One of the things that people either love or hate about me is that I am a person of strong convictions. I have principles that underlie my judging and deciding, and that guide me in all things. Food is no exception. And really, what could be more subject to nuanced judgment than the question of what is the proper thing to eat? To serve?
A principle that I live by, and that has been adopted by and become somewhat of a joke among my friends, is that “you must have something fried” in order to call an eating occasion a party. Otherwise it’s just supper, or a few friends over. A cocktail party must have one or two items (out of 6 or 8) that are deep-fried. A large dinner party—let’s say, 10 or more—must have something fried: appetizer, main course, side, dessert—your choice. For some paradoxical reason, the most simple, down-home of all cooking methods is also one of the most special and even elegant. Frying is festive, and can be, culinarily speaking, low- or high-brow.
Now, an entire fried meal is something else altogether. It is pure indulgence. It is sublime excess. It is summer on a plate. And as we all know, this is high summer.
So the other night we fried. The impetus began with a lament about the general inability to get good onion rings anymore; apparently, it is too much trouble for most so-called restaurants to cut up a few onions, dip them in a simple batter, and lower them into a fryer. There are estimable old-time hold-outs, including the Common Lunch in Little Compton, Nooley’s in Nashville, Pal’s Cabin in West Orange, NJ, among my own haunts. I’m sure, and fervently hope, you have yours. But what is really galling here in New England is the disappearance of real onion rings (and real French fries) at the fried fish shacks, the so-called temples of fried food. I’ll name names. Evelyn’s. Flo’s. Aunt Carries. Champlin’s. Etc. They’re frying the fish and shellfish, and doing a very good job with it. But putting that pristine, golden-encrusted fish or clams next to a sorry frozen fry or ring defies logic. It’s sacrilege. It’s self-destructive. I don’t go anymore.
OK, back to the meal. We had little golden puffs of cheese to start. Sea scallops caught 30 or 40 miles off the coast of New Bedford. And the raison d'être, onion rings. Accompanied by homemade tartar sauce, malt vinegar (this is New England, after all), lemon, ketchup. Cole slaw prepared by my friend Mary, and apricot and sour cherry pies prepared by Anne. It was incredibly windy, so we ate inside. Ideally, fried food of the low sort, of which this was, should be eaten outside. But you can’t always have everything.
Frying is easy, if a bit messy when you do it for a crowd. Its key is fat at the correct temperature, first and foremost. This ensures the golden, crisp seal to the tender, moist but fully cooked interior of whatever you are making. Most items are fried at a temperature of 350-375 F. Batters or breadings are simple—as simple as plain flour if you want. Salt as the food comes out of the fryer, unless you are holding it briefly in a warm oven (which you can if you must), in which case I recommend salting right before serving.
You can fry without a thermometer, learning to judge the fat temperature through various tests like frying a cube of bread til golden in one minute, or visually recognizing the shimmer of heat at certain temperatures before it smokes, or using the palm of your hand to estimate as you would an oven or grill. This is what I had to do for the cheese puffs and scallops, sliding the pan around to control the temperature, as I forgot to bring my thermometer with me to Little Compton. But a thermometer is more reliable, and safer. I recently gave my incomparable Betty-G Cooker-Fryer away for the White Elephant table at the local church fair. The Betty-G, essentially a large pot with a big basket insert and a thermostat—was basic and functional. But it was bulky, and I was moving, and no longer had room for it. A pity, as I had it for 33 years and it had been a loyal workhorse, especially considering that I paid perhaps $15 for it. But the parting of me and my Betty-G allows me to drive home the point that you can fry in anything: a deep cast iron frying pan, a stainless steel or aluminum saucepan, or a Dutch oven on the stove are all fine, provided your pan is heavy, has high sides, is securely flat-bottomed, and well-balanced. Also serviceable is a deep chicken fryer, both the electric kind with a thermostat and the kind that sits on the stove. You don’t need a basket, just a nice sturdy long-handled slotted spoon or Chinese wire skimmer. Most fryers for the home these days are overpriced contraptions with small capacities, and I would not bother with them.
What type of oil? It depends on what you are making, how much you feel like splurging (spending more is often economical in its own way), and how you feel about animal fats. I happen to like them. So: Chinese food is usually fried in peanut oil, which is generally considered a good all-purpose frying oil, if an expensive one, because of its relatively high smoking point, but which I tend to use primarily for Chinese. For doughnuts and dessert fritters with fruit I like lard. For fries with freshly dug potatoes, olive oil or fat from a goose or duck or beef, often combined with some other vegetable oil. For other vegetables (e.g., squash blossoms or zucchini or onions), vegetable oil such as corn or canola, or olive oil or a combination. For fish, a clean-tasting light vegetable oil or corn oil. For Mexican things, corn oil or lard. We cooked the onion rings and scallops in corn oil and the cheese fritters in a combination of olive and corn oil.
