We set out to find a crunchy, golden fish stick that we’d eat just as readily plain as we would stuffed into a taco.
Published Dec. 6, 2021. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 23: Seafood Feast
Opinions about fish sticks vary. For some, dunking a fish stick in ketchup is the ultimate taste of nostalgia. For others, the sight of them brings back memories of subpar school lunches. We happen to love them (so does Queen Elizabeth II—just sayin’), and we think that fish sticks are more than just a retro food item. Gussy them up a bit, and they can be a proper, modern meal. Nestle a few in a warm tortilla and top them with salsa and a creamy, crunchy slaw for a busy weeknight take on a fish taco, or tuck them into a soft roll with a smear of mustard and some minty mushy peas for a British-inspired bite.
We set out to find a fish stick with the perfect balance of crunchy coating and flaky, mild, and sweet fish—in other words, a fish stick that could stand on its own (and maybe even please our fish-skeptical friends). Our search led us to supermarket freezer sections around the Greater Boston area, and we came back with six nationally available products made from either whole fish fillets or minced fish. Five are made with pollock, and one is made with a blend of cod, pollock, haddock, sole, and whiting.
Two of the products were whole fish fillets cut into “stick” shapes. The other four were made of minced fish. To mince fish for fish sticks, the skin and bones are mechanically removed, which breaks up the flesh in the process. The minced fish is then squished together into large blocks and frozen. The frozen blocks are cut into the familiar fish “stick” shape before being breaded and par-fried. Surprisingly, we didn’t have a strong preference for sticks made with whole fillets over those made with minced fish. Tasters preferred fish sticks that had a flaky and tender interior texture to fish sticks that were mushy, and how the fish was prepared didn't necessarily equate to a good or bad texture.
Fish flavor mattered more. In general, tasters preferred fish sticks made from wild-caught Alaska or Atlantic pollock, fish from two different species that are both sustainable, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Alaska pollock is an abundant northern Pacific fish that is similar in flavor and texture to cod. Atlantic pollock is found on the Eastern seaboard and has a slightly firmer and oilier flesh. Both have a mild, sweet flavor that tasters found reminiscent of “classic fish sticks from childhood.” One Alaska pollock–based fish stick ended up low in the rankings because it tasted “fishy in all the wrong ways”; this was likely due to the freshness of the fish and how it was handled.
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