May 14, 2010
I know some people shy away from frying food, but the truth is that when done correctly, frying is actually not as unhealthy a cooking method as you might think!
Back when I was in high school, my friends and I took a public speaking class where we each had to give presentations. I (big surprise) did a cooking demo, and showed the class how to make a homemade egg cream. My friend Nick, who at the time was working part-time in the kitchen of a pizza parlor, gave a demo about the "healthy" way to deep-fry that was probably one of the most useful things I ever learned in high school.
First, you should understand what actually happens when you drop a piece of food into the hot oil. All food, as you know, contains water. So whether it's a chicken wing, a shrimp, or a piece of broccoli, there is naturally occurring water inside of it. As soon as you drop it into the hot oil, that water is converted into steam (from the heat). As you know, oil and water don't mix, so this steam comes out of the food and forms a kind of barrier that prevents the oil from penetrating it.
In those seconds when that steam is surrounding the food and keeping the oil out, the food is quickly browning and creating that crisp delicious exterior that we love about fried food. This crust then takes over protection duties, and keeps the oil out while the rest of the food continues to cook on the inside due to the high heat. (Think of it like a mini oven inside the crisp exterior.)
The magic ingredient to make this all run smoothly? Temperature. Specifically, a temperature between 350 and 375 degrees F. (about 177-190 Celcius).
That's why whenever you read a recipe for a fried dish it's going to tell you to fry it at this temperature; because this is the perfect temperature in which this process can take place. Any hotter than 375, and the steam will evaporate quickly, the exterior will crisp and brown too fast, and the food on the inside won't cook completely. Any lower than 350, and exterior of the food won't be able to develop in time to protect the inside before the steam evaporates, so you'll end up absorbing way more oil (and calories) than you would have if it were cooked properly.
Makes sense, right?
I remember being totally fascinated by this explanation when I was 17, and 10 years later, I still think about it every single time that I fry. (Actually, I should probably send Nick this link as soon as I post it. I wonder if he even remembers this!) And in case you're skeptical of something I learned from another 17-year-old, I'll note that this same lesson was essentially repeated by my chef instructor when I went to culinary school a few years later.
So that said, there are some other things to keep in mind when frying. Here are my tips (please feel free to add your own in the comments):
1. Use a heavy-bottomed pot that will help retain the heat from the burners and conduct it evenly. If the pot is too thin, the oil will heat up too fast and the food will burn. I usually use my dutch oven or my cast iron skillet. If I'm only frying a couple things, I'll use a smaller saucepan (seen above). If all my wedding registry dreams come true, I'll soon have some even better pots that I can use.
2. Get a thermometer. Seriously, you have to do it. They're 10-20 dollars and will give you that much more confidence when dealing with the oil. You can also use them for candy or jam making if you're so inclined.
3. Use clean oil to fry. I know some people like to strain their oil and reuse, but I'm not really a fan of that because the properties of the oil break down a bit each time you use it. Reused oil is more likely to smoke and burn your food. It can also absorb flavors that will ruin the taste of your food. (If you feel bad throwing it out after one use, you can look for centers that recycle used cooking oil.)
4. Man the controls. Sometimes I feel like I'm flying a plane when I fry. The reason? You need to use the burners to regulate the temperature of the oil. When you add food to the pot, the heat will drop quickly, so raise the flame to get it back where you want it. If it gets too hot, lower it. (If you own a deep fryer, this is moot, but I know most of you don't.)
5. Don't add everything to the pot at once or the temperature will drop. This isn't like boiling. You can only fry a few things at a time; how many determines on the size of what you're cooking and how big your pot is. Fry them in batches; it'll still go quickly.
6. Fried leftovers don't reheat well, but if you must, I suggest you freeze them and then reheat in a 400 degree oven for about 5 minutes. Don't even think about microwaving them.
7. Salt *after* you fry. Salt will pull moisture to the food's surface and make it splatter when you add it to the oil. It will also lower the smoking point of the oil. Adding it to the food after it's fried will prevent this.
8. Use a good metal or heat-resistant silicon slotted spoon to take things out of the oil, and sift out any bits of breading or food after each batch. Never use wooden utensils; they tend to retain moisture which will make your oil splatter and spit. Plastic will melt.
Finally, what kind of oil you cook with is up to you. Personally, I only ever use virgin coconut oil (which I buy in bulk from this store) or grapeseed oil, both for health and taste reasons. Coconut oil is one of my absolute favorite things to cook with, and I may delve into why in a future post.
But for now, you're ready to fry! Here are some recipes you can now guilt-lessly (well, almost!) try:
Fried Macaroni & Cheese
Sweet Carrot Zeppole
Smokey Jalapeno Poppers
Arancini di Riso