Breading with panko adds a fun twist to the appearance and texture of classic Southern fried catfish. Using cornmeal and flour for the crust is more traditional for this comfort food, but that's no reason to feel limited. You also have a good deal of flexibility where flavoring is concerned, especially if you choose to marinate first. Frying this dish is a hands-on process, but there's not much active prep time and the fish filets fry in a matter of minutes.
Marinate the catfish first, if desired. Pour enough buttermilk or heavy cream into a glass or other non-reactive baking dish to submerge the filets. Stir in additional flavoring agents to taste, such as Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, salt and pepper, garlic powder, onion powder or chili pepper powder. Cover the dish and soak the catfish for 1 to 4 hours in the refrigerator, turning the filets over halfway through.
Prepare enough breading to coat the catfish filets in a shallow bowl. Panko can be used on its own, but for a heartier, crunchier crust, mix it with about half as much cornmeal. Mix in seasonings, if you like, which is a particularly good idea if you didn't marinate. Spicy pepper powders add kick, garlic and onion powder work well and freshly ground pepper, dried thyme and cumin are nice touches.
Remove marinated filets from the dish, let the excess drip off, then dredge them in the breading and place them on a plate next to the stove. If you didn't marinate, dip the catfish in beaten egg, let the excess run off and then dredge them in the panko.
Pour about 2 inches of peanut or another cooking oil with a high smoke point into a large, deep, heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Heat the oil over medium-high heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, using a deep-frying or candy thermometer to guide you.
Place the catfish in the pan without crowding the filets. Fry the filets in batches if necessary, bringing the oil back up to temperature between batches. Cook the fish for approximately 2 to 4 minutes per side, depending on thickness, until the panko crust is well browned and the fish is opaque all the way through. Fried catfish needs about 10 minutes total cooking time per inch of thickness.
Place the fried crusted catfish on a paper towel-lined plate to drain, turning them over once. If you need to keep them warm until serving time, turn your oven on to 225 F and keep the catfish in there on a baking tray.
Some people like their fried catfish spicy, while others don't. If you're preparing it for a crowd, it doesn't take much extra time or effort to make two batches -- one standard and one spicy. Omit the ingredients that add heat for one batch and fry them first, before spicy ingredients contaminate your frying oil.