When the great chef in the sky hands out awards for skillful performance under hazardous conditions, chances are first prize will go to a fry cook, and probably second prize, too. Frying is one of the most difficult forms of cooking. But to the eater, it is one of the most rewarding.
Of course there is a lot of frying going on these days. Many of the socalled fast foods we gobble in such profusion are fried. But this ancient and honorable method of cooking, practiced from China to France, has fallen into disfavor with home cooks. It's a victim of the three C's: calories, cholesterol and cost. That's too bad because properly fried foods are not nearly as caloric as they seem. If cooking oil is conserved and reused, the cost factor shrinks.
Furthermore, fried foods -- be they doughnuts, oysters or schnitzel -- are wonderful to look at and taste. Their golden crusts can surround a combination of useful nutrients and tempt the most reluctant eaters, young or old. Still, the taste horrors of oil-soaked, burned or undercooked fried foods have been attested to by countless upset stomaches and the agony of waiting for food to cook when the temperature is too low is a memory that haunts many cooks. The potential dangers -- burning, spilling and even fire -- scare others. Frying isn't a task for the indifferent or inattentive cook.
It covers two, perhaps even three, forms of cooking. The first is deep frying, in which food is immersed in a hot oil bath. The second is pan-frying, or sauteeing. The third is the Chinese concept of stir-frying.
The French, who enjoy codifying, have defined the first two rather clearly. Escoffier wrote of deep frying: "Its procedure is governed by stringent laws and rules which it is best not to break lest the double danger of failure and impairment of material be the result."
He and other classic chefs considered rendered beef kidney fat the best medium for frying because of its purity of flavor. Lard was popular, too. These are, however, highly saturated and kidney fat is difficult to obtain. The temperature to which a fat can be heated without smoking is crucial. Butter will burn at 250 degrees, far too low for deep frying.Vegetable oil, on the other hand, doesn't begin to smoke until it reaches 482 degrees and olive oil -- a wonderful flavoring agent -- may be heated to 550.
Once the type of fat is chosen, it is necessary to find a proper vessel. It should be large and deep enough so the cook doesn't have to fill it more than halfway with fat. It should be reasonably heavy and sturdy. Adjunct tools include a skimmer and/or a slotted spoon, possibly chopsticks and a splatter guard, and a dish or bowl lined with absorbent paper for draining.
Nothing is more essential to successful deep frying than the temperature of the fat. Some cooks like to use electric utensils with temperature controls. While there are time-honored tests for determining temperature (the rapid toasting of a cube of bread or the crackle when a drop of water is flicked into the pan) a deep fat thermometer will more than repay its investment.
The accepted temperature for deep frying most foods is 375 degrees. A higher temperature is desirable to set the batter or coating on tempura or croquettes or to make fish very crisp. If the temperature is too low, the food will absorb oil or the protective coating may break and uneven cooking is virtually assured. If it climbs too high, the exterior will burn before the interior has cooked. Therefore, in general, deep frying should be restricted to small pieces of food. Vegetables should be cut into thin rounds or matchsticks. Chicken and fish should be in fillets or parts.
In "Ma Cuisine," Raymond Oliver lists three rules for deep frying: The fat must not smoke; it must be absolutely clean and clear; and the temperature must be kept steady while the food is frying. Do not add a large quantity of food all at once and scatter what is placed in the oil. If a quantity of food is to be cooked, it is much faster to cook it in several small batches than to add it all at once. In a similar vein, if the supply of fat or oil is limited, use a smaller pan and reduce the amount of food in each batch.
If the prelimiary cutting and coating is handled properly, and the temperature is correct, exterior color will be a reliable guide to when the food is cooked. Remember, however, that it takes time to get all the pieces out and those in the oil continue cooking and may overcook -- another reason for restricting the amount cooked at any one time.
A good way to convince yourself of the pleasures of deep frying is to try something familiar, such as potatoes. Cut them thin or thick, soak and dry them completely and cook them to a light golden brown. Drain, salt and serve. You won't need to provide paper holsters. Tempura cookery can become a joint family undertaking. Parsley, sliced celery root and Jerusalem artichokes are delightful fried. Serve them as appetizers or as part of the main course. Luigi Zara, the chef of the Georgetown Club, has a trick for cooking eggplant, a vegetable that absorbs oil in legendary quantities. He lightly flours the slices, then dips them in a bowl of cold water just before frying them. There is considerable splatter, but no oil absorption.
