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Lose the Fear of Frying

Chefs unleash their creativity by frying all manner of vegetables, singly or in flavorful combinations like these potato-and-spinach-based morsels. Photo courtesy of idaho potato commission. Fried food is back in favor, with different fats, batters, ingredients and techniques making it more craveable than ever

By Joan Lang

Oh, how the world turns and the pendulum swings! Not so long ago, fried food was O-U-T, a victim of healthier habits and the grilling revolution, replaced by other methods deemed trendier and less caloric. Now fried food has staged a comeback in all kinds of guises, both traditional and creative.

For some people, of course, the glories of fried food never left: the texture and the mouthfeel, the decadence and the sheer tastiness of a perfectly fried potato, chicken breast or fish filet. While the wood oven and the immersion circulator got all the attention, the deep-fryer labored on in burger joints, seafood spots, coffee shops and other holdouts where the oil was fresh and hot and the process precision-timed to yield crisp, greaseless, savory results.

Frying has come back out of the closet, seen in the current obsessions with frites, fried chicken, pub fare, bar snacks and Southern food. It’s the same sort of in-your-face spirit that saw the repatriation of pork, eggs, butter and cheese, cocktails and other forms of indulgence.

And, like anything “new” in the food world, frying has been elevated to high art, spurring all kinds of creativity in techniques, batters, frying mediums and even the food being fried.

Let’s face it: Most frying gets done in a neutral-flavored, high-performance oil like canola. But with the resurgence of frying, every aspect of the process has come in for some rethinking, including the frying medium.

There are many more oils to fry in, some of them with distinctive flavor or nutritional profiles that support particular cooking styles, ethnic cuisines or menu concepts. And, while some of them may be more expensive, such as olive oil, the premium image these oils convey can help support commensurate pricing.

The increasing number of restaurants that are doing their own butchering and nose-to-tail menuing has made available other options, including lard and duck fat. Utilizing all the products derived from a whole or half animal is not only more cost-effective, but it also provides creative opportunity. And, in many cases, the frying medium may contain only a portion of the fancy stuff; in the case of duck fat, for instance, 10 to 20 percent of the total oil used is sufficient for flavor. Schmaltz, or chicken fat, is another butchering byproduct that can be used for frying.

A note about rice oil, or, more correctly, rice bran oil: Notably high in vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients, it also has a light, delicate flavor and a very high (490 degrees F) smoke point, making it perfect for stir-frying and deep-fat applications.

> Farm-Raised Catfish: Hand-dipped in seasoned cornmeal and deep-fried in 100 percent refined peanut oil and served with our signature spicy tartar sauce  — Jonah’s Fish & Grits, Thomasville, Ga.
> Salmon & Chips: Wild salmon, lightly battered and fried in rice oil, served with natural french fries — Clemente’s, Astoria, Ore.

The link between alcohol and fried food has long been proud, so it comes as no surprise that the current attention being paid to craft cocktails and interesting wine and beer lists would spawn a concurrent interest in fried tidbits to both spur drink sales and soak up the booze. But it should also come as no surprise that the selection these days goes beyond tried-and-true cheese sticks and jalapeño poppers — although those foods still exist in versions both mainstream and artisanal.

Anything salty, fatty, crunchy and small is perfect fried up for a bar snack, especially if it’s craveable and affordably priced. Pork rinds, specialty fries, chicken wings, calamari, fried pretzels, crab rangoon — any and all can support serious experimentation.

> Crispy Lemon-Fried Olives — CommonWealth, Washington, D.C.
> Big B’s Deep-Fried Deviled Eggs: Creamy center, panko crust and deep-fried, served with Cajun rémoulade dipping sauce— Water Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.

3. Chicken-Fried Delicious
No, not the Zac Brown Band hit, but the irresistible Texas and Southern habit of double-dredging just about anything in seasoned flour and frying it. Possibly the legacy of German immigrants who tried to translate their beloved Wiener Schnitzel to their new home, chicken-fried steak is the most well-known of these addictively caloric bombs, especially when it’s doused with peppery cream gravy.

Chicken-fried chicken is a half-joke (frying chicken like you’d fry chicken), although the words do distinguish it from battered fried chicken and prevent disappointment. Also, chicken-fried chicken usually is a boneless breast and looks like the thin, pounded country steak that’s used for chicken-fried steak. But just about anything can be chicken-fried, and the more decadent, the better — thus the chicken-fried bacon and cheeseburgers, and whatever else an irony- or fried-food-loving chef could think up.

> Chicken-Fried Meatballs with roasted garlic and red pepper sugo — The Red House, Austin, Texas
> Fried Bacon: Five strips, chicken-fried, jalapeño honey — The Rookwood, Cincinnati

Certain places in the world — Great Britain, for example — take pride in frying just about anything, from pizza to candy bars. And that’s an attitude that seems to be taking off, especially on so-called gastropub menus. Witness Chicago’s Purple Pig, which features an entire section of Fried Items, from deep-fried deviled eggs to whitebait with aïoli, also referred to as “french fries of the sea.”

