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The Science of Frying: How To Make The Perfect Fried Chicken

The Science of Frying: How To Make The Perfect Fried Chicken

Which is the best oil to use? And what about temperature? Find out how physics and chemistry could help you while making fried food at home

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Nobody can call themselves a true gourmand unless they’ve wandered around the streets of Napoli at least once in their lifetime. It’s here that—from early in the morning to late at night—the air in the alleyways fills up with the heady, homey scent of oil and flour. Of zeppole and panzerotti: the delicious aroma of fried food.

Frying is one of the most celebrated cooking methods in the world. It can be applied to a wide range of food—both sweet and savory—and just about everybody loves the taste it gives to ingredients. It’s a cooking method, however, that requires following precise rules, and an understanding of what’s happening in the oil-filled pan that we’re placing over the heat.

Let’s begin by explaining what’s behind the so-called “magic” of frying. It’s an apparently simple operation: you need a pan filled with oil and placed over heat, into which you’ll immerse your chosen food. But have you ever wondered why it is we fry in oil, and not in water? It may sound like an obvious question, but the answer is anything but: water’s maximum temperature is 100°C, while frying requires a temperature of at least 160°C. So it’s oil that is the principal element of a successful fry up: it should be chosen according to its “smoking point”—the temperature at which it begins to burn. Beyond this point (but it’s good to stay a few degrees below it), oil becomes toxic. Various seed oils have a smoking point of 160°C; corn and sunflower 180°C; peanut 190°C; olive 210°. To avoid mistakes, choosing olive oil is wise—it’s healthier and will offer better results, though it is more expensive. Temperature is an essential parameter: it has to be high enough that the oil will create a delicious crust on the food (thanks to the Maillard reaction, which we’ve already discussed), without being fully absorbed, which causes that unpleasant “sponge” effect. So arm yourselves with a cooking thermometer: it will prove very useful.

Another rule. Don’t skimp on quantities. You’ll need a lot of oil to completely cover the food, and you’ll need to keep in mind that once the food is placed in the pan, the oil’s temperature will lover. Hence, you’ll need a fairly large quantity in order to maintain a constant temperature. That being said, you’ll want to keep the re-use of oil to a minimum: each fry “dirties” the oil, leaving food residue that, once brought to a burning point with another re-heat, becomes harmful. You can clean the oil by filtering it, but this shouldn’t be done too many times. You might want to consider the pros and cons of using butter: while it gives an exquisite taste to the fry, only the “clarified” version should be used - the kind from which all protein has been removed. If not, you’ll find the smoking point of butter is quite low - just about 120°C, which is useless for the purpose of frying.

Let’s close with a delicious recipe that makes the most of the frying technique: fried chicken. First, the batter. Beat two eggs with a fork, then add a sprinkle of flour, stirring continuously. The batter should be thick and even: when lifted with a fork, a just a bit of residue should stay on the prongs. Add some salt and spices like pepper, onion and garlic powder to the batter. Along with sage, sweet paprika, oregano, chili and basil - even a touch of cinnamon if you like. Then take the pieces of chicken, which have been washed and perfectly dried, and dip them into the batter. Once extracted, place on a dish and let them sit in the fridge for a half hour. In the meantime, heat oil until about 170°C, and begin frying. Just a few pieces at a time, making sure that each one is perfectly golden. As you remove them from the pan, place on a paper towel and serve as quickly as possible. When it comes to a fry-up, there’s nothing worse than waiting.

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