A worldwide favorite.
Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) by cliff1066™, on Flickr
Talking about catfish as a category is complicated, because it’s a family of dozens of varieties of fish that have been introduced to all of the contiguous 48 states over the years. In fact, there are catfish of one type or another on every continent except Antarctica.
Still, a little bit of general information about the catfish can be useful to us, both in the stream and in the kitchen.
Sometimes you’ll hear that catfish can “sting.” That’s not exactly true; catfish have three barbs–one on the front of the dorsal fin on top and two on the pectoral fins on either side. While the barbs have a venom that causes swelling and bleeding, these barbs are riskiest in young fish. Once a catfish reaches about two pounds, the barbs are so big that they’re kind of like pencil erasers. Stay aware when handling one and you should be fine.
If you’re catching your own, bring bait, but leave the lures at home. Catfish live along the bottom of lakes and streams where it’s typically too dark or murky to see, but the barbules on their face (the whisker-like appendages that make them resemble cats) have chemoreceptors connected to the gustatory system. In other words, they taste their prey in the water.
The big question with catfish is why they sometimes taste muddy. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to predict when you’ll get a muddy one, but the short answer is that you’re usually safe with fish caught in Northern waters outside of the summer or on farms.
The longer answer is that the most muddy-tasting fish tend to be ones caught during spawning. Catfish spawn in water warmer than about 75 degrees. In the South, the water is usually warm enough that Catfish will spawn year-round, but in the North, avoiding the hottest part of the summer can result in the sweetest catch (but I’m only a very occasional fisherman–fishing enthusiasts, please chime in with thoughts). Farmed catfish tend not to be as muddy if only because the environment is closely controlled.
That said, don’t hesitate to order the catfish in the South. The cooking methods have long since adjusted to mask any off-flavors (usually by a dip in buttermilk, a spicy breading, and a tart sauce).
Here’s a recipe for catfish soup from the 1890 volume Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking by Mary Hinman Abel:
Bullhead or Catfish Soup.
An excellent soup can be made of this cheap fish.
Clean and cut up 2 or 3 lbs. and boil an hour in 2 qts. water with an onion and a piece of celery or any herbs (it must be well seasoned). Then add 1 cup of milk and a piece of butter or beef fat, or a piece of salt pork cut in bits may be boiled with the fish.
Boil an hour? Well, it’s practical, sanitary and economic, but it’s cold-blooded murder of a fish. Maybe just boil the bones for a while and then add the fish just to cook through.
From a box sold in Martinez, California.
1 T. oil in pan.
- 1 crushed garlic [clove]
- 1 chili pepper
- 1 red pepper, cut in strips
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 small tomato
- 1 lime’s juice
And cook. Add a little basil.
Add fillet of fish on top and broil.