Friday, April 30, 2010

Deep-Frying Basics for the Know-It-All

Some food items just have to be deep fried, and when you decide to do the deed, you can ensure a perfect result without a whole lot of trouble. You want to use a vessel that will hold an adequate amount of hot fat, made of a material that will not cool off easily. The goal is for the temperature of the fat to remain as constant as possible during the cooking process, with few fluctuations when uncooked items are added. A cast iron Dutch oven is ideal, as is a thick-sided saucepan, wok, or stockpot. Whatever you are frying, the level of the grease should never come close to the top rim of the vessel, so make sure it is large enough for the task.

You’ll need a thermometer, of the laser instant-read, candy, or deep-fat variety (lesser thermometers can’t read temps high enough). You want the food item you are frying to be as dry on its surface as possible: 1. so the breading will stick to it, and 2. so you’re not dumping a liquid into a vat of very hot oil. The thinner or smaller the food item is, the colder it should be when it goes into the breading station. You want smaller or thinner things to cook slower internally, so the interior does not overcook while waiting for the exterior to get golden brown. Something larger or clunkier should be closer to room temp, so that the interior has time to cook before the exterior gets too dark. Try to have all of the items being cooked cut to a similar size and thickness, so they will all cook at the same rate. Add items into the hot oil at a rate that doesn’t cause the oil to cool down too quickly. Adding sequential items to different areas of the surface of the oil can help prevent a rapid cool-down as well.

You’re gonna need some lube to heat up. I highly recommend rice bran oil as the healthiest, the longest-lasting, the tastiest, with one of the highest smoke points, and it’s reasonably priced. Use what you have to, but you can get rice bran oil online, at most Japanese food markets, and at Whole Foods (see my previous blog on rice bran oil). We always prefer a frying temperature between 355º and 365º, 360º is perfect. Have the temp too low, and foods will have a very greasy outer coating. Have the oil too hot, and the batter cooks too quickly, the inside can be uncooked, and the cooking oil quickly takes on a burnt taste.

Your batter station needs attention. You need to go flour, liquid, flour, so three bowls or containers will work nicely (you can use re-sealable plastic bags in a pinch). For the first flour, use a finely textured blend, such as half rice flour and half all-purpose flour or cake flour; adding some corn starch to the ratio will make the texture even finer. The liquid is usually some dairy (milk, cream, or buttermilk) with a little beaten egg added. The final flour station can be half a.p. flour and half rice flour (for a fine textured crust), plain flour (a little more texture), crushed crackers or panko crumbs (more texture still), or some variation of a cornmeal-based crust (hard textured). You can substitute all kinds of things for the coating mixture, such as crushed cereals, seeds, semolina flour, crushed nuts or nut flours, etc. The last coating is usually where the seasonings are added, and again, let creativity be your muse. A variant to the dry-liquid-dry method is to use tempura or beer batter for the liquid, which will preclude the final dry-dipping.

A key tool at the batter station is a sieve. After repeated use, the second flour mixture will get all kinds of chunky bits formed from liquid and flour. These work against getting a smooth exterior finish on your final coating, so they should periodically be sieved-out and discarded. It goes without saying to keep your hands as batter-free as possible; methods include using only one hand for touching any flour, disposable gloves, tongs, etc, or a combination. Use a spider, slotted spoon, or tongs to keep items away from each other when you first place them into the oil; they will stick like glue to each other without a little nudging on your part.

Some items can be very explosive due to high levels of internal moisture; soft shell crabs are a perfect example. We always lived in fear when Mr. Fish would show up with a batch of writhing, live soft shell crabs, knowing that the coming night would guarantee frequent eruptions of molten oil, and getting burnt was unavoidable. Items such as this should be drained thoroughly, carefully slipped into the oil, and handled as little as possible until cooked, with you standing an arm’s-length away.

When something is cooked, it will usually be floating near the surface, there will be little sound coming from the oil (little to no bubbling), and the fried item will be a light golden brown in color. Remove it from the oil and drain it well before placing it on a layer of absorbent paper towels. Since you will be frying in batches, keep the cooked items warm in an oven set as low as possible. Do not forget to turn off the heat under your fryer set-up when you are finished frying, and let the oil cool completely before you attempt to move it. Always filter your cooking oil through grease filter cones (available at your local restaurant supply house or online) if you plan on re-using it. Obviously oil used for seafood will not last as long as oil used to cook vegetables. Cooking oil dump barrels behind restaurants are ideal places to dispose of old cooking oil. Never pour it down your drain.

Enjoy, mick vann ©

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