Fish fries are a staple during the summertime, especially here in Texas. This Air Fried Southern Catfish recipe takes the mess out of preparing your favorite comfort food. This recipe is ready in under 10 minutes, but you can’t tell by its taste. Its juicy interior and the crisp crust will make this your new go-to way to prepare catfish.
Thanks to Water Grows for sponsoring this post and giving me insight into how my catfish is raised. Read on after the recipe to see my photos from the trip.
What is Air Fried Southern Catfish?
Air fried Southern Catfish is less fatty than the traditional deep-fried version. As a result, you can enjoy the same great flavor of the classic soul food dish without the calories.
Southern-fried catfish is breaded in a four-step breading: milk, flour, beaten eggs, then cornmeal. This version is less fussy since the catfish is only breaded in a milk and egg wash and seasoned cornmeal mixture. The result is a crispy filet with the perfect amount of seasoning.
What Do I Need to Make Air Fried Southern Catfish?
Grab four catfish filets, whole milk, seafood seasoning, dried thyme leaves, cayenne pepper, an egg, the juice and zest of a medium lemon, and yellow cornmeal.
You will also need an air fryer.
Why Do I Need to Soak the Catfish in Milk?
Farmed catfish tastes sweeter and less muddy than wild catfish. Since catfish are heavy, they sink and therefore are bottom feeders. I explain more about how the catfish are raised after the recipe, but suffice it to say, after my Field to Fork trip, I prefer farmed catfish more than ever.
Soaking catfish in milk reduces that muddy flavor and fishy smell. I recommend soaking the filets in 2 cups of whole milk for 10 minutes, then discarding the milk if you use wild-caught catfish. The milk proteins bind with the milk’s compounds and extract that flavor. Farmed catfish don’t need this treatment.
Instead, whisk together the milk, egg, and juice of one lemon. This creates a buttermilk-egg wash that neutralizes any fishy taste and tenderizes the fish. This wash also allows the cornmeal to bind to the filets. The mixture will look curdled after whisking and may thicken up. That’s just the acid from the lemon juice firming up the proteins in the egg and milk.
Can I Replace the Milk with a Lactose-Free Version?
Use lactose-free milk, like soy, coconut, or almond, for this recipe if you need to.
You can also omit the lemon juice and whole milk and replace them with buttermilk.
What Kind of Cornmeal is Best for Making the Air Fried Southern Catfish?
Add the cornmeal, seafood seasoning, thyme, and cayenne to a wide, shallow dish. Use a microplane or zester to grate the reserved lemon peel into the cornmeal mixture.
Medium-ground cornmeal is the best for breading catfish. You can find this cornmeal with the flours in your grocery store. Fine cornmeal will turn to a paste, and stone-ground cornmeal will make the catfish too crunchy, if not hard.
Use your fingers to toss these ingredients together in the dish. Make sure to break up the lemon zest. The moisture in the zest causes it to clump in the mixture.
What’s the Best Type of Air Fryer for this Recipe?
An air fryer with a basket tray is best for this recipe because the air flows evenly over and under the catfish filets. Air fryers with a basket require you to cook only one filet at a time, which greatly increases your cook time.
Spray the basket tray with an even coating of canola, coconut, or olive oil spray. This keeps the fish from sticking to the basket.
Can I Make this Baked Southern Catfish instead of Air Fried?
Set up your breading station with the catfish, milk-egg bath, seasoned cornmeal, and the greased tray.
Dip both sides of the catfish filets into the milk-egg bath. Follow that by pressing both sides into the seasoned cornmeal. This ensures the cornmeal sticks to the catfish well. Lift the filets up and shake off any excess cornmeal. Next, lay the catfish filets on the greased tray. Continue breading the rest of the catfish filets this way.
I can fit three generous filets on my tray. Since I’m only making four, though, I split them up evenly. Wait until just before you plan to air fry the fish to bread them. They tend to dry out and get clumpy if you bread them too far ahead. Just before air frying, spray the breaded fish lightly with more canola oil. This gives the air fryer something to bind to and gives the fish more color.
Air fry the catfish in a 375°F (190°C) air fryer for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the exterior is crisp and the fish flakes.
You can also broil these catfish filets on a greased sheetpan. Set the rack of your oven 8 inches from the broiler and broil them for 3 minutes. Flip the filets and broil for another 3-4 minutes.
