Fish and Chips (known as Fish ‘n’ Chips) probably originated in England in the late 1850s, and by the middle of the twentieth century it had become the favourite take-away meal of the British public. As with most classic British dishes there are competing regions vying for the honour of having first invented it. Scotland, the North of England and London, all have claims on first combining fried potato chips, with fried fish in batter, to sell commercially in a shop – although we suspect that the North of England has the best claim.
While frying fish in oil, (and using a simple batter for frying fritters etc.) has a very long history in Britain, going back to Medieval times, potatoes are a relatively recent addition to our diet. Even though the Spanish brought the potato back from the Americas to Europe in 1536, and they have been grown in the UK since 1597, they were initially grown for cattle fodder. Potatoes really only started to be commercially grown, to be eaten by the general population, in the late 1700s.
However, it was from the mid 1800s, probably in Oldham, where the potato was first sold as a ‘fried chip’ from a shop. While the first written mention of them came in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859): “Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil”; and the first ‘fish and chip’ shop opened in London just one year later. Whether this was the first ever fish and chip shop, or just the first one in London, it is hard to be certain.
Even though who first combined these two fried ingredients, to sell as fish and chips, is still open to debate, the popularity of ‘fish n chips’ quickly rose with the working classes all over the country, as a cheap and affordable meal; cementing its popularity as Britain’s favourite meal during World War II, when fish and chips remained one of the few foods not subject to government rationing. The recipe chosen below will allow you to cook the perfect fish and chips for supper at home. The secret to this recipe is making a good batter using beer or lager, and the secret to great chips is twice-cooking them.
A NOTE ON INGREDIENTS FOR FISH AND CHIPS
Fish: The perfect fish fillet to use comes from either a Cod, Plaice, Haddock or Turbot. They each have great texture, with a wonderful combination of large flakes and moist, tasty flesh. A thick muscle mass is crucial to the flavour of a fish, so ask your fishmonger for the best quality, and make sure the fish is caught fresh and comes from a good, sustainable fishing ground.
Potatoes: Use the Arran Victory variety for the perfect balance of flavour and texture in your chips. If unavailable use Maris Piper. With potatoes a high dry-matter content is the key to frying perfect chips, so avoid older, waxy potatoes that feel too soft. Potatoes need to be stored in the dark at 7–9C, to stop the starch turning to sugar.
Batter: A good batter has to turn crunchy and crusty brown in the time it takes for the fish to cook. Use either a bubbly beer or larger to help add volume and crunch to the batter. Note: beer will alter the taste of the batter, giving a subtle caramel taste and colour, while larger will add very little flavour – beer is traditional in a batter, larger has become a more modern variation. The batter needs to chill for at least half an hour in the fridge before being used.
Frying the chips: With twice-cooked chips allow the chips to cool down between each stage of frying, as this helps get rid of excess moisture (which would normally escape as steam during frying). Excess moisture in the potatoes can initially cool the temperature of the oil as they fry, and this can cause a soggy exterior to the chips. Prepare the chips and do the first frying the day before, (then leave them overnight in the fridge) and this will make this dish quick and simple the next day.
You can of course shorten this to twice-cooking the chips on the same day, with a shorter resting time in the fridge. However, it is the dry air of the fridge which makes a good environment in which to remove excess moisture from the chips, via the evaporation process, which always happens with food left uncovered in a fridge – we are using this process to our advantage.
Fish And Chips Recipe
With this recipe, to make the perfect modern fish and chips, I recommend using turbot fillets for the fish and a lager for the batter, Kronenbourg 1664 works well. If making a traditional version use cod fillets for the fish and an ale for the batter, Fuller’s London Pride works well.
For the Fish And Batter
- 4 large fish fillets, 2–3cm thick (use either Cod, Plaice, Haddock or Turbut)
- 400g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tbsp honey
- 200ml water (bottled still water)
- 500ml beer or larger (beer is more traditional, larger gives a lighter batter)
- 2-3 litres groundnut (peanut) oil
- Table salt and freshly ground black pepper
For The Chips
- 1.2kg arran victory (or maris piper potatoes)
- Table salt and sea salt
The day before serving the fish and chips go to the method for making the chips and do the first frying of the twice-cooked process the night before, so the chips can dry out in the fridge overnight after their first frying. This will lift the chips to a new level of taste and texture, crisping them up, when fried for the second time, just before serving. However, you can of course shorten this to twice-cooking the chips on the same day, with a shorter resting time in the fridge.
