Does the idea of frying in hot oil make you break out in a cold sweat? You may be suffering from fear of frying. “Doughnut” worry: This guide on how to fry will educate you in the basics so that you can cook the french fries, funnel cakes and fried pies of your dreams without mess or injury.
What is frying, really?
Frying is actually quite a broad term in the culinary sense, referring to cooking food in hot oil or fat (such as lard or butter). In fact, there are all kinds of frying, including:
- Deep frying, arguably the most fear-inducing method, wherein the food is totally submerged in oil or fat to cook it.
- Sautéing, which is a method of rapidly cooking food in hot oil in a shallow pan
- Pan-frying, which involves cooking food in a shallow pan with a small amount of oil
- Searing, which is a method of placing food on a scorching hot surface with oil to quickly caramelize or “crust” the surface of what you’re cooking
First things first: No, you don’t need a deep fat fryer to make fried foods! But you will need a few key tools. Here’s an overview of what you’ll need.
Pots and pans
When it comes to frying, you want to make sure you have a heavy-duty pan with a solid, heavy bottom.
Cast iron pots or skillets are ideal candidates, as they retain heat well and evenly and are heavy duty enough that they won’t easily scorch. Enamel or stainless-steel pots work well, too. Non-stick pans are not suggested, because the coatings are not always able to stand the high heats required for certain types of frying.
In terms of size, consider what you’ll be cooking. If you want to easily flip your food, such as fried chicken, a large cast iron skillet is a great pick. If you want to totally submerge foods in frying fat so that they can float to the surface, a tall, stock pot-type or even a wok will work best.
Personally, I use a cast iron skillet for just about anything I fry, from donuts to fried pies. As long as you have enough oil to mostly submerge the item and a long-handled pair of tongs, you can get by.
The utensils you’ll need will depend on what you’re frying, but these are some handy ones to have around:
Tongs make it easy to flip items so that you can evenly fry both sides. Be sure to use long-handled tongs that are heatproof (if they have a coating or plastic handles, be sure to check the packaging to see if they have temperature restrictions).
A slotted spoon is particularly handy when frying, allowing you to drain excess oil from the item while also scooping it out of the hot oil.
If pan-frying, a metal spatula comes in handy for flipping your food. A metal spatula is preferable to a rubber or plastic one, as you can ensure that it won’t melt under the heat.
Recipes often call for placing the fried items on paper towels to blot excess oil. Personally, I have switched to placing fried items on a wire rack with paper towels beneath. This keeps steam from forming, which can make your fried items soggy.
While sautéing and pan-frying don’t require a thermometer, it’s highly advised that you use a thermometer for deep frying. Just a few degrees stand between achieving golden, crispy perfection and heading to scorch city.
While the ideal temperature of the oil will vary from recipe to recipe, typically it will be over 300 F for deep-frying recipes. If the oil is too hot, your food can burn or the oil can scorch. If the oil is not hot enough, it can take too long to fry the food, leaving it soggy and oil-laden.
Clip-on thermometers or instant-read thermometers are best, so that you can monitor the temperature as you cook. A thermometer will serve you in a great variety of cooking projects, so it’s a worthwhile investment.
Oils and fats for frying
Now that you have the right pan, what should you use to fry your food? There are many different considerations, but for ease of use, let’s break it down into three key criteria: smoke point, flavor and cost.
Considerations when choosing oil:
From a safety standpoint, it’s very important to consider the smoke point of your oil or fat — that’s the heat point at which the fat begins to break down and the fat begins to smoke (and aggravates your smoke alarm).
In general, plant-based oils such as peanut or canola oil have higher smoke points, which makes them popular for frying. You can read about other fats’ smoke points on Serious Eats. Try to choose a fat that has a smoke point slightly higher than the temperature at which you will be cooking, so that you have a safety window if the heat gets too high.
The oil that you choose will impart a flavor on what you’re cooking, so be sure that it is harmonious with the flavor story you want to tell. For instance, if you use coconut oil to fry chicken, it will have an undertone of coconut flavor. This might be a very positive thing for some people, but might be distracting for others.
This Chicago Tribune article includes commentary on the health benefits and flavor notes of various cooking fats — it’s a great resource!
This is a practical point, but it’s worth sharing. Frying is probably not the place to showcase your fanciest or priciest oils. There are two reasons: First, to fry, you typically need a larger-than-usual amount of oil. Second, the frying process can dim the flavor of oil. So even though your fancy avocado oil might have a high enough smoke point to cook your french fries, consider whether your fries are really worth several dollars of oil.
What type of oil should I use for frying?
Given the above criteria, many people favor neutral-flavored oils with a high smoke point. Some of the most popular oils for deep frying are:
- Canola oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Peanut oil
- Palm oil
- Sunflower oil
Olive oils (especially light varieties) are also well-suited for frying, but they tend to be more expensive than some other vegetable-based oils. Plus, olive oil will impart a flavor on the food you’re cooking.
Staying safe while frying food
Part of what makes frying so scary is the possibility of scorching yourself with hot oil, burning down the house — or both. Happily, it’s easy to reduce the risk of both with a few practical tips.
Don’t let any water get in contact with the hot oil
Water in hot oil equals instant spatter. Blot dry any foods before submerging them in oil, and avoid getting drops of water (from utensils, your hands or other pots/pans) in the frying oil.
Use long-handled utensils
Don’t be fishing fried chicken out of the pan with a dinner fork — your hand will get so close that you might fry yourself. Use long-handled tongs or a slotted spoon that keep you a safe distance from the hot oil.
Work confidently and quickly
The longer you let your hands linger near the hot oil, the higher your chances of hurting yourself. As with most “scary” things in the kitchen (inverting a cake on to a plate; flipping an omelet or pancake), it’s best to work confidently and quickly.
If you do start a fire…
While we hope that never happens, if it does, being prepared will help ensure that it remains a blip on your cooking radar and not a kitchen-ruining experience. Keep these tips in mind:
- Turn off the heat immediately.
- If applicable, place a lid on the pot. Fires need oxygen to survive, so cut off its source.
- Do NOT use water to extinguish the fire. It will only cause a messy and potentially dangerous spatter.
- DO use baking soda to extinguish the fire. Keep baking soda nearby, because it will take quite a bit of it to put out a fire.
- Your fire extinguisher should be a last resort, as it can contaminate your kitchen.
- If the fire gets out of control, get out! Call 911. Your fried delicacies are not worth putting yourself in danger.