The term "frying" (or worse, "deep-frying") conjures up images of soggy, greasy foods and cholesterol-clogged arteries. And the thought of doing it in your own kitchen sounds dangerous -- a giant cauldron of boiling oil lying in wait to cause third-degree burns.
First, there's no reason that fried foods need be greasy. If properly cooked, they should be light, crisp and more fat-free than saute'ed foods, or for that matter, any dish that calls for loads of butter and cream. It just seems that food emerging from all that oil has to be oily.
To understand how frying works, think of the oil as a cooking liquid that happens to have more than twice the boiling temperature of water. In other words, it's a means of applying oven temperatures directly to pieces of seafood, vegetables and poultry. If the temperature is within a certain range and the technique is applied properly, the oil won't penetrate the food.
In his highly informative book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" (Scribners, 1984, $29.95), Harold McGee writes, "odd as it sounds, frying in oil is a 'dry' technique." The high oil temperature in frying rapidly dehydrates the surface of the food, like roasting, causing it to brown and concentrating its flavors in the crust just as drying concentrates the flavors of any food.
Tempura, done properly, can be so light as to seem refreshing. Cooking a fatty bird like a duck in oil, while it would seem to make it greasier, is actually the same as roasting it. The fat melts. The inside cooks in its own moisture, and the skin dehydrates and crisps.
The trick is to have the oil hot enough so that it doesn't penetrate the food, and not so high that the outside browns while the inside remains uncooked. The following guide to frying should prove helpful even if you just want to make the best possible French fries.
A frying oil should have these qualities: 1) A high burning point (the temperature at which it begins to smoke) so the food won't taste scorched and so that the molecular structure won't break down, limiting the number of times you can use the oil. 2) The tendency to pick up as few food odors as possible. 3) A pleasant taste. 4) A reasonable price (walnut oil, for example, because of its high price, wouldn't do).
High-grade, pure vegetable oils such as peanut, corn or safflower oils are best. Peanut oil is particularly desirable, with its smoking temperature of about 450 degrees and a tendency not to pick up food odors. Cheap oils smoke at a lower temperature and give food a cheap "fried" taste. Olive oil won't do; it begins to burn at 280 degrees, not to mention its expense.
A good oil may be recycled; in fact, oil that is slightly used browns food more readily. After using, while the oil is still warm, filter it through cheesecloth or a paper filter into a glass jar or crock, and store it in a cool dark place. It should keep for a week or even longer. Taste it for rancidity before using and freshen it with unused oil the next time you use it. After three fryings discard it, although it can be used to brown meat as the first step of a stew or braised dish.
Food fries best between 320 and 380 degrees. Much below 320 and the oil will penetrate the food, or the batter will come off food that has been dipped. Much above 380 degrees and the outside of the food will brown before the inside cooks. As a rule, meat and fish should be fried more quickly and at a higher temperature than vegetables.
It's important to maintain the correct cooking temperature once it's reached. This can be done by using a lot of oil so that the temperature will not be affected once the food is added or by cooking the food in small batches. Also, the food to be cooked should be room temperature when added to the oil.
To measure temperature, you may want a deep-fat thermometer. Without one, the test is to drop in a one-inch cube of bread, which will foam immediately and turn golden brown in about 60 seconds in oil that is 350 degrees.
Electric deep fryers are available, but they aren't necessary. A Chinese wok works beautifully or you may use a large pot or deep skillet. As a rule, the depth of oil in the pot should be at least twice the thickness of the food being fried. A perforated skimming tool to remove the food from the oil is helpful.
Fried foods benefit from being cooked twice -- the first time at a lower temperature until nearly cooked, the second time briefly at a higher temperature after the food has been out for a few minutes. The second frying ensures a crisp exterior.
Fried foods are best drained on absorbent paper as soon as they come out of the oil and before the food cools, allowing clinging oil to penetrate. The food is best served immediately, particularly if it has a light batter such as tempura.
Common sense dictates that your deep-frying pot should sit securely on your burner with its handle, if there is one, turned away from the front of the stove so it can not be bumped. Foods to be cooked in hot oil, if not coated in batter, should be thoroughly dry so the oil won't splatter. You should wear an apron, since some sputtering is inevitable. Do not turn on the heat under your oil and leave the room to do something else.
