In Defense of Deep-Frying

On March 1, 2017 I’m teaching a class for Metro Continuing Education called Deep-Frying Without a Deep-Fryer. Course details are available here.  I thought I’d re-post this old article, a vehement defense of this most venerable technique.  Originally published March 23, 2014.

 

Deep-fryer haters gonna hate.Yesterday I was walking on Whyte Avenue and I saw a sign that upset me.  It was outside The Pourhouse, a tavern with a clever name and a broad selection of beer and food.  The poster read “No Deep Fryer on Premises.”

I perfectly understand the intentions of this advertisement.  I have been to bars where the food is clearly manufactured off-site, purchased frozen, plopped into a deep fryer, and garnished with green onions or bottled plum sauce or nothing.  If you don’t quite understand what I’m talking about, go to Rosie’s at 11 pm and order something.  Bathe in the neon lights and try to enjoy the plate of perogies or spring rolls or green onion cakes or whatever you ordered.  Then you will know the horrors of which I speak.  Anyways.  The implication of the Pourhouse ad is that they prepare thoughtful, fresh, delicious food.  I get it.

In fact, I have more reason than most to hate deep-frying.  Early in my cooking career I worked at Dadeo, the Whyte Avenue Cajun diner.  It was an oddly segregated kitchen: there was a prep team of kindly Chinese-Vietnamese ladies, and a line-team of white kids.  The first station for new line-cooks to learn was the deep fryer, and you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in Edmonton that puts more food through a deep fryer than Dadeo.  The fryer itself is roughly the size of a bath tub, partitioned into three compartments.  Approximately half the menu goes through this machine: of course there are the famous sweet potato fries, but also the several breaded seafood items for the po’ boys and jambalaya plates, as well as fritters, spring rolls (“Cajun cigars…”), fried chicken, calamari, breaded eggplant, and crabcakes.  Oh, and Sunday nights are wing nights.  Even though that deep fryer holds about 50 L of canola oil, it is usually the bottleneck that ever-so-slightly slows the break-neck service at Dadeo.  Anyways.  I spent a couple months working the fryer at Dadeo.  The inexpungeable stench of dirty oil in my clothes and the second degree burns on my hands notwithstanding, I still love fried food.

The Pourhouse sign is not the first time I’ve encountered the pretentious scorn of culinary types who look down their noses at deep-frying.  Hatred of fried food confuses me a great deal, as I’ve always considered it a delicacy.  Not many folks fry at home anymore, I think because of the misconception that you need a “deep-fryer” to deep fry food.  Really you need a stove, a pot, and a jug of oil.  A thermometer is also useful, but by no means necessary.

Fried food is outdoor food.  Finger food.  Carnival food.  Seriously: what is more magical than going to a fair and seeing those little rivers of hot oil carrying mini doughnuts to their sugary terminus?  In Europe many fried treats are associated with the revelry preceding Lent.  The Krapfen of Austrian and Bavaria, for instance, or the fritoles of Venice.  Street food.  Festive food.

Fried food is the singular joy of eating out with friends and family.  Every single time I ate French fries before the age of sixteen, I was at a restaurant with friends and family.  I never once ate them at home.

Fried food is comfort food.  What is more satisfying after a walk in the winter cold than a big, breaded, fried schnitzel?  (Every Austrian I’ve ever met has acknowledged that schnitzel is traditionally pan-fried, “swimming” in oil, but then, a few minutes later, they all concede that modern schnitzel is best deep-fried.)

If you still aren’t convinced that deep-frying deserves your respect, you should read the section of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste called Theory of Frying.  No clearer, more succinct, playful description of a cooking technique has ever been written.  Especially charming is his description of the “surprise”: the moment the food is dunked in the oil, and the immediate, vigorous bubbling that takes place after.