Fried tidbits of all kinds are perfect bar fare, and it stands to reason that the recent wave of chef-driven taverns would involve a lot of experimentation when it comes to the ingredients being fried. Then, too, frying is such a familiar way of preparing things that pushing the method may encourage otherwise-leery customers to try something new, like a pig part or a tiny whole fish.

> Asparagus Fries: With red-pepper rémoulade — Victoria Gastropub, Columbia, Md.
> Deep-Fried Poached Egg on ‘Minute’ Skirt Steak with creamed spinach, curried croutons  — Towne, Boston

Potatoes, an all-time fryolater favorite, go beyond french fries in a seasoned stack of golden threads. Photo courtesy of basic american foods. 5. FRITTERS
Fritters and their kin, beignets, croquettes and hush puppies, are all about texture: the crispy battered or breaded exterior, the soft, steaming-hot interior. They’re also economical, generally made with bits and pieces of ingredients bound together or encased in some sort of batter or dough.

Fritters and fried-dough variations exist all over the world — from Middle Eastern falafel to Italian arancini — including the American South and Midwest. Popular varieties include corn, apple and clam fritters, but bananas and zucchini are often “frittered,” along with ricotta cheese, as a dessert dusted with powdered sugar.

The sauce is important to the fritter, like honey with corn fritters, or tartar sauce with clam. Their small bite size and sheer deliciousness make them a perfect bar snack or side dish.

> Parmesan, Pea & Ham Risotto Fritters   — Open Door Gastropub, New York City
> Zucchini, Corn, Herb Fritters with creamy mustard and pepper jelly — Horse & Hound Gastropub, Charlottesville, Va.

Like oil, the batter/breading used for frying is also coming in for more creativity. Breadings and batters, as well as the liquid that can be used to help these products adhere, bring different flavors, textures, colors and marketing appeal to foods.

The distinctively shaped, crunchy bread crumbs known as panko say Asian, while cornmeal is traditional in the South; make it an artisanal or stoneground product and so much the better. Other possibilities include chickpea or whole-wheat flour, cracker meal, cornbread crumbs, crushed cornflakes, matzo or even sweet crumbs made from graham crackers, ginger snaps and chocolate wafers.

Flavorings like herbs and spices, hot sauce, sesame seeds, grated cheese, powdered mustard and more can be added to batters or to crumbs and meal. Beer is very popular in batters, especially in brewpub or tavern-style environments. To use porter rather than lager, or to specify a particular brew or brand, is menu marketing at its finest, in addition to adding a distinctive flavor profile.

And there are also flavor possibilities where a wash is required between or before any steps in the battering or breading process. Buttermilk is particularly popular because of its tenderizing properties, but a product can also be brined or dusted with any number of distinctive ingredients to build in a little more flavor.

> Herb-Crusted Cheese Dippers: A selection of house cheeses dredged in a strong ale batter, crusted in herbed crumbs and fried to a golden brown; served with smoked-onion ketchup and cashew pesto — Freshcraft, Denver
> Crispy Shrimp: Jumbo, spice-battered shrimp served with sweet Thai sauce — Tasti Thai, New Castle, Del.

There’s more than one way to get a fabulous crust on food: Heat the heck out of a pan and sear it. Searing food caramelizes the surface and enhances flavor and texture. Meats are often seared before braising for better color, flavor and juiciness, but lately searing has come into its own as a standalone cooking technique.

Searing is often used for foods that need to be cooked quickly, like rare steaks and fish that need to be flashed in the pan, tuna being one of the most popular examples. But it also can be used for any food that calls for a crispy crust to offset a soft or creamy interior.  There’s also a marketing advantage to searing; on the menu, phrases like wok-seared, seared in a black-iron skillet and so on not only provide information but also connote a certain mood or support a concept, such as Asian or down-home, respectively.

> Skillet-Seared Barbecue Shrimp: Smoked rock shrimp potato salad, corn salsa, chipotle cocktail sauce — Johnny V, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
> Zucchini Cakes: Pan-seared zucchini with ricotta and marinara sauce — Station Café, San Carlos, Calif.

If an ingredient is great fried, perhaps it’s even better twice-fried. That’s certainly the premise behind classic foods like pommes soufflés, which are fried once at one temperature (usually 325 degrees F), then held until the order comes in and fried again at a higher temp (375 degrees F), so they puff up as they steam from within.

That’s the secret “ingredient” behind some of the most superlative fries, including Belgian-style frites and the french fries served at Balthazar in New York City. The second frying creates an extra-crispy crust.