Tempura to the Japanese means simply "batter-fried food," and the list of what can be cooked this way includes practically every edible vegetable, fish and shellfish (chicken, pork and beef are not usually tempura-fried). Tempura you make yourself should be better than the tempura served in the average Japanese restaurant. To ensure this, the ingredients should be cut and laid out, the batter should be made just before cooking while the oil is heating, and the food should be served as soon as it's cooked. Some suggested ingredients are:
Squid: Cut body into squares and lightly score. Leave tentacles whole or cut in half if large.
Shrimp: Shell, devein, then score across the belly and tap flat with the side of a knife to prevent curling.
Fish fillets: Cut white-fleshed fish into strips.
Small whole fish: Use smelt, perch.
Eggplant, zucchini or other squash: Slice into strips.
Green beans: Use whole.
Broccoli or cauliflower: Use flowerets.
Onions: Cut into wedges, each secured by a toothpick.
Sweet potatoes: Cut into slices.
Peppers: Cut into strips.
Mushrooms: Use shiitake or white, left whole or halved if large.
FOR THE BATTER: (to be made as needed):
1 large egg yolk
1 cup ice water
1 cup flour
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE:
1 cup dashi (see note)
1/3 cup mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 cup grated daikon
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
In a bowl, beat the yolk lightly and add the water. Stir very briefly. Add all the flour and stir a few times, or until the batter is barely mixed and very lumpy.
To cook: Heat the oil to 340 degrees. Meanwhile, line up your ingredients, a bowl of plain flour and the batter next to your deep-fryer. Starting with the vegetables -- shellfish and fish should be cooked at 375 degrees -- dip each piece into the plain flour and shake off the excess. Then dip it into the batter and slide into the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes.
Just before serving, bring the dashi, mirin and soy sauce to a boil. Transfer to small dipping bowls and add the daikon and grated ginger.
Serve with the dipping sauce Japanese-style on paper-lined bamboo trays, or drain and serve as you like. Traditionally each person is served 2 shrimp, 2 fish and several vegetables.
Note: dashi is the traditional Japanese stock made from bonito flakes and kelp. Instant dashi is available in Japanese food stores, and is fine for dipping sauces.
FRENCH FRIED POTATOES (4 servings)
It is not necessary to boil potatoes first. In fact this gives them a mushy interior. They do well in slightly used oil and are best fried twice, skins and all.
4 large baking potatoes, washed but not peeled
Oil for deep-frying
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch 6edges, then into 1/2-inch strips. If they aren't to be cooked immediately, they should be put in a bowl of cold water.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees, and fry the potatoes, in batches if necessary, for about 4 minutes or until light golden in color. Drain and allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Reheat the oil to 375 degrees and fry for another minute or so. Drain, sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, and serve.
"BUTTERFLIED" SHRIMP (2 to 4 servings)
These shrimp have a crust as light as air.
1 pound large shrimp
1/2 teaspoon salt
FOR THE BATTER:
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander, leaves and stems
1 cup water, approximately
Oil for deep-frying
Shell the shrimp, leaving the tail section. Slice them almost all the way through the back and remove the vein. Toss the shrimp with salt and refrigerate until ready to cook.
Put the flour in a mixing bowl with the cornstarch, salt, baking powder and chopped coriander. Stir in about a cup of water until the batter is the consistency of a thin paste (don't overstir; it's better if the batter is slightly lumpy).
Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Dip the shrimp in the batter and add them a few at a time to the oil. Cook for 2 minutes and remove to drain. When all the shrimp are done, add them all to the oil and cook for another minute until golden brown. Remove, drain and serve with lemon or your favorite dipping sauce.
DEEP-FRIED OYSTERS, SOUTHERN STYLE (4 servings)
Peanut oil for deep-frying
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 dozen freshly shucked oysters
Hot pepper sauce, lemon or tartar sauce for serving
Heat the oil to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, mix the cornmeal, salt and pepper. Drain the oysters and dredge them one at a time in the cornmeal. When the oil is hot, deep-fry until deep golden brown. Serve with hot pepper sauce, lemon or tartar sauce.