So you can see that I have several pleasant associations with deep-frying.  So much so that before I got angry with the Pourhouse sign, I got a little sad.  No deep fryer?  Oh.  So you don’t have French fries?  At a bar?  So no fish and chips?  And no poutine?  Oh: you do have poutine, but it’s made with roasted potatoes?  (Poutine made with roasted potatoes is where I transitioned from sad to angry.)

Below are apple fritters that I made last fall.  Apples grown within the Edmonton city limits, peeled, cored, and sliced into rings.  I made a yeasted batter with eggs, flour, sugar, and a bit of cider from last season.  The apple rounds where dredged, fried, dusted with icing sugar, and served with heavy cream.  I consumed the fritters outdoors, during the intermission between rounds of pressing cider.

I hope that this example demonstrates that deep-fried food can be thoughtful.  When made with care, deep-fried snacks are some of the most profoundly satisfying foods we have.

Apple fritters with whipped cream

 

More on Fried Food:

Squash Blossoms

Originally published August 17, 2011.

A squash blossom, still on the plantIf any food can be described as ephemeral, it’s squash blossoms. They’re only around for a short while, and once picked they deteriorate rapidly, which is why you usually can’t get them at grocery stores, only farmers’ markets and neighbourhood gardens.

Squash plants actually produce two different types of flowers: male and female.  The male flowers grow on the end of long, slender stems.  The female flowers grow on thicker stems that buldge where they meet the flower.  This bulge is what will eventually become a squash.

Generally there are more male flowers than female.  The male flowers can be picked without affecting the production of fruit, so long as a few are left behind to pollinate the females.  Some sources say to remove the stamens from the interior of the male flowers before eating.  I don’t.  I hope it’s not a safety thing.  Picking the female flowers will prevent fruit from developing on that stem.  Even so, it’s worth picking a few females, especially once the buldge on the stem has grown into a tiny, malformed squash.

The flowers of both summer and winter squash are edible.  (Summer squash are varieties that are picked young, and therefore have tender, edible seeds and skin, like zucchinis and pattypans.  Winter squash are varieties that are mature when picked, and therefore have tough, inedible seeds and skin, like butternut squash and pumpkins.)

While they can be eaten raw, squash blossoms are usually lightly battered and fried.  They can also be stuffed.

Below are some blossoms from a zucchini plant.  The female flowers are distinguished by the tiny zucchinis attached to their bases.  The male flowers have their characteristic long, slender stem in tact.

In the final picture below the blossoms are filled with a homemade cottage cheese (something my ancestors would have called “clabbered milk”) mixed with green onions and a bit of lemon juice.  I used a piping bag to stuff the flowers.

The batter is just skim milk with flour and salt.  The flowers are lightly coated with the batter, then fried in canola oil at 350°F.  You can shallow fry in a straight-sided pan (just add enough oil to come about half way up the side of the flowers) or deep fry in a pot.  Once the batter is crisp and the interior hot, maybe one minute, remove the flowers to a bowl lined with paper towel.  Season and consume immediately.

August on a plate:

Male blossoms, and some female blossoms with the nascent sqash

Squash blossoms, filled with cottage cheese and onions, battered and fried

Chicken Wings

Chicken wings straight out the fryer.Buying whole animals forces you to eat their various components in rigid proportion.

For instance, if you go out on a Wednesday and eat two dozen chicken wings, you have eaten the upper appendages of six chickens.  If you had to purchase those chickens as whole birds, you would then be stuck with a dozen breasts and a dozen legs that you would need to consume before you ever ate wings again.

All this to say I don’t prepare chicken wings at home very much.  But I love them, and sometimes I’ll squirrel away the wings from my chickens, accumulating them over several months, until I have enough to justify preparing them bar-style.

Anatomy of a Chicken Wing.  If you were confused by the statement above that each bird yields four wings, this is because we divide each of the bird’s wings in two: the first segment, closest to the breast of the chicken, is the drumette; the second, farther from the body, is the wingette.  These are the two types of meat that you get when you order wings at a bar.  The drumette looks like a little drumstick.  It has one bone through the centre, and the meat is on the pale, lean side.  The wingette has two slender bones arching within, and the meat is a bit darker, and for my money, juicier.

