As soon as Lent arrives, I begin to crave fried fish. It’s a conditioned response — not unlike Pavlov’s dog and that bell — that stems from years of living in a predominantly Catholic city where on Fridays during the solemn season, churches and community groups fry thousands of fish fillets to raise money for nonprofit groups and feed the faithful – or anyone who loves the crispy plate.

The fish fries attract lines of cars as folks gather to pick up food after work, but fried fish also is something we frequently made at home during the season when many Christians abstain from meat, especially on Fridays. We’d slip battered trout and catfish fillets into hot oil in a black cast-iron skillet and fry them until they turned golden on the outside and flaky on the inside.

I love fried foods, but it can be a messy kitchen project, especially on a weeknight, and these days I’ve relegated deep-fried foods to the occasional treat.

Recently, Cynthia R. Greenlee wrote in The Washington Post about how an air fryer reignited her cooking enthusiasm, something she was losing because of the pandemic. She offered insight about how she once “groused . . . that these miniature convection ovens aren’t fryers at all. Instead, they surround food in an El Niño of hot air, cooking with little or no oil. Baking and roasting, yes; frying, no.” But then she began experimenting and found the little countertop box was a great way to get that fried experience, but through “easier, healthier cooking with less oil and time.”

I’ve followed in her footsteps, first making recipes she recommended for Air Fryer Korean-style chicken wings and trying bacon-wrapped shrimp. Then, I began experimenting a bit myself with mixed results. (Taquitos work well, but I still have not mastered those mozzarella sticks.)

So, when the fried fish craving hit, it followed that I’d experiment to see if I could get a satisfying piece of golden fillet from the appliance.

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It was easiest to get my hands on fresh cod, so I used that with the recipe below, but any white-fleshed fish will do, such as trout, flounder or even tilapia.

I tried simply doing an egg wash and dusting of spiced flour, but I found that the resulting exteriors were just not crisp enough. I had the same result when I tried a coarser fish fry coating. Then, I tried an egg wash with just panko, but ended up with a few bald spots on the fish. Also, I missed the spice that the finer flour delivered to the fillet.

What worked best for me was a three-step coating: A light coating of a well-seasoned cornstarch/flour mixture, followed by an egg wash given a flavor boost by a generous splash of hot sauce and finally a generous coating of panko. The flour mixture coated the entire fillet and added flavor, and the coarse breadcrumbs browned beautifully and came through, delivering that telltale crunch.

A few other tips:

  • If it is crispness you’re after, do not use super-thick fillets. If the fillets are very thin, you may want to reduce the cooking time.
  • Longer pieces of fish may break as you try to lift them out of the basket, so if the fillets are long, cut them in half or into thirds before coating and cooking.
  • Don’t overcrowd your air fryer basket. This allows the fish to get crispy all over.
  • If you don’t have an air fryer, you can achieve similar results in a convection oven (see directions in the recipe), but I found that the air fryer delivers a crisper finish faster.
  • Serve the fish immediately, with lemon wedges and cocktail. To go with the fish: A green salad, coleslaw, cheesy grits or french fries will do.

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Air-Fryer Fish Fillets

Active time: 10 minutes | Total time: 25 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Use your air fryer to get crispy fish fillets faster and with less mess. Make a sandwich or serve them with a green salad. Cocktail sauce adds a nice kick, but you can also serve the fish with tartar sauce. Cod is what we use here, but any white-fleshed fish, such as trout, catfish or tilapia, would work as well. Thinner fillets will result in crunchy-edged fish. The recipe works in a convection oven, as well.

Storage Notes: Leftover fish can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. For crisper fish, reheat in a preheated air fryer for 2 minutes or until warmed through.

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 (4- to 6-ounce) cod fillets, or other white-fleshed fish
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper, divided
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 2 cups panko breadcrumbs
  • Cooking spray
  • Lemon wedges, for serving
  • Cocktail sauce, for serving

DIRECTIONS

  1. Set the air fryer to 400 degrees and preheat for at least 5 minutes.
  2. While the fryer is preheating, pat the fish dry and season both sides with salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. If the fillets are long, cut them in half or thirds. (Small, thinner fillets are easier to flip and turn out crispier edges.)
  3. Set out three shallow bowls. In one, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of the black pepper. In the next, whisk together the egg, water and hot sauce. In the third, put the panko.
  4. Working with one piece at a time, coat a fillet with the flour mixture, shaking off any excess. Then, dip it into the egg, letting the excess drip off, and finally place it in the panko, pressing the breadcrumbs into the fish on all sides. Place the fillets on a baking rack and lightly spray them on one side with cooking oil. Repeat with the remaining fillets.
  5. Carefully remove the air fryer basket from the preheated fryer and lightly spray it with the cooking spray. (Never spray the cooking spray directly into the fryer.) Place the fish in the basket and, working in batches to avoid crowding, cook for 5 minutes. Then, remove the basket, flip the fillets and spritz them with the cooking spray. Cook for another 5 minutes – the fish should be golden and flake easily with a fork. If not, cook an additional 1 minute or until cooked through.
  6. Serve the fish with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce (see NOTES).

NOTES: If using a convection oven, position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Follow the recipe as directed, placing the fish on a heatproof rack set inside a large rimmed baking sheet. This method may require slightly longer cooking time, about 7 to 8 minutes per side, especially for thicker fillets. In our tests, the air-fryer fillets were crisper and cooked more evenly.

To make cocktail sauce: In a small bowl, combine 3/4 cup of ketchup, juice of 1 lemon, 2 tablespoons of horseradish and 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce (optional). Mix well, cover and chill until needed. (Makes a scant 1 cup.)

Nutrition (Based on 6 servings) Calories: 266; Total Fat: 3 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 111 mg; Sodium: 231 mg; Carbohydrates: 23 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 25 g.

From recipes editor Ann Maloney.