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How To Make Fish Tacos, Perfection Now And Forever

Illustration for article titled How To Make Fish Tacos, Perfection Now And Forever

Hell no, I don't need to persuade you to make fish tacos. Pfft. No way. It's spring; the sun is shining in a blue sky; birds were singing outside your open window when you awoke this morning, because you left your window open overnight, because that is what you do in springtime, because you are not Gargamel, and in fact are a lover of the world who will not decline the smell of new flowers, and you know—you know, hard and fast knowledge, bone-deep, like your name or the smell of your own sweat or that Donald Sterling is Satanyou know that the time is right for making fish tacos.


The time is always right for making fish tacos. This time, though, is particularly right. Look outside and dare to claim otherwise. That is what I thought.

So let's make some fuggin' fish tacos. All aboard for Fish Taco Island.

To begin, acquire fish. Cod is unimaginably wonderful in a taco, so a big thick cod fillet—or even just the loin, the thick part from the middle of the fillet—will be perfect. If there's another white fish you like—haddock or tilapia or halibut or whatever—that will probably be good, too. You're going to cut your fish into smaller pieces, bread them, and fry them, so a modest quantity of fish will go a long way here. Still, people are gonna fire down your fish tacos like the cure for sadness they most certainly are, so plan on, what, maybe a third of a fillet (or half a loin) per person.

Buy it fresh from a provider of fish whose place of business is not staffed by actual rats, if you please; plan on using it within, oh, 36 hours or so of purchase, and keep it refrigerated in the meantime.

When you're ready to make your fish tacos, go ahead and travel back in time by an hour or two, and cut your fish into, oh, roughly finger-sized pieces. The creeping terror you feel at reading that instruction is your limbic system warning you that maybe we are making fish sticks—Oh god, are we making fish sticks, am I gonna have to tuck in my T-shirt next—but no, do not worry, we are not making fish sticks.

(We are totally making fish sticks. It's gonna be OK. I promise there will be no ketchup.)

Now, you've sectioned your fish and reconciled this reality with your previous expectation that you would never be the sort of person who made fish sticks. Dab the tear-tracks off your cheeks; the next thing to do is heat a pot of oil on your stovetop. You don't need a giant vat here; a medium-sized saucepot will do just fine. It needs to be deep enough for you to pour four or five inches of oil into it, while still leaving enough empty pot for the fish to displace some oil without spilling it onto your hot stove and transmogrifying your home into an episode of Rescue 9-1-1.


As for that oil, a nice sturdy one, OK? Corn oil, or peanut, or canola or vegetable, but definitely not baby. Get it going over medium-high heat; when it gets hot you can do the handy wooden-spoon trick to check if it's ready. We've gone over that a couple of times here, but: Dip the tip of a wooden spoon into the oil and watch it closely; if it bubbles right away, the oil is hot enough for cooking. If it does not bubble at all, the oil is not hot enough. If it bursts into flames, hardcore.

(A word on this, though. The fish you will be cooking in this oil is cut into small pieces that will cook very quickly. Maybe you want to err on the side of a milder bubbling reaction on the wooden spoon, as opposed to a furious one. You will want to know what exact temperature you are shooting for here, and the answer is: Ha ha, oh man, as if you'd ever have a thermometer to measure it with in the first place, that is a good one right there buddy. If the oil seems too hot—if the spoon bubbles furiously when you dip it into the oil—don't be afraid to move the pot off the heat for a minute. You'll lose that minute, but you'll gain tastier fish.)


It'll take that pot of oil a few minutes to heat. In the meantime, whip out three bowls and prepare breading stations. The first one gets a big fistful of cornstarch (or that fancy pre-sifted pan-searing flour) mixed with a hearty pinch of salt, another pinch of freshly ground black pepper, some powdered cumin, and some powdered cayenne. (Do this mixing with your hand. It's fun!) The second bowl gets three large beaten eggs. (Do not do this with your hand. It is disgusting.) The third bowl gets the contents of a canister of Japanese breadcrumbs. (Presumably you do not need to be told which part of your body to use to open the canister.)

Station these, uh, stations near your pot of oil, so that you can move pieces of fish from station to station to station and then directly into the oil without making too huge a mess. And now, working in fistful-sized batches, bread and fry your fish. That works like this: Dump a fistful of fish-pieces into the seasoned cornstarch bowl; toss them a bit to make sure they're completely coated; shake loose any extra cornstarch; dredge them in the egg to coat them all over; hold them over the egg bowl to let any excess egg ooze off disgustingly; bury them in the breadcrumbs and kinda press down to help the breadcrumbs stick; give them, oh, two minutes in the breadcrumb bowl to let the breadcrumbs absorb some of the liquid egg on the fish and adhere more steadfastly; shake the fish pieces gently, to slough off any excess breadcrumbs; lower them gently into the hot oil.


As noted, these small pieces of fish will cook quickly; fry each batch for a minute or 90 seconds, or until the breading has turned a nice golden-brown color, which may happen faster than that. With a slotted spoon or one of those neat-o stainless-steel mesh strainers with a long handle that you have never seen and certainly will never own, remove each batch to a drying rack or, failing that, a paper towel. Setting up some kind of elevated drying rack is a good idea here, if you can manage it, so that the crispy breading on your fried fish pieces does not soften as they sit.

Fish all cooked? Great! That's like 97% of the work, here. Quickly throw together some other stuff: Shred some green cabbage (a word on this in a second), slice some ripe avocado, give a big handful of cilantro a rough chop (after removing if from your hand, for chrissakes, you almost chopped your fingers off), scoop some sour cream (or crème fraîche, ooh, look at me, I'm Fancy Captain Frenchfood) into a bowl, slice a couple of limes into wedges, and crank open a container of fresh store-bought pico de gallo, unless you made your own pico de gallo in advance, in which case good for you, but still, crank it open in any case.


(If you are in a particular mood to ride the lightning—where "lightning" may possibly be understood to mean "the toilet for a long time"—you can swap out the pico de gallo for some minced jalapeños tossed with a little lime juice. It's just a suggestion, for the insane.)

Now, about that cabbage. Probably you think you don't like cabbage very much. Many people think this, and they are all wrong. Fresh green cabbage, cut into very thin shreds, is essential to a good fish taco. After the fish itself, it is the next least replaceable item in the fish taco, ahead even of the breading and the tortilla, or behind them or whatever, frankly this sentence is kind of clumsily constructed, but you get the point. The sweet nuttiness of the cabbage is damn near everything here.


You do not have to believe this, right now, reading it on the internet and working yourself into a lather over its ridiculousness. You just have to try it. Try it. You will agree. You do not even have a choice in the matter of whether trying it will cause you to agree; this is coded into your DNA, as assuredly and indivisibly as your dependence upon oxygen or your automated fight-or-flight response to the opening bars of "Take It on the Run."

So. Cabbage. Yes. Moving on.

Also you will need tortillas. Corn tortillas are best. Flour tortillas are also splendid. Decide for yourself. Now it is time to eat fish tacos.


Serve your fish tacos with cold, cold beer. Place some modest portions of the various things—fish, avocado, cilantro, cabbage yes damn you cabbage, pico de gallo, and a modest dab of whatever cream configuration you went for—on a tortilla, spritz them with the juice of a squeezed lime wedge, pinch two opposing points on the tortila together, and bite into that damn thing. Outdoors in the sunshine, if you can manage it.


White light and silence and total absolute happiness. Miracles. The world rendered perfect. Take a swig of beer. Have another taco. Well done.

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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at You can find lots more Foodspin at

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