There is actually a third section of the chicken wing, the wing tip.  This is always removed in western restaurants, but is usually left attached to the wingette in Korean and Japanese restaurants.  If you think that the best part of the chicken wing is the crispy, tacky, saucy crust, you should consider finding wings with the wingtip still attached, as you’ll increase your crust-to-meat ratio.

Cooking Method.  Bar wings are made just like fried chicken: the meat is marinated, then dredged with flour and deep fried in oil.

Sauces.  Most chicken wings are then coated with sauce while they are fresh out of the fryer.

“What about salt and pepper wings?  They don’t have sauce on them.”

I’m going to pretend you didn’t just bring up salt and pepper wings.

Un-sauced wings are fine.  I like plain fried chicken as much as the next guy, but sauce is what makes chicken wings.  At the bar you can smell when the group three tables over gets their platter of wings because the air is redolent of the chili and vinegar in the sauce.  That’s what I like about wings.

My two favourite sauce flavours are “hot” and honey garlic.  You can make a fantastic honey garlic drizzle at home.  Just heat honey in a small pot, then add garlic grated fine with a microplane, some dried herbs like thyme and savoury, and a splash of cider vinegar.

Dipping Sauce.  Wings are often served with a ranch-type dipping sauce.  You take your saucy wing and dip it in yet another sauce.  It doesn’t make sense.  It shouldn’t be good, but it is.  A simple dipping sauce can be made at home by combining mayonnaise and sour cream, then flavouring with garlic and herbs.

The perfunctory celery and carrots seem like a clumsy way to add some vegetables to the meal, but they, too, are perfect.  A cool crunch between firey heat.

A plate of chicken wings, honey garlic and hot

Towards a Theory of Fried Chicken

Fried chicken cooling an a rack.Usually I don’t post about something til I’m confident I have a best practice down pat.  I have to say that there’s one important point in my fried chicken technique that I am waffling on: I’m torn between the winning flavour of buttermilk-brined chicken, and the superior texture of dry-rubbed chicken.

The Chicken.  Frying chicken is a bit of a balancing act: you want the crust to develop the perfect, deep golden brown at the very instant the meat reaches the proper temperature.  If you were to take an entire leg from a large chicken and deep fry it, the exterior would get much too dark by the time the meat cooked through.[1]

For this reason I like using smaller birds, somewhere around four pounds, and I cut them in the classic 8-cut style.

Brining vs. Dry-Rubbing.  Once the bird has been cut there are two mains methods for marinating it.  The first way that I learned is to submerge the chicken in buttermilk overnight.  If given sufficient time, the tangy flavour of the buttermilk penetrates the flesh.  It also supposedly tenderizes the meat, I think because of its acidity.  The next day the chicken is dredged in flour and fried.

Many chefs expound the dry-rubbing method, in which the chicken is set out on a wire rack, sprinkled with salt and spices, and left uncovered in the fridge overnight.  The salt works its way into the meat, and exposure to the dry, circulating air of the fridge supposedly makes for better skin.  The next day the chicken is dipped in buttermilk and dredged in flour before frying.

This past weekend I tried these two methods side by side.

Dredging.  I dredge in flour spiked with a bit of paprika and dried herb.  I add only a tiny bit of salt to the flour because the brining and seasoning methods above have already made the chicken plenty salty.

Dredging should be done moments before dropping the chicken in the oil.  Shake excess flour from the surface.

Frying.  As always I will emphasize that you don’t need a deep-fryer to deep fry at home.  Any straight-sided, heavy-bottomed pot or pan will do.

Fried chicken is cooked at a relatively low temperature.  I heat the oil to 320°F.  The cold chicken actually drops the oil temperature to 275°F or lower, and it will take several minutes to recover.  Higher temperatures will darken the exterior before the meat cooks.

