One of the most-used appliances in a commercial kitchen is the flattop, which is essentially a table-sized frying pan. You won't find a flattop in a home kitchen, but many high-end ranges include a smaller flattop along with the conventional burners. You can simulate the effect of a flattop by placing a large griddle over two of your stove's burners or even by heating the griddle over your barbecue grill. Flattops are convenient for preparing large quantities of catfish or other fried foods when you have a gathering.
The Ups and Downs
Flattops provide a versatile cooking surface, but they have limitations. Most importantly, they lack the high sides of a frying pan, so they can't hold quantities of oil for frying. You'll need to cook your catfish in the minimum amount of oil that will pool on the flat surface, or you can coat the flattop with pan spray instead. Many are treated with a non-stick coating to help minimize the amount of oil required, while others are made from cast iron, which can be carefully seasoned to provide a similarly effective non-stick surface. Cast iron retains heat beautifully, so that type of flattop or griddle is ideal for high-temperature cooking.
Breaded catfish fillets are best suited to preparation in a skillet, which holds enough oil to cook the crumbs that don't physically make contact with the pan's cooking surface. To prepare them on a flattop, don't cover the whole fillet with crumbs as you normally would. Instead, press the top and bottom of the fillets into the crumbs and leave the sides bare. The crumb-coated surfaces will crisp and brown on the flattop as they would in a skillet, with the typical golden color and crisp crunch of skillet-fried catfish.
A heavy cast-iron flattop provides an ideal surface for preparing blackened catfish in large quantities, which otherwise would require a lot of skillets. Coat the fillets liberally with your favorite seasoning mixture, and heat the griddle until it's very hot, almost smoking. Drizzle the fillets with melted butter, then fry them quickly on the hot griddle for just 2 to 3 minutes on each side until darkly browned. This technique generates large quantities of acrid, lung-searing smoke, so it's best to use your outdoor grill to heat the flattop. If you cook the catfish indoors, open your kitchen windows and turn your range hood's fan to "High."
A gentler technique is called "bronzing," named for the rich, golden color it gives the catfish fillets. For this technique, pre-heat your flattop to a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the fillets with melted butter, which helps them brown, then sprinkle them with your favorite seasoning mixture. Place your fillets on the flattop with the skin side facing up, and cook them for 2 to 3 minutes until they're deeply browned. Carefully turn the fillets, and repeat on the other side. Drizzle them with additional butter as they cook, for extra browning. You can use oil instead of butter to reduce calories, but the fillets won't have the same attractive color.
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