I have never encountered a food that doesn’t benefit from a quick dunk in hot oil. The usual suspects are fantastic. Potatoes, clams, every vegetable (onions are tough to do well) I can think of, even Snickers are great. I have been told that fried Twinkies are a culinary joy. What about fried fish? One of my favorite foods. And if you haven’t had a deep-fried hot dog, you have not lived life to the fullest (try Hiram’s in Fort Lee, New Jersey). The list goes on. Beef is fantastic on the grill, but Fondue Bourguignonne, which is really just fried beef with a nice dipping sauce, is pretty spectacular. I remember reading an article about a famous restaurant in France — I think it was Lesperance — whose signature dish was fried fois gras. In the article, the author quoted a woman diner who giggled to the chef that the little morsels of fois gras reminded her of an orgasm, at which point, the chef said, “Madame, where do you think I got the idea?”
Making simple fried foods, like french-fried potatoes, or potato chips, or deep-fried chicken, is easy. For that matter, most fried foods require very simple technique. I can think of a few that are tough, like the potato puffs into which you stuff caviar. They are fried twice, and the slices of potato have to be the perfect thickness to puff up. I have made them, but only by mistake. Most are straightforward and require only the correct oil, a big enough pot and a thermometer.
So what’s the problem? There are two, actually. Frying has the potential to make a huge mess. Ignoring the small possibility of a fire that will quickly race out of control and burn your house down . . . your stove, anything on your stove and the floor around the stove will become liberally coated in a layer of frying oil. The other problem? That fun and exciting aroma of crisp french fries just out of the oil will become extremely overpowering and unpleasant after several minutes of standing over a hot pot of oil. And walking away (don’t slip!) won’t do much. Unless you have a restaurant quality vent hood, your whole house will smell of frying.
And yet I keep doing it. Because a perfectly fried potato, or a crunchy-on-the-outside but tender-and-flaky-on-the-inside piece of cod, or a crispy, juicy chicken leg is great food. Plus, for all of its mess and smell, it is easy cooking that is tremendously rewarding. If you want to impress your kids, make them french fries and cheeseburgers. Or if you want them to move back in after college, make chicken nuggets, but with real chicken.
Frying technique really is easy, and if you want to minimize the mess, you could spring for one of the covered rotating fryers that Delonghi makes. The only trick is finding good recipes for batter. Most of them require some ingredient that adds volume to the batter so it is light and fluffy and crunchy. I have used beer, baking powder, yeast, and seltzer, and I am sure that there are a few others. Another trick for potatoes and other starchy foods is to fry them twice. The first time at low temperature (250°F), and then, after the food has drained and cooled, fried again, but this time at a high temperature (360°F). I also soak the freshly cut potatoes in cold water, changing the water a few times to get rid of some of the starch. It seems to make them crispier. If you try this, don’t forget to dry them carefully before you plunge them into the oil.
The Joy of Cooking is a good source for basic frying recipes and technique. And, once you become confident that you aren’t going to torch the house, try something that hasn’t been done before . . . but I am kidding about the shoes.