Even if the chicken is entirely covered in oil I flip all the pieces half way through as the downward-facing sides tend to brown faster.

Cooking takes roughly 15 minutes, depending of course on the size of your chicken bits.  I use a temperature probe and pull all the breast meat at 70°C and all the leg meat at 80°C.

The Results: Buttermilk Brine v. Spice Rub

Some succinct tasting notes.

Buttermilk-brined chicken.  Dark amber colour, actually a bit too dark.  Crust not perfectly cohesive? Tangy, well-seasoned throughout.

Spice-rubbed chicken.  Beautiful golden brown.  Well-seasoned but perhaps not as thoroughly penetrated with salt?  To me no detectable buttermilk tang, even with the dip before dredging.

No discernible difference in moisture content between the two styles.

They were both delicious, and I would be happy to serve and eat either.  The visual difference was striking.  Temperature was carefully controlled, so I figure that the extra milk sugars present in the buttermilk-brined chicken burnt.  Also I think that the extra moisture on the brined chicken caused some of the dredging to slide off during frying.

More work is required obviously.  Below is my dinner plate.  The drumstick in the background is the spice-rubbed chicken.  The thigh in the foreground the buttermilk version.  Accompanied by garlic mash potatoes and green salad.

A plate of fried chicken, buttermilk mash potatoes, and green salad

 

1. If you do find a piece of chicken getting too dark well before the meat is properly cooked, you can take the chicken out of the oil and put it on a wire rack on a sheet pan and hold it in a 250°F oven.  The meat will continue to cook and the browning reaction at the surface will slow considerably.

 

Fritters: A Short Endorsement

Pan-frying corn frittersA simple definition.  Fritters are made from a simple batter that is garnished with meat or vegetables or fruit and then fried, either in a pan or deep-fryer.  They can be sweet or savoury.

Why you should care about fritters.  Fritters are an important preparation to master for the following reasons: you almost always have the ingredients needed to make them; they fry up quickly; and they are a fantastic way to use leftovers, whether it’s meat like ground beef or ham, or sautéed vegetables, or cheese.

The fritter continuum.  The degree to which the batter or the interior garnishes dominate varies widely.  Let’s explore the two ends of the Fritter Continuum using corn fritters.

You can make a corn fritter by taking the kernels from one ear of corn and stirring in an egg, a tablespoon each of flour and cornmeal, and a pinch of salt.  This will make a fritter that is mostly comprised of fresh corn, barely held together by egg and starch.  This fritter is relatively dense, and gives the eater the satisfaction of popping several kernels of corn in one bite.  This style of fritter is typically pan-fried or griddled.  It is pictured above.

Corn fritters and saladOn the other hand, you could make a batter by stirring together a cup of flour, two tablespoons of baking powder, a cup of milk, a couple eggs, then fold some corn kernels into the batter.  This would make a light, doughy fritter studded with yellow kernels of corn.  This style of fritter is usually deep-fried.  At right.

The next time you are craving bar food, if you have eggs in your fridge and flour in your pantry, consider fritters.

Fried Green Tomatoes

A green tomatoAt this time of year we usually have about a dozen unripe tomatoes in their cages in the backyard.  Their days outdoors are numbered: this week saw the season’s first frost warning.  I could pick the green orbs and let them sit on the kitchen counter.  They do ripen, eventually, but this isn’t a very dignified existence for a tomato.  Instead, they can be sliced, breaded, and fried.

Green tomatoes are firm, slightly mealy, and tart.  Actually the flesh of the green tomato tastes like cardboard; it’s the jelly that holds the seeds that has all the sour, vegetal flavour.  Frying tenderizes them, and breading tempers their acidity.  Once they’re cooked the tomato looses its ghost-green colour and takes the same shade as a dill pickle.

