Fry guy

How to deep-fry at home

July 27, 2009

News flash: Deep-frying can be hazardous to your health.

No, I mean before you even eat the food.

I don’t like to peddle scare stories. But the dangers of deep-frying are no joke. People in the United Kingdom love to fry. It’s the home of fish and chips and the deep-fried Mars Bar. And they fry at home using chip pans.

A chip pan is just a deep saucepan with a fry basket. They are the number-one cause of home fires in England. Chip-pan fires are so common that local fire departments urge stores not to sell chip pans and hold “chip-pan amnesty” events where people can bring their chip pans down to the fire station and exchange them for coupons for electric deep fryers.

You know, just like with handguns.

It’s a wonder the U.K. hasn’t burned down yet.

Why is deep-frying more dangerous than any other cooking technique, short of fugu butchering? Because of the laws of physics. A pot full of 375-degree oil contains an astonishing amount of heat energy. It’s like having a chunk of plutonium in your kitchen.

If you put wet food in the oil, the water will vaporize, causing oil to bubble over onto the heating element, where it will ignite. This happened to me once while I was making French fries, and I was able to put out the fire with a standard ABC home fire extinguisher.

french fries
Use a skimmer to remove fries from hot oil.

I was very lucky. The other kind of fryer fire occurs when the oil in the pot overheats and reaches its flash point. If this happens, you are, technically speaking, hosed. ABC fire extinguishers can’t put out a major grease fire. Commercial kitchens keep Type K fire extinguishers on hand for this purpose. You don’t have one at home because they’re bulky and cost at least $150.

If you’re hit by this kind of conflagration, fire departments advise you to try laying a wet cloth over the top of the pot. If that doesn’t work, grab your family and run.

And let’s not even get into the effects of hot oil on human skin.

In researching this column, before I started looking into the safety issues, I was all set to recommend stovetop frying over the electric deep fryer. With stovetop frying, you don’t have to buy any new equipment that will take up counter space, and the results are better because you have more control over the oil temperature. (Electric fryers often have trouble hitting 375 degrees, a common frying temp.)

This is all true. It’s also true that you will get to Grandma’s house faster if you drive 127 miles per hour and don’t waste time putting on seatbelts.

Electric fryers are annoying, but they’re safer. First, they shut off before the oil gets smoking hot. Second, if the oil does boil over, there’s no exposed heating element, so it won’t burst into flames.

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Now, perhaps you laugh at danger. I have been known to chuckle nervously at danger myself. You and I should get together for some deep-frying. Here are eight non-safety-related hints we should keep in mind.

  1. Solid fats make excellent fried foods. There’s a reason fried-chicken recipes always call for shortening or lard: It results in crispier, less greasy-tasting chicken. This holds just as true for French fries or doughnuts. Good-quality, non-hydrogenated lard or beef fat is the gold standard for frying. (If you’re concerned about health issues, well, we’re already talking about frying here, right?) Refined peanut oil is also very good. And Crisco, which is cheaper than lard or peanut oil and no longer contains trans fats, is nothing to sniff at. Solid fats — lard in particular — are also less apt to leave your house smelling like a doughnut shop after an evening of frying.
  2. In a pinch, use refined canola, soybean, grapeseed, or corn oil. Less refined oils will burn before they hit proper frying temperature, as will nut oils and other fancy oils. You can, technically, fry in extra-virgin olive oil, but it doesn’t make the best frying oil any more than it makes the best biodiesel.
  3. You can often get away with less oil than you’d expect. The minimum amount of oil for deep-frying is about 1 quart, which is less than most recipes call for. For food in small pieces, like breaded shrimp or onion rings, a quart will work fine. Keep your batches small.
  4. An instant-read thermometer is a must. (Especially with an electric fryer, because their thermostats don’t work very well.) Even an inexpensive analog thermometer will work fine. Frying at too low a temperature (or overloading the oil, which also causes the oil temperature to drop) causes soggy, greasy food. Frying at too high a temperature, even if nothing fatal happens, causes burned food.
  5. A large bamboo skimmer is also a must. Nothing else works nearly as well for removing food from the oil. Well, maybe bionic hands.
  6. Frying oil can be reused a couple of times. Strain the oil through a fine-mesh strainer after frying and put it in the refrigerator. Use it within a week or until it oxidizes. (How will you know if your oil has oxidized? After you fry with it two or three times, the oil will start to turn dark and smell weird. You’ll know it when you see it. Or smell it.)
  7. Some deep-fry recipes can be converted to pan-frying in a smaller amount of oil. Tonkatsu, the Japanese breaded pork chop, is usually deep-fried, but there’s no reason you can’t make it in half an inch of oil in a skillet. Same goes for shrimp or chicken nuggets.
  8. Homemade doughnuts are so good, they’re almost worth the risk of flaming death. Heat some lard in the electric deep-fryer, have a doughnut party, and send me an invitation.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

Related recipe: Classic French Fries

There are 18 comments on this item
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1. by kelly on Jul 28, 2009 at 5:37 AM PDT

Any thoughts on why people seem to crave fried food even more than usual duringthe hottest days of summer?

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jul 28, 2009 at 9:58 AM PDT

Good question, Kelly. Maybe because usually someone else is making it for you?

3. by Caroline Cummins on Jul 29, 2009 at 12:00 PM PDT

Because fried food is usually also salty (elephant ears excepted) and you’re sweating out lots of salt? Just an off-the-cuff pseudomedical theory.

