Learn how to fry for Hanukkah
On December 8, the eight-night Jewish holiday of Hanukkah starts. Also known as the Festival of Lights, the winter holiday features candles lit every evening and scrumptious foods crisped in a bath of hot oil.
Traditional Hanukkah treats range from the familiar latkes (potato pancakes) to the slightly lesser-known sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts) to the obscure — to most Americans, at least — frittelle de riso (Italian rice fritters).
When properly cooked, fried foods are a tasty indulgence. But for cooks who’ve never tried deep-frying, or who only attempt it once a year, all that oil can be intimidating — and, frankly, dangerous.
Here are eight tips to help ensure that your fry fest during Hanukkah — or any time — is safe, delicious, and fun.
Go deep — or shallow. High-temperature frying includes deep-frying (when foods are completely submerged in oil, like with doughnuts, French fries, and tempura) and shallow-frying (when foods are partially submerged and must be turned during the cooking process, like latkes, fritters, fried fish, or schnitzel).
Fried foods, like these rice fritters, are traditional at Hanukkah.
Both methods require a heavy-bottomed pot, which helps ensure the oil heats up evenly. But, true to the name, the vessel used for deep-frying should have deep sides that can hold lots of oil without threatening to spill over when you add the food.
- Choose your oil. Make sure the oil you use to fry can “take the heat.” Refined, mild-tasting cooking oils, including canola, grapeseed, peanut, and safflower, are known for their high smoke points (the temperature at which oil starts to break down and emit harsh fumes). That means they can handle the temperatures necessary to get foods sizzling, making them ideal for both shallow-frying and deep-frying. Unrefined extra-virgin olive oil and butter are delicious, but better suited for flavoring than for frying.
- Check your temperature. The primary factor determining whether your fried food ends up light and crispy or soggy and leaden is heat level. The reason, according to Howard Hillman’s The New Kitchen Science, is that sufficiently hot oil helps sear a protective layer, preventing the oil from penetrating the food’s surface while it cooks.
That said, if your heat gets too high, it can burn the outside before the inside cooks completely. Use a small deep-fry thermometer to keep track of your oil’s temperature (325 to 375 degrees is typically a good range), and adjust the flame as necessary. If you are frying sans thermometer, drop a cube of bread into the heated oil. If it bubbles fiercely and browns in 60 seconds, you’re good to go.
No thermometer? Use the bread test to determine whether your oil is hot enough.
- Keep things dry. Water and oil famously don’t mix — and this adage is especially true when it comes to high-heat frying. Adding watery foods to a fry pan or pot risks dangerous splattering and sputtering.
Before frying, remove as much water from a food as possible. Squeeze grated potatoes and onions dry in a dish towel or a double-thickness of paper towels before adding them to latke batter, and pat foods dry before slipping them (carefully!) into the oil. And be sure to wear long sleeves while you fry, to save your arms from any wayward oil splashes.
- Avoid the crowd. Frying takes time and patience, and it can be tempting to fill your pan in order to lessen the number of batches you need to fry. But adding food lowers the oil’s temperature; add too much food at once, and the oil temp can dip into the greasy zone. Work in batches of three or four fritters at a time, and you’ll end up with crisper, tastier results.
- Enjoy immediately, or reheat. Shallow-fried and deep-fried foods tend to grow soggy shortly after they are cooked. So if you’re not planning to serve them pronto, pick one of two methods: keeping freshly fried foods warm on a baking sheet set in a 250-degree oven until you finish the other batches, or reheating leftovers.
If you go the fry-ahead route — highly recommended if you’re planning to serve your fried treats to guests and don’t want to spend the big night getting greasy in the kitchen — let your fritters cool completely, then wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze them. When you’re ready to reheat and eat, crisp them in a 400-degree oven until browned and warmed through. (Avoid the microwave, which simply steams fried food into a soggy mess.)
- Dispose responsibly. Here’s hoping you’ve never learned the hard way what happens to used cooking oil when poured down a kitchen sink: major clogging, backups, and damage to the sewer system. Instead, let the oil cool, then transfer it to a sturdy container with a lid (such as the bottle it came in, a coffee can, or a large yogurt container) before chucking it in the garbage.
Some cities, including San Francisco and Portland, collect used cooking oil for recycling, so find out if your city provides this service. Or, if you happen to know someone who runs their car on used cooking oil, give them a ring.
- Freshen up. The upside of frying: delicious food. The downside: the smell of stale oil, which can linger in your kitchen and house for days after the meal is over. Minimize the smells by opening a window in the kitchen (if possible) and bringing in a small fan to help direct the fumes outside.
If your house still ends up smelling like a fast-food restaurant, clean the stove of any oil splatters using a a citrus-scented cleaner, light some odor-neutralizing candles, and boil a cup of water splashed with a couple of tablespoons of vinegar. Another trick: bake something delicious. There’s nothing like the cozy, spicy scent of baking gingerbread cookies to chase away oil fumes and keep the holiday vibe alive.
Leah Koenig is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Saveur, Gastronomica, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and The Forward. Her cookbook, The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook was published in March 2011.