Fried chicken? Doughnuts? Both are irresistible combination, crispy inside and out, all thanks to a deep fryer. But often times, home cooks are apprehensive about cooking with lots of oil for health and safety reasons. Here are some tips that help you master your deep frying technique.
1. Choose your oil wisely
You might be tempted to use extra-virgin olive oil, but with its low smoke point and distinctive flavor, it’s not your best option. Instead, Sell advises using vegetable oil because it has a high smoke point, a neutral flavor and is super economical. “A neutral-flavored oil allows the food to shine,” says Sell. Peanut and grape seed oils are two other options that have neutral flavors and high smoke points. Also, if you’re reusing oil, be sure to filter it first so it doesn’t give your food a dirty flavor. “If your food tastes burnt but doesn’t look it, it’s because of dirty oil,” says Sell.
2. Get the right equipment
An ideal home deep fryer allows the oil to maintain a consistent temperature, has a basket or handheld strainer with a non-metal handle and a feature that filters and preserves the remaining oil for future use. A dedicated deep fryer is much, much safer than using a big pot, according to Sell, and you can find a good one for under $50.
If you don’t have a deep fryer and are an experienced home cook, you can use a large and deep heavy-bottomed pot like a cast iron Dutch oven. The heft helps retain high temperatures and prevent the heat from fluctuating too much, enabling the oil to cook your food more evenly—and more quickly. The high sides also prevent oil from splattering, but remember to never fill a pot more than halfway with oil or you could have a grease fire on your hands. You’ll also need a digital thermometer and under no circumstances can you leave the pot unattended. Got it? Good. Again, getting a dedicated deep fryer is a much better and safer way to go.
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3. Season your flour
Whether you’re planning to deep fry fish or a Twinkie, dredging your food in flour is a key first step. “The flour makes the batter stick to the food,” Sell says. “If you don’t use flour first, your batter could just slip off.” For savory fried foods, you can simply add salt and pepper to the flour, but feel free to experiment with other spices like garam masala for an Indian-style take. As for sweet fried foods, you can add sugar or cocoa powder to the flour, but don’t forget the salt. “Salt makes everything more delicious, even something like a candy bar,” Sell says. After getting coated in the seasoned flour, it’s time to get battered up.
4. Make the Perfect Batter
- Fried foods should have a wonderfully crisp outer layer and the best way to get one is with the right batter. “You want the batter to be very fresh and very thin,’ says Sell. His favorite batter is just five ingredients (flour, baking soda, malt vinegar, salt and water), but there are a few things to keep in mind.
- For the best possible result, start by making sure that your ingredients are absolutely fresh. That means no rancid flour (pitch it if it smells bad) and don’t even think about using the baking powder that’s been sitting in your fridge absorbing odors. The baking powder is the key ingredient to making the batter light and airy—it gives the batter a lift according to Sell.
- Water is Sell’s preferred batter liquid instead of beer or soda water because he finds that the carbonation goes flat quickly and doesn’t make much of a difference. The only exception is if you’re making a tempura. In that case, Sell recommends using soda water, but work quickly—it should be made only two minutes before you start frying to take advantage of the carbonation in the batter.
- Flavor your batter with your favorite spices and sauces. “It’s better to season the batter than to season the food afterwards,” says Sell. Sell’s go-to savory combination is granulated garlic, chile powder, sage, celery salt, salt and pepper. Try mixing in cayenne pepper or hot sauce if you like spicy food or throw in some curry powder if you’re frying up cauliflower, for example. For a dessert, try adding cocoa powder or chocolate syrup to the batter. Or mix up a cake batter for an over-the-top deep-fired peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Don’t forget that you can also fry cake batter to make fried dough. Feel free to experiment and you might come up with something awesome!
- Skip the fork and use a whisk to combine your ingredients or “beat the heck out of them” as Sell says. The whisk will help you incorporate as much air as possible which will make the batter light and airy. “A thinner batter results in a crispier crust and you want your batter to be about the same consistency as a crème anglaise,” says Sell.
- For slippery foods, like sausages, dredge and batter them, then let the batter set a bit before putting them in the oil. This way the batter won’t slip off.
- Don’t keep the mixed batter for more than four hours because it will get doughy. Throw away the remaining batter after you’ve finished frying and always start with fresh batter the next time.
5. Put safety first
If you’re using a dedicated deep fryer, the temperature should be clearly displayed at all times. If you’re using a pot to deep fry, use your digital thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature of the oil. You want it to be somewhere between 375°F and 400°F. Also key: never (EVER!) leave the oil unattended and if you see the oil starting to smoke, the temperature’s getting too high and you need to turn off the heat immediately to avoid a grease fire. Also, remember you should NEVER throw water on a grease fire. Before you start deep frying out of a pot, there are a few items that you should have handy, preferably on the countertop where you are working. First of all, have the lid on hand so you can cover the top immediately. Also, keep a box of baking soda close by and if needed, pour on the powder with a heavy hand. Sell also recommends using damp—not wet—tea towels to help smother any flames. And of course, call 911 in case of an emergency.
6. Don’t crowd the deep fryer
Overcrowding your deep-fryer or pot will lower the oil’s temperature, which can result in food that’s not properly deep-fried. “Think of it as a bath; you don’t want too many people in there,” says Sell. You need the food to be able to move around and flip over. Slowly lower in the food to prevent splattering.
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