All about oil

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am

Fried food is popular with cooks, because it's quick and fairly easy to make, and with diners, because, when done well, the coating can be deliciously crunchy. It's a pity, then, that we're frequently served badly fried food: pale, flaccid, heavy or greasy meals.

When frying, take these safety precautions. Hot oil has a habit of spitting and splattering, so stay focused on what you're doing; keep the floor clear of objects you could trip over; stabilise the pot of oil by putting it on a burner that's not too big or small; and wear suitable clothing (such as trousers and long-sleeved shirts, to protect you from burns). Make sure the pan is deep enough so the oil doesn't overflow when you add the food; if oil spills into a gas burner, it can cause a fire. Most homes don't have fire extinguishers, so keep dry towels handy to smother any flames.

Liquid and hot oil are a dangerous combination - if enough liquid gets into the oil, it can explode. Pat food dry with paper towels before dredging it with flour or other starch. If you've covered the pan of frying food, invert the lid immediately after lifting it, so the condensation doesn't drip into the oil.

I rarely fry without using any coating; at least a simple coating of flour or some other starch (water chestnut flour makes food crunchy; cornflour makes for a more delicate crust). For larger cuts of meat, I use a thicker coating: dredge it first in starch, dip it in liquid (such as milk, buttermilk or beaten egg) then dredge it again in starch. For a really crisp texture, leave the food at room temperature for about an hour to allow the coating to dry out, making it firmer when fried. Batter - which fries to a thicker, crunchier coating than starch - won't stick to moist food so whatever is being fried needs to be patted dry with paper towels. I usually dredge the food in flour before dipping it in batter.

Most cookbooks advise heating frying oil to 180 to 190 degrees Celsius but eyes and ears are as good a guide as a thermometer. When the oil starts to heat, you'll see it moving in the pan: at first, you'll see slow-moving whorls at the bottom then it'll start to shimmer on the surface. If you sprinkle some of whatever starch you're using into the oil, it will sizzle as it sinks to the bottom of the pan; if you're using a batter, drop some into the oil and it will sizzle and turn pale golden. If the batter browns too quickly - in less than 10 seconds - lower the heat. Oil that is too hot may not just burn the food, it could catch fire. Never leave a heating pot of oil unattended.