This is a classic dish.  Unripened tomatoes are part of our heritage.  My mom grew up in northern Ontario, and they would plant tomatoes every year, fully expecting to use them green!  Her aunt would chop them and use them in piccalilli (post forthcoming).

So.  Slice the tomaotes to your preferred thickness.  Season with coarse salt and pepper.  Then dredge the rounds, first in flour, then beaten egg, and finally bread crumbs.  In the southern states apparently they use cornmeal instead of breadmeal.  Shallow fry in a straight-sided pan.  They’re fine on their own, but benefit from the addition of homemade mayonnaise.

A bowl of fried green tomatoes

Biting into a fried green tomato

Steak Fries

Steak friesSteak fries are big French fries, usually in the form of wedges cut from a whole potato.

As with French fries I use a two-stage cooking method: one low-temperature stage to cook the potato flesh, and one high-temperature stage to crisp them up.

Because steak fries have a more substantial interior than French fries, I think they can handle a much crustier exterior, one that walks the line between crispy and crunchy, with jagged bits of browned potato to contrast the starchy inside.

For reasons explained below I like to use a potato variety that doesn’t hold it’s shape very well during cooking: Russets, which also happen to have a great fluffy, slightly granular texture.  Yellow-fleshed varieties hold their shape perfectly and don’t brown readily during frying.  I also find their creamy interior inappropriate for steak fries.

Russet potatoes cut into wedges, after being simmered in their jackets and cooled thoroughlyFor the first stage I simmer the potatoes whole, in their jackets.  Once the potatoes are fork tender, I remove them from the water and immediately and gently cut them into wedges.  The trick is to have the potatoes just starting to fall apart as you cut them, so that they have jagged surfaces that will crisp during frying.  Let the cut potatoes cool and release their steam.  This part can be done hours or even a day or two in advance.

Fifteen or twenty minutes before the meal fry the wedges in canola oil at 350°F until they are thoroughly browned and crusty.  Be patient.

Remove to a paper towel and season judiciously.  As with most deep-fried food, you’ll find that ordinary table salt and fine-grained sea salt adhere much better than coarser varieties like kosher salt.

Below: beef tenderloin with steak fries, mayonnaise, and kale salad.

Beef tenderloin with steak fries and mayonnaise

 

Doughnut Revival

Homemade doughnuts: jelly-filled, cinnamon sugar, and a doughnut holeThe doughnut: an important food that for most of my life I have known only in its commercial form.  Other examples of such food include hot dogs, ketchup, and potato chips.

Until recently, every doughnut I had eaten was commercially produced.  On top of that, the only freshly-fried doughnuts I had eaten were the mini-donuts at the Calgary Stampede, and a few Krispy Kremes.

As you might expect, the homemade version is vastly superior, especially when consumed within ninety seconds of being removed from the oil.

What would a Button Soup post be without some mention of spelling or etymology?  For the longest time I assumed these pastries were originally called “doughnaughts,” as in naughts (zeroes) made out of dough, and that “doughnuts,” was just a corruption.  The logic is irresistible, but I’ve scoured all my culinary references, and it seems that all the earliest written records refer to “doughnuts.”  So the origin of the word eludes me.  Certainly, though, the increasingly common “donut” is a corruption.

 

Doughnut Varieties

Doughnuts are roughly divided into two classes.  The first is the raised doughnut, which is light, airy, and relatively large.   I’ll give you some well-known reference points.  The original glazed Krispy Kreme is a raised doughnut.  Many Tim Horton’s doughnut styles fit this category, including most of the “dips,” like maple, vanilla, and chocolate, as well as the Boston cream.  Raised doughnuts are good for stuffing with creams and jellies because the lighter dough gives way to the injected filling.  The filled doughnuts called Berliners in most of Germany, and Krapfen in Bavaria and Austria, are raised doughnuts.

