On my first foray into the glorious fatty fat of the chippie, I ordered what was described as sturgeon caviar fish pie, waiting for the usual apologetic potato platter. What appeared, after the mysterious plate of bread and butter and the obligatory cup of tea, was a petrified sailor the size of a curly stone and standing, self-supporting, on legs of solid mass. Breaking his golden shell was an epiphany of the sweetest kind.
The cake turned out to be a mere drug of entry: drunk with the joy of dripping, I quickly graduated to haddock, when I realized that, with fish and chips, fish, if fresh and well cooked, is largely irrelevant, a mere supporting actor of the star of the show, his crisp coating. And boy, have I been making up for lost time. I have eaten chips from Stonehaven to St Ives, from Dun Laoghaire to Dalston, I have tried to fry all kinds of sustainable fish that Hugh can throw at me, but I have never mastered the secret of proper professional dough.
Rick Stein, who, as the owner of two chips, needs to know what he’s talking about, uses baking powder – a sizable amount of 3½ teaspoons to 240g of flour, opting for ice water instead of something bubbly in his dough. It is charming and crisp, but quite solid and lacks a lot of volume. In contrast, The River Cottage Fish Book uses plain flour and beer, giving an equally crisp, but rather dense and dry result, as if the dough had been a little thick. (It tastes much better than Mr. Stein’s, though: the beer gives it a nice slightly citrusy yeast that works brilliantly with fish.)
Gary Rhodes is a strong advocate of thick dough, and writes in Rhodes, around Britain, that the only secret to great fried fish is to “make sure the dough is very thick, almost too thick” for the fish to Cook, soufflés around it, keeping it light and crisp. “If it is too thin, it will stick to the fish and become heavy.” opt for yeast flour (which will contain a much smaller proportion of baking powder), quenched with beer. The texture of its dough is much lighter; in fact, it’s bubbling in a way that makes my heart sing, and the reaction around the table is considerably more positive.