How Do I Serve this Air Fried Southern Catfish?
The classic way to serve air fried southern catfish is with french fries, homemade tartar sauce, and creamy coleslaw. Add a few wedges of lemon to squeeze on the fish just before eating to add some punch. A few dashes of hot sauce never hurt nobody either.
What Other Sides Go Well with Air Fried Southern Catfish?
Other side dishes that go well with southern catfish are:
You can also put a catfish filet between two slices of sandwich bread, slather on tartar sauce and mustard, and call it a day.
How Do I Store Leftovers?
Store leftover catfish in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Reheat catfish in a 350°F (180°C) air fryer for 1-2 minutes or in the oven, set to the same temp, for 8-10 minutes, or until warmed through.
Can I Freeze this Southern Catfish?
After cooking, freeze the catfish filets until solid on a lined sheet pan. Transfer the filets to a freezer-safe container and keep them frozen for up to 3 months.
Thaw before reheating the catfish or reheat from frozen as instructed above. Just add 3 to 5 minutes to account for its frozen state.
Air Fried Southern Catfishat Sense & Edibility
- air fryer
- 2 pounds (4 or 745 grams) catfish filets rinsed and dried thoroughly
- 1/3 cup (78 milliliters) whole milk
- 1 large egg
- 1 medium lemon juiced and zested
- 1 cup (170 grams) cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon (15 grams) seafood seasoning
- 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
Prepare the Milk-Egg Bath
- In a shallow dish, whisk together the milk, egg, and juice of one lemon until it runs smooth. The mixture will look curdled after whisking and may thicken up. Set this aside.
Mix the Seasoned Cornmeal
- Add the cornmeal, seafood seasoning, thyme, and cayenne to a wide, shallow dish. Use a microplane or zester to grate the reserved lemon peel into the cornmeal mixture.
- Using your fingers, toss the ingredients together in the dish. Make sure to break up the lemon zest. Set this aside.
Bread the Catfish
- Preheat your air fryer on the "Air Fry" setting to 375°F (190°C).Spray the basket tray with an even coating of canola spray to prevent the fish from sticking to the basket.
- Set up your breading station with the catfish, milk-egg bath, seasoned cornmeal, and the greased tray. Dip both sides of the catfish filets into the milk-egg bath. Allow the excess liquid to run off the filets back into the dish.
- Lay the filet into the seasoned cornmeal. Press the catfish into the mixture then flip it over, pressing down again on the other side. This ensures the cornmeal sticks to the catfish well. Lift the filets up and shake off any excess cornmeal.
- Next, lay the catfish filets on the greased tray. Bread a second catfish filet this way.
- Lay two filets on the tray at a time to allow the air to circulate properly while air frying. Lightly spray the surface with more canola oil. This gives the air fryer something to bind to, which gives the fish some color. Wait until just before cooking to bread the remaining filets.
Air Fry, then Serve
- Air fry the catfish in the preheated air fryer for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the exterior is crisp and the fish flakes.Use a thin, wide spatula to remove the catfish from the tray, and set them in a warm oven while you bread and air fry the remaining filets.
- Serve the air fried southern catfish with french fries, homemade tartar sauce, and creamy coleslaw. Add a few wedges of lemon to squeeze on the fish and hot sauce if desired.
Swaps and Substitutions:
- For a lactose free option, use soy, coconut, or almond milk instead of whole milk.
- You can omit the lemon juice and whole milk and replace them with buttermilk.
- Replace the seafood seasoning with creole or cajun seasoning.
- Use coconut or olive oil spray instead of canola oil.
Tips and Techniques:
- If you use wild-caught catfish, soak the filets in 2 cups of whole milk for 10 minutes, then discard the milk before proceeding with the recipe.
- You can use an air fryer with a basket but since you can cook only one filet at a time, it will greatly increase your cook time.
- Wait until just before you plan to air fry the fish to bread them or they will dry out and get clumpy.
- You can broil the catfish filets on a greased sheetpan. Set the rack of your oven 8 inches from the broiler and broil them for 3 minutes. Flip the filets and broil for another 3-4 minutes.
Reheating Instructions:Reheat catfish in a 350°F (180°C) air fryer for 1-2 minutes or in the oven, set to the same temp, for 8-10 minutes, or until warmed through.