For a more detailed guide to deep frying, you can't do better than "Joy of Cooking."
Pan frying, or sauteeing, is nearly as difficult as deep frying and less understood. It is one of the fastest methods of preparing meat or fish. Foods (again thin, or cut thin) are "frizzled" in very hot fat, Escoffier wrote, "in order that a hardened coating may form on their surfaces which will keep their juices in." Sometimes the food has a coating, sometimes not. Usually, in French kitchens at least, the cooked food is removed, grease is poured or spooned off and the vessel is "swashed and scraped" over heat after the addition of wine, broth or another liquid to incorporate the caramelized cooking juices. This is deglazing . The liquids become a simple sauce, or part of a complex sauce.
In this form of cooking, a heavy-bottomed pan or skillet is essential so that the food heats through without scorching. A small amount of fat is the cooking medium. Usually it will only coat the bottom of the pan. Butter or margarine may be used, but usually in combination with an oil to raise the burning temperature. A spatula or tongs is needed to move and turn the food.
As in deep frying, the temperature must be high and must be kept steady. If the food is not seared immediately, the concept fails. It should be cooked in a single layer and the pan must not be overcrowded or the food will begin to "sweat" out its juices and refuse to brown properly. Conversely, if there is too much empty space in the pan, burning may result. Because the heat comes only from beneath, it is necessary to turn fillets and cutlets, but the food should be turned as little as possible. (Lift it and peer underneath to determine if it is cooked. With meats such as veal or liver, turn them when a few drops of blood appear on the exposed surface.) The coating may be only a dusting of flour, or something more involved such as beaten egg acting as glue to hold together breadcrumbs.
Sauteed foods usually return to the pan, if at all, only to heat through.
The third form of frying, Chinese stirfrying, involves more effort than the others. Due to the very forceful heat, the cook's arm must be in continual motion during the initial stages. As described by Irene Kuo in her masterful "The Key to Chinese Cooking," oil is poured into a heated pan or wok and swirled around. Ingredients such as scallions, garlic and ginger are added first so their flavors will "explode." The main ingredient, meat, shellfish or vegetable, is given a rapid searing and then a little liquid is added and the pan is covered so the ingredients can "blossom" into a cooked state. Finally, a thickener such as liquid cornstarch and/or a flavoring agent such as sesame oil, is quickly blended into the mixture.
The ingredients are not to be moved in the "flat, circular movement" Western cooks associate with stirring, she writes. Instead they are "tossed, turned, flipped, swept, poked and swirled, according to how they are cut and how they are best moved rapidly around the pan." The object is to expose all surfaces and coat them with oil and sear in the natural juices and marinade, but the food must "skid" over the pan "so there is no time to stick or for the metal to pull out juice and flavor." The time of a stir-fry varies with the amount and size of the food pieces.
Three methods of frying, all intended to preserve essential juices and flavors within the foods that are being cooked. Try them, but not all at once.
Several recipes for frying follow.
BEIGNETS NEW ORLEANS FRENCH DOUGHNUTS
(Makes 2 dozen) 1 cup half-and-half 1 cup sugar 1 cake yeast 2 eggs, beaten 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, melted 4 cups flour 1 teaspoon mace Oil for deep-frying Confectioners' sugar
Combine half-and-half and sugar in a saucepan. Place over a medium flame until barely heated through. Do not bring to a boil. Remove from stove. Crumble yeast cake into beaten eggs and fold into milk and sugar mixture. Slowly pour in the melted butter. Stir. Add flour and mace all at once and mix well. Let stand in a warm place at least 2 hours, until risen. Roll dough out to 1-inch thickness on floured board and cut into squares. Let stand until dough rises again to double in bulk. Deep-fry at 300 degrees for about 6 minutes. Drain and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.
From Creole Feast
MOZZARELLA IN CARROZZA 8 ounces mozzarella 12 slices white bread 4 eggs Salt 1/2 pound solid vegetable shortening
Cut the mozzarella into 6 slices, then cut each slice in half. Cut each slice of bread in half and place a piece of mozzarella between 2 bread slices.
Beat the eggs in a bowl with a pinch of salt.
Heat the shortening in a frying pan. While it is getting hot, prepare a serving dish by lining the bottom with paper towels.
