Trust us, you can do this.
If you’re fry-o-phobic, you’re not alone. The sputtering oil, the scalding temperatures, the lingering smell—they can be enough to intimidate even experienced cooks. But we’d hate for a case of the nerves to stand between you and a celebratory plate of potato pancakes, some homemade donuts, or fried chicken. That’s why we asked J. Kenji López-Alt—whose brilliant new cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, contains an entire chapter on the subject—to share some of his top tricks for a better, neater, tastier fry. Here’s everything we learned:
Know when to pan-fry and when to deep-fry.
“Deep-frying gets you a more even color because you’re basically cooking all parts of the food at the same time,” explains López-Alt, who says the fully-submerged technique is ideal for doughnuts and large chicken parts. Pan-frying, on the other hand, is preferable for boneless chicken cutlets and latkes where “you want to get a little bit of textural variation.” His rule of thumb? “Deep-fry irregularly shaped objects. Pan-fry flat things.”
Don’t fear oil.
The most common mistake López-Alt sees is people getting nervous around hot oil and dropping food in from too far away. “Oil is like a dog,” he says. “It can sense fear.” Items dropped from a height into a vat of oil “can cause a splash, or they can cause food to drop to the bottom of the pot and burn.” To avoid this, “lower it in slowly and gently.” Ironically enough, López-Alt explains, “the closer your hand gets to the oil, the less likely it is it will splash.” Too twitchy for that approach? Find a pair of tongs that you’re comfortable with, he says, and they’ll work just as well.
Consider a wok.
López-Alt prefers using a wok for frying, rather than a dutch oven, because of its cleanliness and better maneuverability. Most experts agree that in case of spatters, you want to leave a few inches of clearance between the top of your oil and the top lip of a pot. But López-Alt explains, because of the wok's open shape, “if oil splatters around it splatters up and lands back inside.”
Buy a spider.
No, not that kind. This inexpensive tool is a wide, meshed instrument with a long handle that’s ideal for snagging bits of fried batter and moving food around in your wok or pot. “[That sort of motion] is difficult to do with a slotted spoon or tongs,” warns López-Alt (though he also adds that his Japanese mom prefers to use chopsticks).
Get a thermometer.
Keeping the oil at the correct temperature can be the difference between soggy and crisp food. You can try to guess your oil’s temperature by tossing a tiny bit of bread into the oil or dipping the end of a wooden spoon into the surface and watching for bubbles—but these approaches add one more variable to the cooking experience. “The amount that the end of a wooden spoon bubbles depends on how moist it is and the density of the wood,” says López-Alt. “Same with bread: If I buy a loaf of white bread from the supermarket, it’ll have a lot more sugar than a lean loaf from the bakery.” In other words: just buy a thermometer. López-Alt loves his Thermapen, which he says “is expensive, but I use it for everything from deep-frying to making candies to cooking meat.” That said, a $15 clip-on thermometer will also work.
It’s OK to re-use that oil.
One of the things that can cause fry-o-phobia is the notion of dumping a quart of canola oil into the trash afterwards. That’s unnecessary, says López-Alt. “If I feel like frying something, I’ll fry it and cover up the wok, leaving the oil in it, and over the course of a couple weeks, I’ll plan a couple meals where I’ll fry things,” he explains. The key is to keep the oil at room temperature, covered, in a cool, dark place away from the stove. And keep in mind that the more particles of food get left behind, the faster your oil will degrade. So it pays to use a spider to carefully clean the oil both while frying and afterwards, before storing it.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with temperature.
Though there’s no standard temperature for deep-frying, says López-Alt, “typically it’s in the 350-425 degree range.” Still: some of the finest catfish we’ve ever eaten, at the Taylor Grocery outside Oxford, Mississippi, is fried low and slow in peanut oil, at 325 degrees. And the restaurant’s cooks only landed on this temperature, which leaves the interior fish moist and the outside crisp, after a good bit of experimentation. The takeaway? Once you master the basics, you can play around with temperature, too.
Season as you go.
When making fried chicken, López-Alt seasons the brine, the wet coating, and his flour—and seasons it once again while it’s fresh from the fryer and blazing-hot. Why? “Food has different layers,” he explains. “When you’re eating fried chicken, if you didn’t salt the flour, you’d only have salt on its outside, and salt makes things taste good.”
Cool on paper towels and a rack.
Resting fried foods on paper towels “will wick away excess surface oil,” says López-Alt, “but if you’re going to hold the food for any length of time, transfer it to a wire rack.” Otherwise steam will build up under the food, and make it soggy.
Give vodka a shot.
When making his beloved tempura—he’s a fan of squash and pumpkin this time of year—López-Alt likes to add a little vodka to the batter in place of other liquids. “This works in any batter you make,” he notes, “ because alcohol is more volatile than water, boils off at a lower temperature, and makes for a crisper coating.” We’ll drink to that.