Catfish are a bottom-dwelling fish with unique looking barbels around their mouth. They look a lot like cat whiskers. For centuries, this fish has been eaten is North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. So what does catfish taste like? Is it worth your money or the time to cook?
Five minutes of online research will reveal mixed reviews about its edibility. Some love it, and others loathe the muddy flavor and watery texture. Why is there so much disagreement? We reached out to the U.S. Catfish Association to get their take. Keep reading if you want to get the low-down.
Describing the flavor and texture
There are two distinct types of catfish: farmed and wild. They are very different and need to be looked at separately. It’s worth pointing out that blue catfish and channel catfish are the most common varieties caught in the wild and farmed.
Catfish is big business in the U.S. with the majority of farms located in Mississippi Delta, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana. These fish are grain-fed, which provides much more consistent taste than you’d get from the wild variety. The flavor of farmed catfish is mild and slightly sweet; its flesh, once cooked, is dense and moist. If you enjoy white fish like sole, tilapia, haddock, or flounder, then this may well be a fish you enjoy.
Catfish are commonly coated with cornmeal and then fried in oil. A classic side dish is hush puppies, which are round balls of cornmeal batter that are deep-fried.
Note: Farmed catfish from the Mekong and Phraya basins in Asia are a different species than North American variety. They are also called basa or swai, and are sold into the United States.
Catfish caught in rivers and ponds will often have a musty, muddy, fishy taste in the middle with a sweeter flavor towards the ends. These bottom-feeders have poor eyesight and will eat anything available, even mud! Cut a freshly caught catfish open, and you’ll see the dirt inside it. This explains why some people don’t enjoy its taste.
Some catfish swim in cleaner, pristine waters, and they have a milder, cleaner taste.
How to improve the taste of catfish
Few people enjoy muddy fish. We’ve got some tips to improve your eating experience if you are going to cook the fish yourself.
- The reddish streak of flesh running through the fillet is often muddy tasting and should be cut out before cooking.
- For freshly caught catfish, cut the tail fins and allow the fish to bleed out, then put them straight on ice.
- Keep the slime off the fillets when cleaning the fish.
- Soak the fillets in a large bowl of saltwater or ginger ale overnight to remove the muddy taste.
Related reading: Do you know your fish?
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How to cook catfish
Catfish is an excellent protein for beginner chefs to cook. Unlike many fish, it doesn’t over-cook or dry out easily. Exact cooking times aren’t essential.
Broiling, sautéing, baking, and grilling are all suitable cooking options. But, fried catfish is the most popular method. Follow these steps for the perfect tasting fish, if you haven’t soaked the fish overnight already.
- Pour milk into a bowl and stir in a tablespoon of salt.
- Add the fillets to the milk and refrigerate for one hour.
- Remove from the fridge and rinse under cold water before patting dry.
- Roll the fish in flour or cornmeal then season with salt, pepper, and paprika or Cajun spice.
- Fry until the flesh turns opaque and the center of the fish reads 145°F on a thermometer.
Best flavors to pair with catfish
- celery seed
- black pepper
- hush puppies
- potato salad
- mac n’ cheese
- green beans
- In 1987, Ronald Reagan established National Catfish Day to acknowledge the importance of farmed catfish.
- The flavor of catfish that live in muddy ponds and rivers will have a more pronounced muddy flavor in Summer. This is because the fish spend their time in the cool mud to avoid the heat.
- Catfish love eating insects, fish, and worms, algae and other aquatic plants.
Catfish is a divisive food that gets a bad rap due to a muddy flavor. But this is an unfair assessment as the taste will depend on the fish's environment. Most readers of this article may be considering buying the fish at a restaurant or from the store. If that’s you, then the flavor of the fish is likely to be mild and slightly sweet. Its flesh, once cooked, will be dense and moist. That’s because you’ll usually be eating farmed fish.
Always ask where the fish is sourced before deciding to buy. If it is imported, then you’re paying for a completely different fish, most likely from Asia. Better to opt for red snapper or salmon, both excellent fish for eating.
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