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The Frying Game

Batter Up: It's the Only Way to Fry

August 29, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

Frying is one of the most violent means of cooking possible, and anyone who would deep-fry something without providing it at least a thin blanket of protective batter is nothing short of a barbarian.

Without a batter, food fries to a frazzle: crisp, yes, but shrunken and shriveled as well. Only the tough survive, so it should be no surprise that the foods that last are usually tough, or at least stringy.

But with a batter, you get the best of both worlds. The coating fries crisp and golden; the inside steams, moist, delicate and tender.

But which batter to use? The cook faces a bewildering array of possibilities: a simple dusting of starch; a coating of starch and liquid; a batter of starch, liquid and protein. They all have their benefits, depending on what you want the final dish to taste like.

Michael Blumenthal--food scientist and home cook--says it all depends on how crisp you want your food to be.

Starch by itself--usually either flour, cornstarch or bread crumbs--will give you a fairly soft crunch and not much coating. Think of a veal scaloppine, dusted in flour and fried.

Add a liquid and the starch will coat better (flour and water make paste, which sticks to the food being fried) and be crisper. That's because the water in the batter will evaporate, leaving behind the structure of the dried-out starch. Two of the world's most versatile batters need be nothing more than flour and water--the Italian pastella and the Japanese tempura. When using this kind of batter, always make sure the liquid is ice-cold. That makes it stick to the food better.

For the crispest crust, add a protein, such as egg or milk. A protein glue has much more flavor than a starch glue. The protein itself acts as a crisping agent. The protein can either be part of the batter or it can be applied before--as an egg wash, for example--to make the batter stick better. Think of a crisp brown wiener schnitzel.

If you're using an egg in your batter, don't prepare the food until just before you're ready to fry. First, raw eggs can be contaminated with salmonella and the batter is a perfect medium for the bacteria's growth. A delay can also give the starch more time to absorb liquid from the batter, making it less crisp in the end.

Another popular source of protein for batters is beer. Not only do you get a good, sticky glue and the flavor of the beer, but the sugars caramelize and the sugars and amino acids in beer combine to give a very nice browned flavor when heated (our old friend the Maillard reaction). Tastes will vary depending on the type of beer used.

Whatever the nature of the batter, you're better off leaving out seasonings--especially salt. They tend to fall out of suspension and degrade the oil faster. Instead, season the food you're going to fry before you dip it in the batter and then season the food after it's been fried. (Simply seasoning food after frying gives you a salty crust and a bland center.)

The type of oil you use to fry will affect the crispness of the crust too. The more saturated the fat, the crisper the crust. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, the more unsaturated the fat, the more liquid it is at room temperature. Since quite a bit of oil can be absorbed in frying, a more liquid fat will make the food less crisp.

Also, the more unsaturated a fat, the more it tends to creep through the batter into the space between crust and food. This can create a major surprise when you bite in and break the crust--a boiling fat chin bath. Fats that are more saturated crystallize inside the crust layer and form an impermeable barrier between fat and food.

That's good, 'cause baby, it's hot outside.

STUFFED ZUCCHINI FLOWERS

Fried zucchini flowers are one of the classic uses of pastella, the Italian version of a flour-and-water batter. The mixture should be thin enough that it barely coats the flower; you should be able to see the orange of the petal through the crust. The flowers can also be fried without a filling. This version came about on a day when I was planning on serving a mozzarella salad for another appetizer and accidentally added too much garlic. Too strong by itself, when encased in a fried flower, the flavors were just right.

1 (8-ounce) package small fresh mozzarella balls (boconccini, ciliegini or ovalini)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes

2 teaspoons olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

24 zucchini flowers (about 1 pound), preferably without zucchini attached

2 cups flour

1/2 cup water, approximately

Oil for frying

1 bunch arugula

Grated peel of 1/2 lemon

Cut mozzarella balls in half and combine with garlic, chile flakes, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Marinate at least 30 minutes.

Soak zucchini flowers in large bowl of cold water to clean and freshen. Remove, 1 at a time, and carefully open blossom with tip of finger. Gently place mozzarella piece deeply into blossom. Place on tray.

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