4. by Chaeles on Jul 29, 2009 at 12:24 PM PDT

Hi Matthew:
I just thought I would mention that even though Crisco is now advertising “0 grams of trans-fats per serving” like many brands, it still has trans-fats and hydrogenated oils; sp people who want to avoid trans-fats might want to avoid it.
They sell a brand of shortening at Whole Foods called Jungle Shortening made from organic palm and sunflower oils. I have not tried it yet, but it gets good reviews for use in baking:

Also a new gourmet donut place here in San Francisco, Dynamo Donuts, advertises that they fry in organic palm oil - and I can attest that their goods are fantastic and light and not overly-greasy.

Jungle shortening and organic palm oil may come out to be just as expensive as peanut oil - but just thought I’d mention them as alternitives.

5. by Charles on Jul 29, 2009 at 12:26 PM PDT

Below are the ingerdients of Crisco, from their website:


6. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jul 29, 2009 at 1:28 PM PDT

Thanks, Charles. I went to Dynamo Doughnuts when I was in SF and can attest that the doughnuts were not greasy.

I still think lard is best. But “jungle shortening” is a great term.

7. by Holly on Jul 30, 2009 at 10:47 AM PDT

I use third-press (Pomace) olive oil for frying chicken, chops & potatoes and it works just fine. Can also add peanut oil for flavor.

And I second the notion of using an electric skillet (I guess technically that’s pan-frying). Frying on the stovetop is freakin’ dangerous. The only times I’ve had oil smoke on me is when I was frying on the stovetop.

I REALLY want to try doughnuts fried in lard.

8. by Christine Medifast on Jul 30, 2009 at 10:50 AM PDT

Deep frying has always scared me so much to the point I refuse to use one or even own one. Yes, the speed difference of the food could be nice, but the fat content and the dangers of it make me prefer spending extra time cooking instead. Thanks for this great article. No one has ever gone so in depth on deep frying.

9. by caleb bo baleb on Aug 3, 2009 at 1:41 PM PDT

uh-oh - i was hoping for a few tips on technique here. such as:

when i am frying, how do i know the oil is hot enough? i am supposed to follow a recipe and rely on a thermometer? that’s a tip, i think, but what if i don’t trust my thermometer? is there a certain way i’m expecting the oil to act when i put the breaded pre-fried food in it? no smoke and lots of bubbles is good?

what’s your take on the fry screen?

and what about frying really big things like chicken pieces vs. little things like shrimp tempura? how do you keep the big things from getting too dark? is there generally a difference between temperatures, types of batter and length of frying?

how do i make a flaky batter for onion rings like that place across from my mom’s house?

do i want to avoid watery things to fry? salt them/sweat them first?

is there anything i need to do differently for tempura frying vs. french-american frying, if such a thing exists?

i enjoyed a snitzelwich today, btw, it was fried and delicious.

10. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Aug 3, 2009 at 2:28 PM PDT

These are good questions, Caleb.

If you are using an electric fryer, you should rely on its thermostat or supplement with a thermometer. If you are not using an electric fryer, I don’t want to hear about it.

Tempura frying involves a different coating but not different technique.

The fry screen works pretty well.

Frying big things until they’re cooked through is tricky. You need to watch the oil temperature carefully and fry at a lower temp until the food is done.

I have a column in the works about Japanese frying which will address the tempura question in much more depth. Did you get the schnitzelwich from that downtown food cart?

The onion rings are probably beer-battered. I’ll bet you can turn up a beer-batter recipe.

wet things: you don’t want to fry things with surface water. Everything you fry is mostly water on the inside, and some of that water comes out when frying. It’s big droplets of water that cause a problem. Dry food thoroughly before frying, or bread it.

Does this help?

11. by caleb bo baleb on Aug 4, 2009 at 9:45 PM PDT

Excellent, thank you. I won’t let you know how any of this turns out.

I would love to see an in-depth tempura article.

12. by Christine Medifast on Aug 11, 2009 at 9:09 AM PDT

Thanks Matthew for answering Caleb’s questions. You’ve really gone ahead and covered all areas of deep frying. Not many people would think of all these areas of deep frying, glad someone has.

13. by anonymous on Aug 21, 2009 at 1:17 PM PDT

Fried food in Canada is nasty stuff.. I tend to believe they turn down the temp. of the oil to save money and make the oil last longer.. But it sure makes the food taste like crap.. and dripping with oil.

14. by anonymous on Aug 21, 2009 at 1:21 PM PDT

Kentucky Fried Chicken is the worst for being undercooked in too cool of oil.
I don’t mind the taste, but always makes me reach for the Nytro spray a couple of hours later.
Turn up the temp.. Bring it back to the way it was in the 60s.

15. by anonymous on Feb 24, 2010 at 10:42 PM PST

Thanks very useful and successful. It really helps to know the general idea about temperature and timing. In the past I’ve made awful, greasy chicken at too low a temperature for too long in the soup.

Anyway, I combined your advice with and made some really great chicken. Deep fry is redeemed! I only wish I’d made more as I only used a small cut that I had and I didn’t want a big disaster like before. But it turned out so great I’m going to make lots now!

16. by TBone on Dec 12, 2011 at 3:44 PM PST

Enjoyed the article and have decided to risk burning the kitchen frying up soft shell crab. Thanks for the chuckles and wish me luck!

17. by anonymous on Nov 16, 2012 at 10:12 AM PST

In Canada, we have a pork based lard called TenderFlake - virtually trans-fat free and non-hydro.

18. by anonymous on Nov 30, 2013 at 6:07 PM PST

Very nicely spelled out. And I would expound on that if I had any fingers left ;-` ...or arms, for that matter.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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