Depending on what you are cooking, you will need 4-6” of oil; the volume of oil you will need will depend on the diameter of your frying vessel, but I recommend having a gallon or two on hand during frying season to accommodate all needs, and that you never fry with less than about 5 cups of oil. (Unless, of course, like me, you are doing small-batch appetizer frying for one in a little heavy 1-qt saucepan, which I do pretty often; don’t hesitate to fry yourself up two or three wonton.) For onion rings, small appetizers like the cheese puffs, most vegetables including fries, shrimp and small scallops, 4” is enough, sometimes 3” for little, lightweight things. More depth is needed for whole pieces of chicken or other heavier, dense items. Leave a minimum of 3” of head space for displacement, more for heavier items or large capacities. Do not overcrowd the pan, both for safety and for proper frying. Too much in the pan will lower the temperature dramatically, increasing absorption of fat and cooking time, which will make your food soggy. Turn the food with your skimmer or a long-handled fork or curved spatula to ensure an even, golden crust.
Another key to successful frying, besides temperature and the right amount of food in the right amount of oil, is organization. Prep the food to be cooked according to directions, paying particular attention to consistent size. Lay out the sequence in which you will do things in advance. For example, if the recipe calls for flouring, egg wash, then breading, have these three things set up in a row, the flour and breading on wax paper or in bags, the wash between them in a dish or bowl. On the far right, closest but not too close to the fryer, your layers of paper towels for draining. If you are putting things into a warm oven for holding, you can put the towels on a sheet pan; for delicate things, I put them on a rack in the pan. If you are serving a very casual meal, passing food as it comes out of the fryer, have your plate or platter at hand, covered with a napkin, to which it can be immediately transferred after the first quick draining and salting.
With frying as with lots of cooking, safety is a matter of preparedness and prudence. When frying on the stove, place the pan on a back burner and be sure the pan size fully covers the burner it sits on. When frying outside, place your fryer well away from a traffic area; always keep the kids and clueless adults out of the kitchen or away from where you are working. Keep a large lid handy (or a cookie sheet), and if you ever have a flare-up, put the lid on the fryer and carefully slide the pot to another area of the stove until it subsides. Never pour water on a grease fire. Smother it or, if it gets out of hand, use your kitchen fire extinguisher (you do have one, right?). But if you are careful and follow the safety rules, you will have no problem. I never cover a fryer while the food is cooking. Some say it helps control the temperature or is safer. I say it reduces crispness and that safety is as safety does. If you use a heavy, well-balanced pan; don’t overfill your pan; watch the temperature; lower food in gently to prevent splashing; have a lid nearby; use a sturdy long handled slotted spoon or skimmer; use a flexible small pot holder, like silicone, or small folded towel to handle the pot (don’t let anything drag), you will be fine.
The weather is lovely for this Fourth of July. Frying outdoors is the fat-lover’s version of grilling. How about some onion rings with those burgers and dogs?
Onion Rings Three Ways
These three methods build on each other to produce excellent versions, from very delicate to heavier coating, of crisp, shattery, battered onion rings. Try them all and see which you prefer. If you can decide. Method 3 is my all-purpose frying batter, sometimes with the addition of cornmeal, but I am marginally inclined toward one of the others for rings. Directions are general and will serve about 4 as a side dish or appetizer. Adjust according to the number of people you are serving.
2 very large Spanish onions, peeled and sliced into ½” slices. Slice thicker if you like, or a little thinner, but not too thin. Have extra onions on hand.
Vegetable oil of your choice, heated to about 365 F.
1 quart buttermilk
¼ tea Tabasco, or to taste
¼ tea salt
1 cup bread or all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
½ tea baking powder (optional)
½ tea salt
Mix the buttermilk, Tabasco, and salt; submerge the onions, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours. Mix the flour, cornstarch, and salt. Remove the rings from the buttermilk and dredge in the flour mixture. Fry until golden. Salt.
The above flour mixture
12 oz lager or club soda, approximately
Freshly ground pepper (optional)
Stir the beer or club soda into the flour mixture until it is the consistency of a thin wallpaper paste (not real appetizing, but that’s how I would describe it). Set aside for 15 minutes or so. Dip the onions in the batter until well-coated. Fry until golden. Salt.
The above simple beer batter (method 2)
1 egg, separated
Stir the egg yolk into the beer batter. In a small bowl, beat the egg white to soft, shiny peaks—stiff but not dry. Fold gently into the batter. Dip the onions in the batter until well-coated. Fry until golden. Salt.