So, I know that it seems like my blog vacillates between dishes that are wholesome and healthy, and decadent dishes that will give you a heart attack. I confess, although I try to maintain a healthy and low-carb diet, I have a weakness for fried foods—the crispy coating of breading or batter, the juicy inside, the intense flavors that the cooking process renders… Who can resist it? I end up treating myself to something once a week or so, or rather, my fiancé does, since he’s the brilliant fry cook.
Note that I say fried food is a treat. Obviously, it will never be a health food. But hey, you can’t knock frying as a cooking method. Even though our food culture equates fried food with health risks and low-class eats, the practice (if not the term) of deep-frying has existed for millennia and is an important part of food cultures around the globe. The ancient Greeks and Romans fried food in olive oil as early as the 5th century BCE. Tempura, which was actually imported to Japan via the Portuguese in the 16th century, is just one kind of agemono (deep-fried food) that has become iconic in Japanese cuisine. As early as the medieval era, much of the cuisine served to Chinese royalty and their courts was fried, and even when a member of the Royal Family fell ill, they would refuse to give up the rich food they so craved. Deep-fried dishes are pervasive throughout Southeast Asia, as well as in Africa (likely also deriving from Portuguese influence), Europe, and the Americas. What is English food culture without its fish and chips? Similarly, who could visit New Orleans without trying a beignet? The American south in particular takes pride in its fried foods, from hushpuppies to fried chicken to chicken-fried steak, and it’s unfair to say that just because the food is self-indulgent, that the cooking of it isn’t an art and a science or that it isn’t a vital component of a cultural identity.
And there’s definitely a science to it. Even if the food isn’t being actually deep-fried, anything cooked in hot fat (yes, sautéing is included here) is still being fried–meaning that the heat is breaking down the food’s starches and proteins in a process known as the Maillard reaction. Once the food hits the oil, which has been heated to nearly twice the temperature of boiling, water molecules within the food escape and allow the oil to permeate it, giving the interior its characteristic juiciness and richness of flavor. Meanwhile, the surface of the food is quickly dehydrating, which gives us a tantalizingly crisp exterior and ultimately prevents too much oil from being absorbed. In short, whether the food is sautéed, shallow-fried (partly submerged in oil), or deep-fried, its very molecules are transformed in such a way as to give us irresistible results. But the technique is highly technical: if you don’t control the temperature of the oil correctly, you’ll end up with food that’s either greasy or paradoxically burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside. A good fry cook knows that the oil must be heated to somewhere around 350F-375F and that it needs to remain there. Once the uncooked food is added, the temperature will drop slightly–or a lot, if you’ve overcrowded your pot or skillet. So working in small batches and the letting the temperature come back up in between is key to achieving the perfect fry.
As we’ve experimented with different fried dishes, we’ve tweaked the recipes, looking to both make them more easily executed and more flavorful, and once I’m totally satisfied with them, I can’t help but want to show them off. This one here was just recently developed, and although it would work splendidly with fish fillets, I liked the fact that I could use chicken thighs, which are both cheap and tasty.
PSA: Deep-frying uses a lot of oil, so don’t waste it after a single cook! As long as the oil is still clear and light in color, you can strain the oil once cool (to remove any debris), and reserve it for another cook.
1 cup flour
1 TBSP baking powder
1 tsp salt
Approx. 1 cup ice-cold beer (this helps get the batter crispy)
1 egg, beaten
2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into strips (think about the shape of chicken tenders)
2 TBSP Worcestershire sauce (or more, as desired)
2 TBSP garlic chili sauce (or more, as desired)
Peanut oil for deep frying
Get enough oil heating (over medium-high) in a large cast iron skillet to reach about half-way up the skillet. You’ll know the oil is hot enough when a plain wooden chopstick inserted tip-down into the oil instantly causes a stream of bubbles to rise from it. (It’ll be about 300F if you have a thermometer.)
While the oil is heating, in a large bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the beer a bit at a time, until the mixture is the consistency of pancake batter. Add the beaten egg and stir until the mixture is homogenous, but be careful not to over-mix it (this will make the end result less crispy). It’s okay to have some lumps.
Place the chicken strips in a large bowl and add the Worcestershire sauce and garlic chili sauce, tossing to coat evenly. One at a time, dip the strips into your batter mixture and gently place into the hot oil, letting the chicken fall in away from your body to prevent you being splashed. Deep fry for about a minute on each side, just until they’re getting golden, then pull them out and place on a rack to drain. You’ll have to work in batches so as not to overcrowd the skillet (we’re able to do about 6 strips at a time).
Once you’ve fried all the strips, bring the heat up to high, allow to come to temperature (about 350F if you have a thermometer) return to those you first pulled out to drain and give them another quick fry to achieve maximum crispiness (there should be at least ten minutes between the first frying and the second frying). Fry for another 30 seconds or so and remove to the rack again. Once you’ve gotten through the second fry, they are ready to serve!