Culinate

Fry guy

How to deep-fry at home

By
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.