For The Fish
Into a medium sized bowl sieve in the plain flour and baking powder and mix. In a small jug stir in the honey and water, then add this to the flour to create a batter mix by whisking it together. Open the lager or beer and stir it gently into the batter until just combined, try not to excite the beer too much – it doesn’t matter if the consistency is a little lumpy. Put this in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.
In a large saucepan, deep fat fryer, or large casserole dish, put enough groundnut oil to cover the fish when it is added. Heat this to 220C (use a cook’s digital probe thermometer to test the temperature – they are quite cheap to buy and are very useful).
Rinse the turbot fillets (or other fish fillets) under running water and dry them with paper towels. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper, then dust with a little plain flour — this ensures the batter sticks to the fillets. Shake off any excess flour.
Take the batter out of the fridge, give it a vigorous whisk to get it foamy. Dip the fillet into the foamy batter, so that it is fully covered. When it is completely coated lower the fillet head first into the oil, holding it by the narrow tail end and dropping it slowly away from you to avoid splashes.
As the fish fries in the oil use a metal spoon and drizzle a little extra batter over it, this adds to the crusty exterior, making it even more crunchy. When it has turned a light-golden brown, which will take 1-2 minutes, turn the fillet over and drizzle more batter on that side too.
Let the fish cook for another minute or so, until it has coloured to a deeper golden brown, then remove it from the oil. Use the digital probe to check it is cooked: insert the probe into the thickest part of the fish — once it reads 45C the fillet should be set aside to drain and rest on a drying rack with paper towel on it. If it needs longer fry for another minute. The residual heat will cook the fish to a temperature of over 50C.
Repeat the above process with the remaining fillets.
For The Chips
The night before: Wash and peel the potatoes, then cut them into chips, about 1.5cm thick. As soon as the chips are cut put them into a bowl under cold running water for three minutes, to rinse off some of the starch, then drain.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, add the potato chips, which will bring the temperature down, bring back to the boil and then return to a gentle simmer until the surface of the chips have almost broken up. It is important to make sure the simmer is gentle, so that the potatoes don’t start to fall apart before they have cooked through. This will usually only take about ten-minutes or so.
Using a slotted spoon, carefully lift the potatoes out of the water and place on a cake rack (with some kitchen towel underneath) to drain and dry. Leave to cool, then put in the fridge until cold – twenty minutes or so.
When the chips are cold take them from the fridge and pour enough groundnut oil to cover the chips into a deep-fat fryer etc. and heat the oil to 130C. Add the chips to the hot fat and allow them to cook for a few minutes, until they are slightly coloured, do not over cook them at this stage.
Remove the chips and drain off the excess fat. Place them on a cake rack, with kitchen towel underneath, and allow to cool, then return to the fridge overnight.
On the day of the meal: After cooking the fish fillets in batter, turn the groundnut oil down to 190C. Take the once-cooked chips out of the fridge and add them to the hot oil and cook until golden brown. This will take 8-10 minutes.
Drain the chips, season well with a mixture of table and sea salt, then pile next to the fish fillets on a plate. Serve the fish and chips with separate dishes of mushy peas, pickled onions, tartar sauce, and condiments of vinegar and extra salt for those who wish to add them.
For Home-made Mushy Peas
Ingredients: 475g frozen peas, 65g butter, 6 mint leaves, Salt and pepper, to taste.
Defrost the frozen peas in a jug filled with warm water — this should take a only few minutes. Strain, shaking off as much excess water as possible. Reserve some of the peas.
Place the remaining peas into a small saucepan, along with the butter and 50ml water. Cook over a medium heat until all the water has evaporated and the peas are cooked through. Place the cooked peas into a blender (or use a stick blender) and purée. While blending, adjust the taste by adding the mint leaves and the salt and pepper. Tip into a small dish to serve from and fold in the reserved peas.