Thursday, September 20, 2012

Back to Basics, Part 4: Frying

I sincerely hope all of you have been enjoying reading about the fundamentals of classical French cooking, and that you are learning something and hopefully doing some experimentation of your own.  Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.

For the last several posts I have been talking about the advantages of learning these primary techniques.  One that I haven’t mentioned is how understanding the basics of these methods will help you to “fill in the blanks” in recipes that are not detailed enough to tell you what to look for or what the purpose is of each step they include.  I hope you find this to be true.  Today, we will cover an American favorite: frying.
A dish I made at the C.I.A.: Pan-Fried Walleye Pike
served over Haricot Verts and a Wild Rice Pancake
with Corn Coulis
There are two types of frying: pan-frying and deep-frying.  Although these two methods are similar in many ways, there are some key differences that it pays to understand.  The main difference is, of course, the amount of oil used.  In pan-frying, you are not submerging your food item in hot oil as you are with deep-frying, but rather only using enough fat to come half way up your item in your pan.  If your oil comes more than half way up your food while pan-frying, then the center of your food will show a darker brown ring and be too well done.  The other difference is the preparation of your food before frying.  Pan-fried items are breaded whereas deep-fry items can be breaded or battered.  The final difference is, of course, the type of pan you use.  When pan-frying, it is best to use a slope-sided sauté pan (called a “sautoir”) or a cast iron skillet.  When deep-frying, you must use a large pot with plenty of surface area, such as a dutch oven or a rondeau.  (Stock pots will not work as they do not have enough surface area and your food would be too crowded, resulting in soggy fried food!)

Now onto the similarities between both types of frying.  No matter how you’re frying, you are looking for a crispy brown exterior and a moist, tender interior.  The temperature at which you fry is generally around 350°F/175°C but you might decrease that for thicker foods (1/2”+) or those with bones (so the inside has time to cook through before the outside gets too brown) or increase it for thinner foods (1/4”), shrimp or vegetables that cook through faster.  Additionally, you always want to fry portion sized pieces of naturally tender items, like chicken breasts, pork loin chops or vegetables.  You can fry in any fat that has a high smoke point, which excludes extra virgin olive oil.  Fats that work great include canola/vegetable, peanut, soybean, corn, rendered animal fats, etc.  The sauce for fried items is always made in a different pan and served underneath or on the side of your dish.

Finally, we’ll talk about breading and batter.  To bread an item, you use the standard 3-Stage Procedure, which is flour, egg (or egg wash), and your breading agent (such as fine breadcrumbs, panko, crushed cornflakes, chopped nuts, etc.).  To batter an item, you simply dredge it in flour and then in your batter.  Sometimes you might dredge in panko, like when you’re making tempura.       

Here’s the basic frying procedure:
1.      Heat your oil in the appropriate pan to the appropriate temperature. 

2.      Dry your meat. Season well with salt and pepper.  Dredge the item in flour, then egg, then your breading agent, allowing the excess of each to fall or drip off before moving to the next step.

3.      If you breaded your food, you can either fry right away or place your items on a rack until you’re ready to fry, allowing you to do the most time-consuming part (breading) a bit ahead of time.  However, if you’ve battered your food you must fry it immediately.

    4.  Place your food items in the oil in batches, being careful not to overcrowd your pot.  Monitor the temperature of your oil and watch your items as the fry, turning when needed. 

    5.  Remove your items from the oil when they have reached a beautiful golden brown and are cooked through.  You may have to check the items from your first batch by testing their internal temperature or cutting into them to make sure they are cooked.  If the outside is brown and crispy before the inside is done, you need to lower the temperature of your oil before starting your next batch.

    6.  Place your food on paper towels and sprinkle with salt if needed, but only leave there for 1-2 minutes.  If you are not serving immediately, move your food to a rack in order to maintain the crispy exterior.

·        Some cooks season the flour instead of the item, but I prefer seasoning the item itself to have more control over how much salt/pepper/etc. gets on your food.
·       The temperature of your oil is your make-or-break factor when doing any type of frying.  It really helps to have a fry thermometer (which is the same thing as a candy thermometer) to ensure your oil is the right temperature to start and to monitor it throughout the process.  For example, adding food to your oil causes the temperature to go down, so you want to make sure your oil comes back up to the right temperature between batches to ensure a quality product.
·        When breading, use one hand in the wet ingredients and one hand in the dry ingredients to avoid a sticky mess on your fingers.