In today’s fast-food society fried foods have become ubiquitous. Although it is still much more convenient and relatively cheap to get fried foods from restaurants, proper frying technique at home will greatly expand your food preparation range. The common misconception is that frying, cooking food in oil (i.e. sautéing, deep-frying, pan-frying, stir-frying), is unhealthy and greasy. Now while I have never been one to be concerned about my health with regards to food, I can say that properly fried foods should not feel greasy at all. The fat is just another cooking medium, one that evenly distributes heat and seals in the flavors of the food, provided that it is properly fried.
For the sake of this article, I will limit my discussion to pan-frying and deep-frying techniques. Sautéing, and its cousin stir-frying are so commonly practiced, that they can be excluded.
This technique, done in a shallow pan, is like sautéing done with much more oil and no movement except for a single flip. The target food should be thin, often meat pounded into thinner proportions between two sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper. The thinner the food, the much more evenly it will cook with the inside done without the outside burnt. Chicken and veal scallopine, cutlets pounded thin and coated with flour are excellent pan-fried foods.
Once the food is properly flattened, it is commonly dredged with flour, coated with a batter, or breaded. This outer layer protects the food from the harsh conditions of the hot oil and seals in the juices and flavor of the food. Unless the target food has high moisture or starch content, like potatoes, it should always be coated somehow. When dredging in flour, make sure to coat lightly and shake off excess. Remember to season your food before dredging to ensure that the food itself is seasoned and not just the breading. A common cause of loose batter or breading is a flour layer that is too thick and unable to hold the protective layer to the food.
The pan selected must be large enough to allow a single layer of food without any individual pieces in contact. If the pan becomes crowded, the food can stick and the oil temperature may drop too low preventing proper crust formation. Since temperature control is so important in frying, the pan should be a heavy gauge metal that can maintain and transmit heat evenly such as cast-iron. Heat the pan until it gets reasonably hot before adding the oil because as soon as you add the oil, it will begin to deteriorate. Since the food will be staying stationary in the hot oil, the pan can actually be at a lower temperature than needed for a sauté. Add enough oil to the pan so that it can coat the bottom of the pan and come up between one-third and two-thirds of the food. Much more important than the pan, the selection of the oil is vital. Proper frying requires high temperature and therefore requires a fat with a high smoke point such as peanut, corn, or canola oil.
Lay the food in a single lair in the pan with space between each individual piece. Try to maintain an even temperature by waiting for the oil to reheat before adding the next piece. When laying food in hot oil, always lay the end toward you first and lower the rest of the food slowly. This prevents the oil from splattering onto you. Fry to appropriate doneness and flip.
When both sides are done, evacuate the food to a drying apparatus, preferably not a piece of paper towel that would just hold the oil up against the food. A metal rack baking rack would allow oil to drain. Fried foods should be served soon after preparation to prevent it from becoming soggy. Make sure not to cover fried foods or the steam will condense and moisten your breading.
Unlike pan-frying, deep-frying involves total submersion of a target food in oil. Temperature control is crucial to get a properly cook foods without being too greasy. If you fry often, you may want to consider an electric fryer for convenience and safety. But if you are like me, and do not wish to commit to a fryer, a heavy cast-iron pot or Dutch oven would do the trick also. I attach a fry/candy thermometer to the side of my Dutch oven to maintain the oil temperature. Proper frying occurs between 325°-375°. At this temperature, the moisture inside the food will begin to vaporize and create outwards pressure within the food. As the moisture seeps out, this pressure would prevent oil from entering the food. If the temperature of the oil drops too low, the water will not vaporize and fail to create the necessary pressure to block the oil, resulting in greasy food. Also, if the food is overcooked, it will dry out and there would again be no moisture to create the necessary pressure. Therefore, always bring the oil back up to proper temperature before frying the next batch and try to maintain the temperature throughout the cooking process.
There are two primary deep-frying methods: swimming and basket. Swimming is better for battered food such as tempuras, whereas the basket method is more appropriate for breaded foods that may not be able to handle the turbulence of swimming. When swimming fried foods, gently drop the target food into the hot oil and allow it to rise back up to the surface. Once it floats, you may need to flip it to evenly cook both sides. When using the basket method, place food on a frying basket or spider and gently lower the basket into the oil, then raise the entire basket when done. The basket method is best for large quantities and is therefore is most common in commercial kitchens.
The biggest consequence of frying is oil disposal. Once done frying, allow the oil to cool. Pour the oil through a strainer and coffee filter lined funnel into a jar. Seal the jar tightly and stow in a cool area away from light. Generally, you can reuse oil multiple times. With heavily flavored foods such as seafood, the oil may take on the flavor of the food. If this happens, consider changing the oil. I keep one jar of oil for seafood frying where I do not mind the fishy flavor and one jar for cleaner frying. Every time the oil is heated, the smoke point lowers as it breaks down. If the oil begins to smoke excessively at low temperatures, replace immediately. However, if you replace the oil, keep a small amount of old oil in the new batch to allow easier browning.
Simple things to keep in mind:
1. Protect your food with a flour dredge, batter coating, or breading.
2. Heat the pan or pot before adding the oil.
3. Do not crowd the pan or pot.
4. Evacuate food to a draining rig of some sort.
5. Serve immediately.
6. Clean out as much debris as possible and save the oil for the next frying.
Frying at home can be refreshing and an interesting addition to your food repertoire. With proper frying, the flavors of the food should be sealed inside a crispy exterior and juicy interior. Next time you have guests over, fry up a batch of golden calamari fritti or chicken katsu and impress your friends.