Fish and chips is to England what barbecue is to Texas or gumbo is to Louisiana: iconic, beloved, comfort food. Like most Brits, I’ve been eating fish and chips—battered and fried fish served with what Americans call french fries—since I was a kid. But it was a visit to the original Harry Ramsden’s (a fish and chip shop and Britain’s foremost authority on the dish) at age 25 that sparked my true love, leading to the opening of my own fish and chipperies (two at last count).
At Harry Ramsden’s, the portions of fresh, flaky North Sea cod were enormous, the batter was flavorful and crisped to perfection, and the chips were golden and fluffy. My order came with tartar sauce for dipping and malt vinegar for drizzling. Every table in the massive dining room was filled, and the parking lot outside was packed with cars as well as buses. Eating there, I realized how important simple, well-made fish and chips are to British food culture.
In my fish and chips shops, we make sure to prepare this traditional dish with the respect it deserves. We use fresh fish, carefully chosen potatoes, and a basic four-ingredient batter. And we are obsessive about using clean oil to fry it all. Our method is uncomplicated, and for good reason: As with most comfort foods, it’s the care with which the dish is prepared—not an elaborate recipe—that makes it so delicious.
The secrets to fabulous fish & chips
Use fresh cod or haddock.
Both are traditional, but cod is far and away the most popular fish we offer. (It’s my personal preference, too.) Fillets cut from the head end will be thicker, flakier, and more moist. For both cod and haddock, the flesh should be firm, white, and shiny. Less-than-fresh fish will have a yellow hue. You can use excellent-quality frozen fish, but fresh is preferable because freezing can dry the fish. At our restaurants we use sustainable cod fished in the waters off Iceland. (To find ocean-friendly fish in your area, check seafoodwatch.com.)
Choose starchy potatoes. I use Maris Piper, a variety that’s often used for chips in Britain. When fried, they have a crisp, golden exterior; inside, they’re light, dry, and fluffy. Starchy baking potatoes, like russets, work well, too.
Chill the batter, but not for long. A quick chill makes the batter thicker and stiffer, which helps create a nice, thick crust. But if the batter is made too far in advance, the baking powder, which gives the batter the air bubbles that make the crust so light, will lose its oomph. I find a chill of no more than 20 minutes works best.
“Blanch” the chips. An initial fry at a lower temperature (260°F) softens the potatoes and cooks the inside; a second fry, at 375°F, makes the outside crisp and golden.
Fry the fish and chips in batches. Overcrowding reduces the temperature of the oil and prolongs cooking time, which can make food soggy. Also, the batter puffs up beautifully, so fillets may stick together if crowded.
The fish fries once, the chips fry twice
Fry the chips until tender. At this point you want them to be nearly cooked through but without color (that comes with the second fry). If properly blanched, they should cut easily with the side of a spoon.
Step 2 Coat the fish well. To get the batter to cling, pat the fillets dry and turn them in the batter to coat both sides. Then dip—don’t drop—the fish into the oil to keep the coating intact and the oil from splattering.