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This is the first of a two-part article on deep-frying. In this first half we will discuss the nature and mechanics of deep-frying. In the ensuing edition we will explore the kinds of food that can be deep-fried, types of oils, and breadings and batters.
Deep-frying is probably the most maligned, (albeit erroneously), cooking method known. It has been completely vilified by American fat-phobics. But like all phobias, the fear is out of proportion to the reality. The specific dread is that deep-fried foods absorb copious amounts of oil. How could it not? It's completely submerged in fat right? Well believe it or not, if done properly, there is actually minimal assimilation of the oil. Numerous tests by culinary professionals, (via measuring the amount of oil pre and post frying), have demonstrated that little remains with the food.
But before we even delve into the fray of deep-frying, a preliminary point about fats and oils should be made. Deep-frying is almost always done in some form of vegetable oil. Vegetable oils are predominantly polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats, both of which have been shown to actually lower cholesterol levels and possibly provide other health benefits as well. However, from a caloric point of view, all fats are created equal. In other words, all fats, both the heart-friendly ones and the unfriendly ones, all provide nine calories per gram. Thus, dieters would be wise to restrict their overall consumption of fats. But the point is, aside from the calorie issue, some fats are not the evil substances that our food neurotic society would have you believe, and as we shall discuss, deep-fried foods are not as fatty as you'd think.
Fried foods cook, in part by steaming from the inside out. The intensely hot oil causes the internal moisture in the food to boil, which then escapes as steam. The outward rush of steam prevents the surrounding oil from permeating the food and making it greasy. This equilibrium creates that nirvana of a crunchy outside and a tender, moist, non-oily inside. If the oil’s temperature is too low, insufficient steam is produced, the oil wins the shoving match, and your food will absorb excess oil. Therefore, the first and foremost consideration when deep frying is to ensure that the oil is hot enough. If you are not using a deep-fryer with a built-in thermometer but instead are simply filling a pot with oil, it is absolutely imperative that you employ a frying thermometer.
Recipes vary but most foods are fried at a temperature between 350-375 degrees. Most of the remaining pointers for deep frying are related to maintaining the proper oil temperature.
Never overload the fryer. Always fry your foods in batches if necessary. When you add food to the oil, its temperature drops since the food is room temperature at best. Sort of like adding ice cubes to a beverage. The more food you add to the oil, (the more ice cubes you add to a drink), the more the oil temperature drops, and the longer it will take to recover. The longer it takes to recover, the longer the food spends in lower temperature oil, and the more oil it can absorb.
Always start with a generous amount of oil. A large pot of oil will decrease in temperature much less than a small quantity of oil. Continuing the ice cube example, if you placed a few ice cubes in a diminutive glass of water vs. a spacious pitcher, the glass's water temperature would plummet further than the pitcher's. Thus, spend the few extra dollars and amply fill your deep-fryer or pot. It's worth it to do the job right and produce less greasy food. In a similar vein, whenever possible, allow the food to come to room temperature first, as opposed to adding it straight from the fridge. The warmer the food is entering the oil, the less it will reduce its temperature.
Another reason for not over filling the fryer is that non-crowded food will brown better. As stated, fried foods primarily cook from the inside out, but there is also a surface cooking that takes place from direct physical contact with the oil. Hot oil sears the surface of the food and browns it. This intensifies the flavor as well as produces that beloved crispiness. Once again, too much food in the fryer will excessively drop the temperature of the oil. This will undermine the browning reaction. The same holds true for foods that are pan-fried or sautéed.
Use a large enough vessel when deep-frying so that the oil rises to no more than two thirds of its height. The oil can become turbulent when food is added and this leeway prevents it from boiling over, a dangerous fire hazard indeed. Having a liberal amount of oil at the right temperature, and not over-loading the fryer will also inhibit the food from sticking to one another or the bottom of the pot. To further this goal it is often advisable to give the foods a gentle and occasional stir while frying. This also facilitates even browning. A final benefit of having sufficient oil at a proper temperature is that it will prevent the coating from detaching from the food.
Join us next week at "Food for Thought" as we conclude our overview of deep-frying.