Deep-frying is one of the cooking techniques that strikes the most fear into the hearts of home cooks. One reason is the worry that fried food is greasy and unhealthy. The fact is, however, that cooking oils are not especially unhealthy. And the only time deep-fried food is greasy is if it was cooked improperly (i.e. at too low a temperature). Fear of getting burned is another concern, which is reasonable enough.
On the other hand, deep-fried foods are crispy, delicious and awesomely satisfying. And it's a shame to deprive yourself of all that. So here are seven tips to help you make crispy, deep-fried foods at home, and be safe while doing it.
When it comes to deep-frying, safety is paramount. Whether you use a countertop deep-fryer or a Dutch oven, a large container of boiling oil can be a dangerous thing. Keep kids out of the kitchen, turn handles in, and don't leave the hot oil unattended. Also, make sure foods are dry before adding them to the oil, as water can cause hot oil to spatter. And stick with cast iron pots with a wide base. Keep the lid nearby, too. Finally, fill your pot only two-thirds of the way with oil, so that it won't overflow when you add your food.
Use the Right Equipment
We talked about cast iron Dutch ovens, which are good for deep-frying since they're heavy and sturdy. They also hold heat well, which is important when deep-frying because letting the oil temperature fall too low will produce unsatisfactory results. A spider, skimmer or slotted spoon is helpful for removing cooked items from the oil. And most important of all is a deep-frying thermometer with a range that goes up to 400 F so that you can keep track of the temperature of your oil. Get one with a clip so that you can attach it to the rim of the pot.
Choose the Right Oil
What constitutes the "right" oil mainly has to do with its smoke point. This refers to the temperature at which an oil will start to smoke. Refined oils such as peanut, canola and safflower oil are good choices with smoke points well above even the highest temperature you'd ever use for deep-frying. Olive oil, on the other hand, has a relatively low smoke point, so you're better off reserving that for low- or no- temperature applications like dips and salad dressings. Here's a list of the various cooking oils and fats, along with their respective smoke points.
Prep Your Food
We mentioned the danger of water and hot oil, so make sure any food you add to the oil is dry, and by this we mean free of water. Coating your food in batter, on the other hand, is wonderful way to give deep-fried foods a crispy exterior while preventing the food itself from drying out. Here's a recipe for a basic beer batter. Coating your food in bread crumbs is also a classic technique. In addition to crispiness and locking in moisture, batters and breading are also great ways to add additional flavors to your deep-fried foods.
Get Your Temperature Right
It's not enough to know that the oil is hot enough to cook with. Deep-frying involves keeping your oil in a specific temperature range, usually between 325 F and 400 F. And for that, you need a thermometer, which we discussed above. This is important for several reasons, the first being safety. If your oil is getting too hot, your food can burn, and if it gets really hot it could ignite. On the other end of the spectrum, cool oil can result in limp, soggy, greasy food.
Don't Overcrowd the Oil
Overcrowding the pot is a common mistake home cooks make when deep-frying. Adding too many items at one time will immediately lower the oil temperature, which as just discussed, is not a good thing. Overcrowding also causes the oil level to rise, which can lead to overflowing and spillage. To avoid both of these problems, plan on cooking in small batches. Keep a sheet pan lined with paper next to the stove for draining and holding the cooked items. Be sure to strain out any crumbs or food particles, as they can burn, affecting the flavor and degrading your oil.
Dispose of Your Oil Properly
For most home cooks, it's reasonable to expect to be able to cook with any given pot of oil about three times. Beyond that, the forces of heat and oxidation take their toll, and the oil's smoke point falls significantly, meaning it will start to smoke at a much lower temperature than when it was fresh. This is just an unfortunate reality of deep-frying at home. Restaurants can squeeze much more life out of their frying oil because they use it continuously, as opposed to using it then storing it for a whole and then using it again, as home cooks are likely to do. For more on how that works, read how restaurants get their fries so crispy.