Cornmeal-Crusted Catfish with Tomato Gravy

Bacon fat makes everything better, including this gravy
43 Ratings
100% would make again
Catfish Cornmeal Tomato
Photo: Katie B. Foster/Tasting Table

This isn’t your average catfish: Appalachian chef Travis Milton pickles the freshwater fish before dredging and frying the fillets. And as if that isn’t enough, Milton serves it with a tomato gravy made with bacon fat.

We love the spice the brine adds to the fish. However, it’s important to stick to the brining time. Any less time, and you won’t get the pronounced flavor; any more time, and the flesh will begin to break down from the acidity of the brine.

To learn more, read “Mountain Due.”

Cornmeal-Crusted Catfish with Tomato Gravy

Recipe adapted from Travis Milton

Yield: 4 servings

Prep Time: 25 minutes, plus cooling and brining time

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour and 10 minutes, plus cooling and brining time


For the Brine:

6 cups water

½ cup orange juice

2 tablespoons kosher salt

½ tablespoon coriander

½ tablespoon mustard seeds

3 garlic cloves

2 bay leaves

2 thyme sprigs

1 cup dill pickle juice

1 cup Crystal hot sauce

Four 8-ounce catfish fillets

For the Tomato Gravy:

½ cup bacon fat

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

½ cup cornmeal

¼ cup all-purpose flour

4 cups crushed canned tomatoes

3 cups tomato juice

½ cup coffee

1½ tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon Crystal hot sauce

1 bay leaf

For the Catfish:

3 cups canola oil

1½ cups buttermilk

1¼ cups white cornmeal

¾ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


1. Make the brine: In a medium pot, combine all of the brine ingredients, except the pickle juice, hot sauce and fish, over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the pickle juice and hot sauce. Strain the brine and refrigerate until fully cooled. Place the catfish fillets in the brine and chill in the refrigerator for 3½ hours.

2. Meanwhile, make the tomato gravy: In a medium sauce pot, heat the bacon fat over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat until translucent, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the cornmeal and flour to make a roux, constantly stirring, until thick and smooth, 4 minutes. Whisk in the remaining gravy ingredients and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until thickened, 12 to 15 minutes.

3. Make the catfish: In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, heat the canola oil to 325º and line a plate with paper towels. Place the buttermilk in a shallow dish. In another shallow dish, mix together the cornmeal, flour, salt and pepper. Drain the catfish from the brine and dip into the buttermilk. Shake off any excess buttermilk and dredge in the cornmeal mixture to completely coat each fillet. Working in 2 batches, fry the fillets until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove from the oil and transfer to the prepared plate to drain.

4. Divide the catfish between plates and top each with the tomato gravy, then serve.

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