on new food science articles? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter
Fried fish batter, why the batter?
Why fry fish with a batter and not just the fish by itself? Well, a good reason for that is to protect the fish from the fat and heat of the deep fryer. The batter can protect the fish and also prevent the product from becoming very oily. Furthermore, what’s better than a nice crispy crunchy piece of fish (or vegetable, or anything else you’d like to fry)?
So what happens in the batter during frying? Well, as soon as the product touches the oil, water will start evaporating and if your batter contains a ‘bubbling agent’ this will make extra gas bubbles. In the meantime the proteins and starch in the flour will do their work. The proteins will denature and form a firm network, the starch will swell up and support this structure as well.
I’ve also seen recipes with an egg, the egg can give some extra fattiness to the batter as well as extra structure. The proteins will coagulate and help forming a stable crust.
The temperature while frying is very important as well. Most temperatures I’ve seen at around 170C. If it’s too cold the crust on the outside of the water won’t form fast enough. As a result, the crust doesn’t protect the inside and a lot of fat can be absorbed. However, if it’s too high your fish will burn before the inside is cooked!
Fish and chips
Of course, if you’ve ever been to the UK, you’ve probably come across fish & chips. Even though the fish is slightly larger in size, with a slightly different better, it still is a fried fish. Therefore you can generally use the same tips as we’re discussing here, although you’ll likely change around the flavouring and the batter mix slightly! If you happen to be in Oxford, we’d recommend going to “The eagle and child” (the pub wher JRR Tolken and CS Lewis used to meet!) which has a deliciously crispy fish (and chips, but those are less crunchy in the UK).
Of course, fish & chips are eaten with chips (or fries, as most outside of the UK would say). Which we have discussed extensively elsewhere!
Note: The fish from fish & chips is probably more similar to a Dutch lekkerbek, which again is similar to kibbeling, however, it’s made from a bigger piece of fish!
- 100g flour
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 150 ml of beer
- 300g cod (or any other white fish, whichever you prefer)
- Spices (use any mix you'd like, these spices will give a lot of flavour to the fish; some examples: plenty paprika, black pepper and dill with a little ginger and clove powder; or take mustard, pepper, curry powder, onion, basil & parsley)
- 2 tbsp flour
- Sunflower oil to fry*
- If using frozen fish, take it out of the freezer well ahead of time.
- Dry the fish with some kitchen towel to remove any excess moisture.
- Cut the fish in 3x3 cm pieces.
- Cover the fish in spices to your preference.
- Coat the fish in flour, use more flour if not all the fish has a thin layer of flour. This first layer will help dry out the fish and help the batter stick.
- Leave the fish on the side and make the batter by mixing all ingredients together, no worries if there are still a few clumps.
- Heat oil 180C (if frying small batches a wok will work well, you can also use a deep frier).
- Put the fish in the batter mix. Make sure all sides of all pieces are coated with a layer of batter.
- Put the fish in the hot oil, one by one, make sure to do this one by one, else they'll stick to each other!
- Don't overfill the oil, it shouldn't sink in temperature too much.
- Fry until nice and brown, the fish itself will cook quickly, probably 4-6 minutes only.
*The type of oil you fry in definitely impacts the flavour of the fish. Kibbeling from stalls that haven't renewed their oil for a while don't taste as fresh for sure. Also, you could use soy oil, but personally that's not our favorite flavour. Read more here
While writing this blog post we’ve been going by a lot of other blogs, all giving batter recipes, here’s a selection: Simplyrecipes.com, Use Real Butter, Alexandra cooks, I am a food blog, Just one cookbook (has a nice extensive explanation).