The other class is the cake doughnut, which is usually richer and denser than the raised variety.  Tim Horton’s makes several kinds of cake doughnut: old fashion, sour cream glazed, double chocolate, and walnut crunch, for example.  Cake doughnuts keep longer than raised doughnuts because they have more fat.  The packaged sugared doughnuts found in convenience and grocery stores are typically cake doughnuts for that reason.

An aunt recently told me that my grandmother would occasionally make doughnuts and fry them in lard.  My father confirmed this account.  Since then I’ve had doughnuts on the brain most every day.  It’s time for a doughnut revival.

I started with a recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook.  These doughnuts walk a near perfect line between the cake and raised varieties, combining the buttery luxury I associate with cake dougnuts and the fantastic texture and flavour that results from prolonged fermentation.

A syringe full of crabapple jelly

I need 10 mL of crabapple jelly, stat.

I’ve altered the French Laundry recipe in two ways.  First, I’ve converted the unreliable American volume measurements to more consistent metric units of mass.  Second, as this dough is a good conveyance for jams and jellies, I’ve adapted the procedure to make jelly doughnuts instead of classic ring doughnuts and holes.  (The following recipe will work just fine for ring doughnuts, but the frying time would be only thirty seconds per side, instead of one minute.)

The only special tool required is a syringe.  If the nozzle of the syringe is too narrow, you might run into problems.  I had to cut mine back to increase the diameter and aid jelly flow.

 

Jelly Doughnuts
adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook

Ingredients

The Sponge:

  • 225 g water, room temperature
  • 12 g active dry yeast
  • 225 g all-purpose flour

The Dough:

  • 12 g active dry yeast
  • 90 g whole milk, room temperature
  • 500 g all-purpose flour
  • 130 g granulated sugar
  • 15 g kosher salt
  • 155 g egg yolks (about 9 large egg yolks)
  • 85 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Other:

  • canola oil for frying
  • granulated sugar
  • your favourite homemade jam or jelly (my favourites so far have been crabapple and rosehip)
  • icing sugar

Procedure

  1. First we make the sponge.  Pour the water into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Add the yeast and bloom for 10 minutes.  Add the flour.  Using the dough hook, mix slowly until the ingredients are thoroughly blended.  Transfer to a bowl lightly wiped with canola oil, cover with plastic wrap, and proof until the sponge has doubled in volume, 1-2 hours at room temperature, or overnight in the fridge.
  2. Now we make the dough.  Add the yeast to the milk and bloom for 10 minutes.  Combine 350 g of the flour, the sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.  Mix briefly on low speed to combine, then add the milk and yeast mixture, followed by the egg yolks and butter.  Mix to combine, about 1 minute.
  3. Add the proofed sponge and the remaining 150 g flour to the mixing bowl.  Continue to mix at low speed until combined.  Turn up the speed slightly and knead the dough until it has formed a ball, cleaned the sides of the bowl, and developed a uniform, smooth consistency, about 4 minutes.  If the dough seems wet, add a few more tablespoons of flour.  Cover the bowl and let the dough proof, 1-2 hours at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.
  4. Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface and roll it out to a 1/2″ thickness. Cut out the doughnuts using a 2″ ring mold.  Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and lightly dusted with flour.  Cover with plastic wrap lightly coated with canola oil.  At this point the doughnuts can be frozen.
  5. Proof in a warm place until the doughnuts have risen to approximately 3/4″, about 20 or 30 minutes for the fresh dough, 1 or 2 hours for the frozen dough.
  6. In a deep heavy saucepan, heat canola oil for deep-frying to 325°F.  Add a few doughnuts to the oil and cook for about 1 minute.  Flip the doughnuts and fry until cooked through and deep golden brown, roughly another minute.  Remove the doughnuts, drain briefly on paper towels, and toss in a bowl with granulated sugar.
  7. Poking the nozzle of the syringe into the side of each doughnut, inject 3 mL of jelly into the interior.  Dust profusely with icing sugar.  Consume immediately.

Crabapple jelly doughnut