Number 4 “Fry Them Puppies Up” October 28th, 2002
Well! It's About Time!
Yes, yes. I know it's been a very long time since my last newsletter, but the weather was beautiful, the fishing was good, the vacations were excellent and, hey, it's not like I charge money for these things, ya' know. But here I am, at the tail end of an extended fishing trip on North Carolina's beautiful outer banks (I couldn't eat another crab cake if I wanted to...well, maybe one more), bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and typing furiously while occasionally gazing out over the dunes at storm tossed seas for inspiration. This installment of Big Daddy's newsletter explores the world of fried foods, parts of it at least, and given all the fried food I've packed away in the last two weeks it seems like an appropriate topic. So with all due respect to my dear Aunt Joyce, a true southern lady who has forgotten more about the fine art of frying food than I'll ever know, here we go.
Many people are under the assumption that fried foods are, inherently, bad for you. I mean, all that fat going into your body certainly can't be good, right? And, yes, that is right! But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. In fact, food fried properly doesn't retain that much of the fat in which it's been fried.. An entire chicken that's been cut up, properly prepared and fried in oil that's the right temperature (the key) probably retains no more than a tablespoon of the oil used. Follow the guidelines described in this newsletter and you'll be able to enjoy guilt-free fried foods!
We'll start off with by examining what happens to food when it's fried, comparing different types of oil and the fats they contain and the proper way to deep fry and to sauté. Of course, I'll try to point you to some cool recipes that I've found to work pretty well.
When the Food Hits the Fat
As I stated earlier, if food is properly fried, very little of the fat is retained in the finished product. As Alton Brown, one of my favorite chefs, has stated, drying is the perfect "dry heat" method of cooking because the hot fat conducts heat to all surfaces of the food evenly. The key is ensuring the fat is hot enough to seal the outside of whatever you're frying so that it doesn't have the opportunity to absorb the oil. The hot oil quickly seals the food and the natural moisture in the food steams it from the inside. These two actions prevent oil absorption. Once drained on a rack (draining on paper towels results in food sitting in grease - seems counterintuitive to me) the food will be practically oil free.
Okay, so we know that temperature is key. But what temperature to use? Different recipes will call for different temperatures but the vast majority will be in the 325 - 375 degree range. The low end, 325 degrees, is the minimum temperature required to ensure that the food seals quickly enough to prevent oil absorption. You can fry foods at lower temperatures, but a higher degree of absorption will occur.
Once the proper oil temperature has been reached, and you add food to the hot oil, the temperature of the oil will decrease, sometimes quite a lot, maybe as much as 50 degrees. This is okay as the "sealing in" process occurs almost instantly when the food hits the fat, so to speak, and the food will continue to cook properly even at the lower temperatures. However, when the first batch of fried food is removed to a draining rack, you must allow the temperature to return to 325 degrees, or above, before the next batch is added to the oil.
To Fry is to Fry
Well, pretty much. Food cooked in hot oil equals frying, plain and simple. Although the technique can vary according to what you're frying, the result you wish to achieve, and the tools or ingredients you have available to you. Sautéing, stir-frying, pan-frying and deep-frying are all variations on this basic frying theme.
Sautéing uses only a small amount of fat in which to cook. This technique is usually reserved for rather small, or thinly sliced, pieces of vegetables or meat. The small pieces will cook quickly and require constant attention to ensure they don't overcook. Stir-frying is simply sautéing in a wok, although usually at higher temperatures. The wok adds the benefit of even distribution of heat up the sloped sides of the pan, which also facilitates easier tossing. Because the food is quickly cooked, sautéing and stir-frying don't allow much time for the oil to penetrate the food.
Pan-frying is similar to sautéing in that meat is cooked in fat over high heat, but pan-frying usually involves larger pieces of food and it is generally breaded or battered. The coating further serves to lock in moisture and prevent the fat from penetrating the meat that could occur with the longer cooking times. Pan-frying differs from deep-frying in that less oil is used, usually enough to come just halfway up the side of the pieces of food. After the first side cooks the food is turned over to cook the other side. Deep-frying calls for enough oil to cover the food entirely. Which method you use, pan-frying or deep-frying, is often a simple matter of preference.
Which Oil is Best for Frying?
As you might expect there is no easy answer, but you do have lots of options. But before we discuss cooking properties of different oils, it's useful to know a little about the chemistry of cooking fats (both oils and grease are fats - oil is liquid fat and grease is fat in solid form).
Cooking fat comes in two basic types, saturated and unsaturated. Picture the fat as a long line of fat molecules. If the fat molecules are connected by a single bond they are said to be saturated. If any pair of molecules are connected together by a double bond they are said to be unsaturated. If only one double bond exists in the line of molecules of unsaturated fat, that that fat is mono-unsaturated. If two or more double bonds exists, then that fat is poly-unsaturated.
