In short, Yes, Carp are good to eat. But, you may have to prepare it properly if you don’t like fishy flavor. Carp are a staple part of diets all across the world. Overall, It’s a great food fish and can be prepared in many different ways.
If you are a U.S. reader, the idea of carp probably puts you a little on edge. These fish have been vilified for years, sometimes for good reason.
But don’t let that turn you completely off. The best control method for carp may be an abundant fishing market.
Carp are native to Asia and some parts of Europe but have been introduced and even naturalized across most of the globe. They are prolific breeders that are hardy and capable of living in a wide variety of ecosystems. This is why they have become such a problem in the U.S.
Unfortunately, to many in the U.S. Carp are seen to have very little sporting value and even less food value. This is strange considering the view of carp with the rest of the world.
In Asia, carp is a primer food fish while in Europe, the sporting value of carp far surpasses that of any other fish. There are a number of European based dishes that are centered on the Carp and more publications appear every year dedicated to the species.
With a little more attention, I believe that the U.S. could direct more of a focus on carp and this starts with the proper preparation of carp as food.
Before we get to that, we need to take a look at carp as a species.
Carp Distribution and Habitat
Almost every body of water in the eastern U.S. has a carp population. There are a number of species of carp and each has its own preferences as far as habitat is concerned. Rest assured that no matter the body of water, there is probably at least one carp species that is capable of thriving in it.
Most carp are caught in reservoirs where they were introduced as a method of vegetation control. Be aware of local regulations as some species of carp may be protected in these locations but most are fair game.
The outlying backwaters of most major rivers are also popular spots. This is especially true of the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers where carp populations are soaring.
Some areas of Louisiana are so overrun with carp that they are almost the only available species.
It’s possible to find carp in most rivers but they will often congregate in slower moving channels. They tend to prefer shallower water to deeper pools. This is not universal, as each species has its own preferences but it works as a general guideline.
To quickly summarize distribution: Most of the Eastern U.S. has a carp population, especially around the Mississippi River and the lower Missouri and Ohio rivers. Many reservoirs in this area have sustainable populations.
The Great Lakes also have a population of common carp and they can get quite large.
The Western U.S. is more sparsely populated but many rivers in the Southwest have breeding populations. This including the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers and their tributaries. Western lakes are less affected than those in the east my many do have some carp population except those in the far north.
To do the same with habitat: Considering the abundant conditions capable of supporting carp, they can live almost anywhere. They tend to prefer water bodies with a soft bottom that are shallow and slow moving. Areas such as backwaters that have an abundance of vegetation are a great place to find carp.
The Carp Taste
The book The Compelat Angler published in the 17th century called carp “the Queen of the Rivers” and with good reason. The right species of carp taken from the right water is actually quite a delicious fish with a taste much like the revered Salmon.
Carp is an oily fish which can have a great effect on its taste but despite rumor, that isn’t where the supposed ‘muddy’ taste comes from.
The muddy taste is a direct result of a stress reaction in the fish that can be experienced with many of the more sedate fish species.
In truth, that oily muscle makes for a great fish for a fish fry. Done correctly, carp meat will come out moist, flaky, and with a very subtle flavor. A flavor that doesn’t have any hint of a ‘muddy’ or ‘fishy’ taste.
There is one secret to getting a carp to taste as it should. ALWAYS put a carp straight on ice or in a mix of ice and water as fast as possible after a catch. This will limit the blood flow into the rib meat, the meat we want, and preserve the flavor.
Carp do have a bloodline which should not be a portion of the meat we intend to cook. Doing so can introduce that bitter flavor of mud.
A second rule to getting a carp to taste as it should is to make sure you take it from the cleanest water possible.
Because carp rely so much on vegetation for food, they are susceptible to pollution. This will reflect in their meat quality.
So, we take carp from clean water and put it immediately in a cooler of ice water. We remove the meat we wish to eat without the bloodline in it. By doing so we have a great, subtle, and delicious meat.
Carp are the most popular food fish worldwide and were introduced across the globe because people enjoyed eating them. Proper preparation is universal in most countries and was spread alongside the carp.
Before you do anything else, wash the carp clean of any slime.
While you can descale a carp, it is a rough process. So, the best starting point is to skin them.