When the fat is hot, dip each "sandwich" into beaten egg and deep-fry until golden brown on one side. Turn over to fry the other side, the mozzarella will melt. Place the deep-fried "sandwich" on the serving dish to drain. If mozzarella is unsalted, sprinkle sandwiches with salt. Serve hot.
From "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking"
FRIED CHICKEN CHEZ HELENE
(6 servings) 1 1/4 cups peanut oil for frying 1 (3-to 3 1/2) pound fryer, cut up Salt Pepper 1 egg, lightly beaten 1 cup light cream or half-and-half 1 cup water 1 cup flour
Preheat oil in frying pan to about 350 degrees. Wash chicken pieces under cold running water and pat dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Make egg batter by combining egg, cream, water, salt and pepper. Dip pieces of chicken first in egg batter to coat and then in flour. Add chicken pieces to skillet, meatiest parts first. Do not crowd. Turn to brown on all sides. If oil pops, reduce flame. Cook until meat is tender and skin crisp, about 10 to 12 minutes.
From "Creole Feast"
BUTTERFISH IN GINGER AND SCALLION SAUCE
(2 or 3 servings) 4 butterfish or 1 whole flounder, about 1 1/2 pounds 2 tablespoons cornstarch 2 medium whole scallions, finely chopped 2 teaspoons minced peeled ginger 7 tablespoons oil Sauce: 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar 3 tablespoons light soy sauce 2 tablespoons dry sherry 1/4 cup water
The fish should be cleaned, but leave heads and tails on. Rinse and dry them well and dust them lightly with the cornstarch. Prepare the scallions and ginger. Mix the sauce seasonings until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Place everything near the stove.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat until very hot; add 5 tablespoons oil, swirl and heat for 30 seconds. Remove about 2 tablespoons of the oil to a dish and return the pan to the heat. Adjust heat to medium low and slip in the fish; brown them slowly for about 5 minutes. Flip them when golden brown, dribble in the reserved oil on the side of the pan, and brown them for another 5 minutes.
In the meantime, make the sauce. Heat a small skillet or saucepan over high heat until hot, add 2 tablespoons oil, and heat until hot. Reduce the heat to medium and rapidly stir-fry the scallions and ginger for about 30 seconds. Add the sauce seasonings and bring to a boil, stirring. Turn off the heat.
When the fish are firm and nicely browned, turn up the heat and pour in the sauce; let it bubble vigorously for about 30 seconds. Quickly but gently turn the fish and baste while the sauce sizzles into the fish. Remove the fish to a hot serving platter, scrape the specks of scallion and ginger on top, and serve.
From "Peking to Chinese Cooking"
(Veal Scaloppine Sauced with Anchovies and Capers)
(4 servings) 1/4 pound cooked, but not smoked, ham, cut in a slice (or slices) about 1/4 inch thick 5 tablespoons butter 4 flat anchovy filets, coarsely cut up 1 1/2 tablespoons coarsely chopped capers (if the capers are in vinegar rinse them in cold water) 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/2 cup flour, spread on a dinner plate or on wax paper 1 pound veal scaloppine, sliced very thin and pounded flat Salt Freshly ground black pepper 3 tablespoons "grappa, marc," or grape brandy 1/4 cup heavy cream
Dice the ham very fine.Put it into a small saucepan with 2 tablespoons butter, and saute it over medium heat for just a few seconds. Add the chopped anchovies and capers, and cook for a few more seconds, softening and mashing the anchovies with a wooden spoon until they dissolve into a paste. Turn off the heat.
In a large skillet put the oil and the remaining butter, and turn the heat on to medium high. When the butter foam begins to subside, dredge the scaloppine in the flour, one at a time and on both sides, and slip them into the skillet. Do not put in any more than will fit very loosely in the pan. Brown them nicely on both sides, 1 minute or so for each side, then transfer them to a warm platter, seasoning them with salt and pepper.
When all the scaloppine are done, turn off the heat, and pour the grappa or brandy into the skillet. Quickly scrape up the cooking residues with a spoon and pour everything into the sauce pan containing the ham-and-anchovy mixture.
Turn on the heat under the saucepan to medium high; add the heavy cream, stirring briefly until the cream thickens. Turn off the heat, and spread the hot sauce over the scaloppine on the platter: Serve without delay.
From "More Classic Italian Cooking"