The current craze for Korean fried chicken also has increased interest in double frying; the chicken is dredged in fine flour and then a thin batter and fried once, then cooled slightly and fried a second time. The surface is seasoned with salt or a sauce, but only after the second frying, which adds flavor without making the crust soggy.

The Cuban side dish/snack known as tostones also depends on double frying for texture and flavor. The green plantains are sliced and fried, then smashed down into a characteristic shape and fried again.

> Green Beans: Twice-fried with white soy and ginger juice — Towne, Boston
> Tostones with Beef Carnitas: Twice-fried plantains topped with braised beef and avocado — Oba, Portland, Ore.

The classic Twinkie is even more delectable when fried, with the crusty outside providing yummy contrast to the cream-filled center. Photo courtesy of ventura foods. 9. FRIED CHICKEN VARIATIONS
Fried chicken is definitely having a moment right now — often on special Sunday- or Tuesday-night dinner menus, when chefs seize the opportunity to build trade on a slow night and/or bring in customers who want something more casual or something they’re unlikely to cook at home.

Or maybe these chefs just have fun with it. That’s why chefs like Thomas Keller at Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif., would make something like Lemon-Brined Fried Chicken famous. And why the obsessively detail-oriented David Chang of Momofuku would serve not one but two different kinds of fried chicken (Korean and Southern) at his by-reservation-only chicken feed.

Whatever the reason, fried chicken has become like the hamburger: an iconic food that inspires creation of the ultimate, perfect version. At District, a new restaurant in Portland, Maine, the thigh is fried and the breast is served slowly roasted for a downtown/uptown interpretation.

> Fried Chicken: Kimchee, jalapeño — The Monterey, San Antonio, Texas
> Chicken ’n Waffles: Buttermilk-fried chicken, cornmeal waffles, Haven-made hot sauce, Bärenjäger-infused maple syrup — Haven Gastropub, Old Towne Orange, Calif.

Good frying is all about texture, here aided and abetted by the thin cut of the ingredient being fried, so that it crisps up quickly and curls into a delectable little morsel that begs to be picked up in the fingers. Onions are the ultimate object of frizzling, with a layered structure that’s easy to cut into fine strands. The world of onion rings divides out into two camps, the thick, meaty cross-section and the thin, curly strands that make up the ever-popular onion loaf, a delivery system for flavorful batter.

But other vegetables can also be julienned and deep-fried for texture, including potatoes, which might be called haystack fries to distinguish them from the thick steakhouse kind. And maybe it’s time to see root vegetables like parsnips, beets and carrots cut on a mandoline and fried up crisp as a garnish or finger food.

> Wagyu Beef Sliders, frizzled leeks — Le Maraís, New York City
> Crab Cakes, rémoulade sauce, spinach, pico de gallo, frizzled sweet-potato hay — Horizons, Wilbraham, Mass.

Commonly associated with Japanese cuisine, tempura is a frying method that deserves to be more widely adopted on mainstream menus. The light batter, traditionally made with very cold water or sometimes even club soda and a soft flour such as cake flour, is mixed very briefly to keep toughening gluten from forming. This technique yields an especially light, delicate yet crisp result.

Interestingly, tempura was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese, who eat fried foods such as fish and vegetables during Lent (the word comes from the Latin tempora, or times, as in holy days). The Japanese quickly adopted tempura as their own.

Tempura adapts easily to a variety of ingredients to be fried. However, they should be foods that are fairly quick-cooking, such as mushrooms or shrimp, and they should be small or cut in small pieces so that they can be flash-fried to perfection.

> Roasted Diver Scallops, with herbed risotto and tempura fennel — The Ballard Inn, Ballard, Calif.
> Tempura-Battered Beecher’s Cheese, served with Mick’s pepper jelly — Cutters Bayhouse, Seattle

It takes a certain kind of evil genius to dream up something like fried ice cream or a deep-fried candy bar. It’s the kind of thing that a certain type of customer can’t help but order, just to see what it’s all about, and the kind of thing that the customer in question wouldn’t be able to stop eating or thinking about afterwards. If you think that sounds like a signature dish, you’re right.

Deep-fried desserts are all about whimsy. They’re also about technical challenges, often of subjecting something that melts to very high heat. The secret is to freeze that thing first, and to keep it frozen until the order comes in. The result is a gooey and melty center still intact under its crispy shell. Irresistible, in other words.

For inspiration, just look at the roster of foods on the midway at any state fair. In venues like the Minnesota State Fair or the one in Dallas, “frying the unfryable” has become a bit of a challenge for some of the vendors, who are treated like rock stars by hardcore fried food fans as a result.

> Deep-Fried Twinkie: A Twinkie (yes, the snack), battered and deep-fried; served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream — Bar Seventy-One, Cincinnati
> Balls of Glory: Battered deep-fried chocolate-chip cookie dough — Pam’s Chicago-Style Dogs & More, St. Louis


About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.