The useful thing to get out of that little single-paragraph chemistry lesson is this: the greater the number of double bonds in the fat, the more energy must be expended to break down the fat and absorb it into the body.
This is why poly-unsaturated fats (many double bonds) are better for us than mono-unsaturated fats (one double bond), and why all unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats (no double bonds).
[Yadda, yadda, yadda....okay, BD, cut to the chase, will ya']
Okay, okay...sheesh! You'd think a little education would kill ya' or something...
When it comes to frying, just as with any other use for oil, it's best, for health reasons, to avoid the saturated fats. This doesn't mean you should never use them, I mean every now and then the southern boy inside me simply screams for eggs fried in bacon grease, but it is a very healthy idea to minimize saturated fats in the diet. Another factor in selecting oils for frying is the smoke point, literally the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke excessively. Some oils have a smoke point too low to allow that magic temperature (i.e. the temperature - around 325 degrees - needed to seal in the juices and seal out the fat)) to be reached. Oils with lower smoke points, like olive oil, may still be used for lower temperature frying, such as sautéing,
The following guide summarizes the characteristics of most cooking fats:
Mono Unsaturated Fats
Poly Unsaturated Fats
So, with all of that in mind, here are some useful guidelines:
About Olive Oil
Olive oil is such a popular ingredient in fine cooking I thought it would be worthwhile to demystify some of the terminology surrounding this marvelous culinary delight. Olive oil is extracted from tree-ripened olives to produce a wonderfully flavorful, mono-unsaturated oil that may be used for cooking and for dressing a variety of foods. Most domestic olive oils hail from California but imported oils from France, Greece, Italy and Spain are readily available. The type of oil, extra virgin, virgin, etc., is determined by it's level of acidity. They are cold-pressed which is a chemical-free process involving only pressure to produce the product.
Extra virgin olive oil is the result of the first pressing of the olives and is very low in acid. It's considered the finest of the olive oils. It is also the most expensive. Also a first pressed oil, virgin olive oil has a slightly higher level of acid that extra virgin. Regular olive oil, sometimes referred to as pure olive oil, is a refined oil and can contain a percentage of extra virgin or virgin oils.
You'll often see a type of olive oil called light olive oil, but it's not "light" in a dietary sense as it contains the same number of calories as other olive oils. It's called light because it is lighter in color and flavor, possessing little of the classic olive oil taste so sought after for dressing foods. It does have the distinct advantage however, of having a higher smoke point than classic olive oils, making it better suited for frying. In fact, the International Olive Oil Institute recommends pure olive oil for high heat frying whereas extra virgin and virgin olive oil should be used only for medium temperature frying and sautéing.
Here's how they break down:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The most expensive of the bunch, this is a cold pressed olive oil with an absolutely impeccable taste with a fruity aroma. It may not exceed 1% acidity. Extra Virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries. It is well suited for use on salads, added at the table to soups and stews and for dipping.
Virgin Olive Oil
This has a very good flavor and aroma with a maximum acidity of 2%. While it doesn't have the marvelous flavor of the extra virgin oils it's lower price make it an attractive alternative.
Pure Olive Oil
A low cost blend of refined and virgin oils. It actually contains less acid than the virgin olive oil but the refining process yields an almost tasteless product, at least by comparison with the virgin oils. I recommend sticking with the virgin oils unless price is the overriding issue and if it's to be used where flavor is not wanted or needed.
Light (or Lite) Olive Oil
A flavorless and often low quality oil, the "light" designation refers to flavor and color, not calories.
I certainly don't want to scare anyone away from trying their hand at frying but a few rules need to be followed. Many of them are simply common sense.
Finally, here a few of my favorite recipes. Give 'em a try. Follow the guidelines I've presented here and soon you'll be enjoying fabulously delicious, guilt-free fried foods.
A true classic that just about everyone loves. Butter and olive oil are used here for medium sautéing. The oil raises the smoke point of the butter preventing it from burning while allowing the butter to flavor the food. When sautéing it's hard to gauge the temperature of the fat because so little is being used. Heat the oil until it shimmers and a little water flicked off the finger tips cause a reaction, but don't heat it to the point where the fat is smoking.
Sweet and Sour Pork
A standard in most Cantonese restaurants. This is guaranteed to impress your friends.
Fabulous Fried Fish
This recipe calls for catfish (you can take the boy out of the south, but you can't take...well, you know) but it works equally well with any firm fleshed fish fillets. Adjust the amount of batter for the amount of fish you're preparing.
Crunchy Spring Rolls
This recipe demonstrates true deep-frying. It takes a little time because of the prep work to ready the spring rolls for frying, but it's worth every minute. Getting the family involved in making these can be fun for everyone and really cuts down on the time.
So there it is -- better late than never I hope. As always I look forward to your comments and suggestions so please don't hesitate to drop me a note.
Until the next time.