To mark the approach of the 150th anniversary of that great British culinary institution, fish and chips, Product Zone put three leading battered fish products to the Taste Test before a panel of five industry judges.
The French are thought to have invented the potato chip, while the concept of fried fish may have been inspired by the "pescado frito", introduced to these shores in the 16th century by persecuted Portuguese Jews.
But it was Britain that forged their happy union to create what remains the nation's favourite fast food. Doubt still hangs over whether the first city to combine the northern fried potato shops with the southern fried fish shops was in London or Manchester. Joseph Mali is thought to have opened a chippie in the capital in the early 1860s, but he may or may not have been beaten to the punch by a Mr Lees, who opened a fish and chip business in Mossley, Greater Manchester, in 1863.
If their origins remain in doubt, their status as the UK's favourite hot take-away is not - more than 250 million fish and chip meals were sold in 2009, according to Seafish, and demand for battered fish remains high in both staff and in-store restaurants.
But which are the best products on the market? We set our judges to work. They were:
• Roger Denton, catering services manager, London Borough of Enfield
• Mark Errington, sous chef, House of Commons
• Ann Hood, owner, the Smart School of Cookery
• James Nicholson, food and beverage director, Legoland Windsor
• Alan Shephard, director, the Foodworks Partnership
WHAT MAKES A GREAT BATTERED FISH PRODUCT?
Our judging panel of industry experts agrees that, as well as taste, appearance is crucial.
The quality of the frying oil is also paramount. The traditional lard or beef dripping has now made way for lighter, healthier vegetable- or nut-based oils with higher smoke-points, while frying equipment can now conserve oil and keep it in peak condition.
• Batter should be yellow-gold, not old gold, in colour
• Batter should not be uniform - it should puff up and give the impression of being hand-battered
• Flakes of fish should be visible
• A thicker fish is more appealing, even if it is shorter
• 4,000 is the record for the most portions of fish and chips to be sold by an independent chippie in one day
• Fish and chips contains 33% fewer calories than other popular take-aways, 42% less fat than a doner kebab, and 33% less fat than a Burger King Whopper Meal
• 90% of chippies use frozen-at-sea fish from sustainably-managed waters - while 90% of top restaurants serve at least one "fish to avoid" from over-exploited stocks
Sources: Seafish and the Frozen at Sea Fillets Association
BATTERED COD FILLETS (DC56CR) FROM COUNTRY RANGE
Description Frozen fillets coated in a traditionally golden, crisp" fry-optimised" batter
Made by Country Range Group
Case size 24 fillets
Indicative price per case £16.82
Key markets The traditional "fish and chip" market in pubs and dine-in restaurants where deep-fat frying is the primary cooking method
Operator benefits Consistent, ready-made portions of traditional battered fish fillets without the high skill level required in hand preparation. Although it can be oven-baked, the fry-optimised batter performs best when it is deep fried, delivering the taste benefits of freshly deep-fried fish with the economies of a ready-prepared product
Cooking instructions Pre-heat the oil to 180°C and deep-fry the fillets from frozen for 6-7 minutes. Ensure the core temperature reaches 72°C at the thickest part
Storage Store at -18°C or lower
The judges' verdict The fry-optimised coating went down well with our judges, who found it "nice and crispy" with a "good crunch" and not "too greasy". The one grumble related to rather small portion size
JUDGES FAVOURITE: CHEF'S SMART CHOICE LARGE BEER-BATTERED COD FILLETS FROM 3663
Description Chunky raw fish fillets coated in a beer-flavoured bubbly batter
Made by Five Star Frozen Fish
Case size 18 fillets
Net price per case £29.44
Key market Pubs, restaurants, hotels and leisure
Operator benefits The pre-battered cod fillets increase kitchen efficiencies and offer consistency, accurate portion control and ease of menu costing
Cooking instructions Pre-heat fryer to 180°C/350°F and deep fry thoroughly for 6-8 minutes
Storage Keep frozen at -18°C
The judges' verdict These fillets ticked most of the boxes for our judges, who concluded that "you wouldn't know it was a frozen product". The batter was deemed to be "light and crispy" while the fish had a "good texture" in which you could clearly see the flakes. However, the "beer taste" did not appeal to all on our panel
YOUNG'S FOOD SERVICE CHIP SHOP LARGE COD FILLETS
Description Skinless and boneless cod coated in light and crispy Chip Shop bubbly batter. All Chip Shop products are made with responsibly-sourced fish
Made by Young's Seafood
Weight Coated weight is 170g, 50% fish content
Case size 24 fillets in a case. Net weight 4.1kg
Net price per case £36
Key markets Profit sector; pubs and restaurants
Operator benefits Consistent shape provides consistent plate coverage every time. Complete cost and portion control delivers a consistent cash margin
Cooking instructions Pre-heat the oil to 180°C and deep-fry for eight minutes. Alternatively, oven-bake for 24 minutes at 230°C/Gas Mark 8 or grill for 22 minutes under a medium heat, turning halfway through
Storage Store at -18°C or below. Do not refreeze once the product has been defrosted
The judges' verdict A "good texture" and a "nice, light batter" recommended the product to our judges, who also noted the benefit of brand recognition from a leading consumer name. On the minus side, our judges found the dish "quite oily"