The carp’s scales and skin are very tough. So, to do this, use the point of the knife to get under the scales near the top of the tail. From there follow the backbone from the tail to the skull to partially free the skin.
Then, you will want to make a cut along the belly to free the skin and slowly use a pair of pliers starting at the spine near the tail. Use your knife to cut free any meat that adheres to the skin. This is faster than scaling but can be a bit tough to do. The end result is well worth the effort.
To make the fillets, go along the backbone to the belly and run your knife along the ribs. Separate it at the head and tail as with any other fish.
With a carp, you will be able to easily feel the ribs through the knife as they are very thick and strong.
You do want to try to keep all the back meat of the carp with the fillet. This is the prized portion so use a thin knife and run it as close to the backbone as you can.
With a little practice, this is not a hard task and you will greatly improve the carps edibility.
With the fillets, you will notice the bloodline, this is usually removed before cooking. Below this is a small area which will have Y bones like in a trout or salmon.
Attempting to remove these will limit your meat. But, many think it’s worth it to not deal with bones.
Though you can soak the fillets in salt water as most people do with other fish, you are better off just putting them back on ice.
There is little benefit to soaking a carp. It will not change the flavor. You will want to cook them fairly quickly after filleting for the best taste anyway.
Carp is probably best served deep fried, grilled or pan-fried. The flesh is durable enough to handle the grill as you would salmon or any other fish. Pan fried is, without a doubt, the easiest and most common preparation.
Carp can be baked if you choose and turns out quite well. Just make sure you have good heat control and you are using proper temperatures. Carp can be quite easy to overcook much like other fish with similar meat. You want it to be still moist but done.
Since carp has such a delicate flavor, you can go light on the seasonings. Some pepper and salt are often enough. If you have a favorite recipe for flavoring any fish, it’s worth trying on carp.
Breaded carp is a very good option for pan frying. Because of the oiliness of the carps meat, you can bread very lightly without the need for complex recipes.
Frying should always be done in a deep pan with a decent amount of butter or oil. Butter is preferred but for a more heart-healthy option, peanut oil is a good choice. Both hold a good, constant temperature and brown well.
Fried Carp Fillets Recipe
For a recipe, this is a simple but pleasing option. From here you can expand into any of your other favorite fish recipes to see what you like the most. Think of this as a starting point and build on it.
A single 5-pound carp will yield two thick fillets of nearly a pound each depending on the fish. This recipe is based around those two fillets.
- 1 1/2 cups flour (or 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup cornmeal if preferred)
- 1/2 Tsp Salt
- 1/2 Tsp Black Pepper
- This should be mixed thoroughly in a large, tough bag for shaking.
Place the fillets, one at a time, in the bag and shake it to coat this fish in your breading mixture. You want the fish to be covered fully on all sides. From here, it goes straight into the skillet.
You want your pan to have a decent coating of oil or butter. The higher the smoke point the better so consider peanut or other nut oils. If you prefer butter, clarified butter works best but any butter will do. Butter will have a lower smoke point but high enough for easy frying.
The key to any fish is a hot skillet. Wait until the oil is almost as thin as water. Drop a single drop of water in the oil. If it sizzles or pops, you are good to go!
Place your fillet slowly in the oil to preserve your breading. Once it’s in, slide a spatula under it to allow the oil to coat the bottom for just a second before lowering it back down. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes before flipping.
Flip gently and use your spatula again to lift the fillet and allow oil under it. Cook the remaining 3 to 4 minutes.
You can expect a fillet of ½ an inch in thickness to take between 8 and 10 minutes to cook. If your fillet is thicker than this, you may need more oil. Another option is to finish the fillets in the oven.
If you do have an abnormally thick fillet, consider splitting it down to smaller portions before cooking.
I prefer to cook a single fillet at a time, especially with large fillets like those from a carp. If you have a large enough pan, you can do two at a time but you need to be mindful. It’s very easy to overcook carp meat and the batter will burn fast.
In total, this is about 30 minutes for two large fillets including making the batter. Serve with any of your favorite fish-friendly sides. Carp is such a universal flavor you can go southern with potato salad and hushpuppies. If you want something fancier go with roast asparagus a rice pilaf. It works so well with both!