Storage and Freezing Instructions:
- Store leftover catfish in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
- To Freeze:
- After cooking, allow the catfish to cool completely.
- Freeze the catfish filets completely on a lined sheet pan.
- Transfer the filets to a freezer-safe container and keep them frozen for up to 3 months.
- Thaw before reheating the catfish or reheat from frozen as instructed above adding 3 to 5 minutes to account for its frozen state.
A Field to Fork Experience
Water Grows invited me to this unique Field to Fork event a couple of weeks ago. Hector took some time off to come with me to see what I do for work. He also was my pack mule because I travel heavy. We trekked out to El Campo, Texas- midway between San Antonio and Houston- a quaint farming community, early in the morning.
The Water Grows initiative works with farmers and everyday folks like me to teach us to conserve the water we need for future generations. The Field to Fork event not only educates urban natives like me about water conservation practices but it connects food writers like me with the farmers that grow the foods I use. This tour helped me see the amazing efforts farmers and ranchers make to protect the land’s natural resources while growing and raising quality, affordable food.
Takeaways from the Field to Fork Event
The Field to Fork tour is part educational, part tasting tour, but all extremely interesting. Since my love of food extends beyond the kitchen to learning how and where my food is grown, I live for field trips like this.
Our trip began at the Berglund rice and corn farm, where I gushed about how much I loved rice to anyone who would listen. Chef Brandon Silva curated hors d’oeuvres at each stop highlighting the bounty of each farm. This stop’s amuse-bouche was chicken livers with rice, which spoke to my heart. Minerally and fresh, I swapped an extra serving when no one was watching.
Learning About Raising Catfish
Stop two on the tour: catfish central! No, for real. I’ve never been to a catfish farm, so this stop excited me so much I decided to develop a recipe for it, and here we are.
Markham Catfish Farm is a branch of Homegrown Seafood. It’s also the cleanest fish farm I’ve been to. I think that’s a testament to the farmers’ and workers’ care for the products they’re producing. Catfish farming is a year-round operation. The catfish there are fed a soybean meal during daylight hours. This is when the farmers can examine each pond to ensure the fish are behaving as expected. Photosynthesis aerates the ponds during the day. A mechanical aerator takes over at night.
Ponds are 4 acres in size and yield 6,000 fish per acre, though, at times, an acre can yield up to 10,000 fish. This means that at harvest, each pond yields between 24,000 and 40,000 fish. With a target weight for each fish of 2 pounds, each pond produces between 48,000 to 80,000 pounds of fish, whole weight. And, because catfish are not carnivorous, farmers can re-stock the pond with smaller fish before harvesting to keep the operation going.
Harvesting the Catfish
We were lucky enough to be able to see the actual harvesting of the catfish on the trip.
At harvest time, a dragnet is pulled by two tractors, guiding the fish to a second net called a sock. This sock is designed to funnel and hold the fish while a group of workers fills the basket with the live fish. While the fish are in the sock, the farmer uses a wheel to create a current in the pond. This wheel provides oxygenated water to the fish since they all breathe the same water. The sock net’s holes are gauged in a diameter that allows smaller fish to swim through, ensuring only target-size fish are harvested. I can’t tell you how awe-inspiring it was to see these men wrestling to lift the sock up and over to dump the catfish into the basket. Yet another reason farmers and their workers deserve more respect and pay.
A crane hoists the basket of fish into a waiting tank truck. After filling the tank trailer, the fish are transported to a processing facility.
This stop included a much-needed, refreshing glass of vodka ranch water.
Stop three on the tour was a cotton gin, where I spoke to farmers and hear about the struggles they face in their day-to-day operations. Carrying on the legacy of farming was one that really stood out to me. I hope that younger generations continue the noble profession of farming so we can continue to eat as well as we do today.
Here, we enjoyed a delicious smoked potato salad.
Why Choose Texas Food?
This Field to Fork event was a testament to the quality of Texas-grown food.
The evening culminated in an elegant dinner with a menu curated by Chef Silva. It consisted of products from all of our stops and brought a delicious end to one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve taken.
Be sure to check out the Water Grows website to learn more about how you can protect our greatest resource. Be sure to share and pin this Air Fried Southern Catfish recipe to your air fryer or seafood boards as well!