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The Frying Game

Batter Out: Go for the Brown

August 29, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All batter-fried things taste the same; foods fried without batter have flavors of their own.

To put it another way, when you fry something in batter or breading, that's what fries--what's inside it just steams. (How wonderful. All the fat of fried batter combined with the blandness of steamed food.)

You may like that crust and its rich or crisp texture, but it will probably be most of what you taste, simply because steamed food has such a mild flavor. This is why people who order the mixed tempura plate often ask each other what they think they're eating.

So why is there so much batter-frying in this world? Fast-food places like it because the frying oil can be reused longer, since it doesn't pick up the flavors of a lot of different foods--it smells only of fried batter. For mass-production purposes, batter-fried foods are neater looking and pose fewer public health problems (they're sort of hermetically sealed). In short, batter frying is convenient.

To heck with that. If you fry without batter--if you fry bareback--the food itself browns and becomes much more flavorful, with distinct flavor.

The Chinese call frying a violent cooking method. Instead of gently raising the heat through the whole piece of food, as do poaching and steaming, it directly exposes the surface to high heat, which causes the intense physical and chemical changes of browning.

Browning doesn't start taking place until the temperature is about 100 degrees above the boiling point. Around 310 degrees, the sugars caramelize in a very complex process that produces appetizing flavors.

Slightly before caramelizing starts, proteins and other food elements undergo the even more complex Maillard reaction.

Among its many products are chemicals known as pyrazines, which are responsible for the flavors of browned meat and bread crust--and of coffee, chocolate, dark beer, chile peppers and quite a few other things--but they're just the start. Every fried food will have its own tribe of aromatic compounds.

And they'll be loud flavors too. That's why hearty stews usually call for browning the meat, and sometimes the vegetables too.

Theoretically, you shouldn't have to use oil to fry something; just the hot surface should be able to do it. But in practice, foods tend to curl as they fry, and many aren't flat enough to be in uniform contact with the pan in the first place. Without hot oil to convey heat to the surface of a slice, eggplant, for instance, will just develop scorched spots alternating with areas that are, in effect, only baked.

Actually, in the case of eggplant, this oil-less frying happens to produce an interesting flavor reminiscent of corn. Unfortunately, it's hard to cook a slice of eggplant all the way done this way without burning a lot of it. When eggplant is fried without oil this way, it's often finished in stew so that it cooks thoroughly.

Browning has limitations--it's usable for only relatively small pieces of food--and it does extract a price. Since it takes place well above the boiling point, it inevitably dries the food out somewhat, making for a less luscious texture.

Also, fried food is not only fattier but less nutritious than unfried. At the same time that the Maillard reaction makes amino acids tastier, it makes them less digestible; you absorb less protein from browned meat.

Fortunately, this isn't a serious problem until the meat is so overcooked it's unpalatable. Browning also produces some carcinogens, but again, unless the food is badly overcooked, the quantity isn't significant.

Sure, there's a certain truth to baseball great Satchel Paige's advice: "Avoid fried foods; they angry up the blood." But I'd add, "Anyway, hold the batter. Life's too short to eat batter-fried food."

TWICE-FRIED EGGPLANT STEW

Buraniyya, a dish of fried eggplant mixed with lamb stew, was one of the most popular dishes of the medieval Near East. It is still made in Morocco, though naturally the stew part no longer follows the medieval recipe--it's a modern Moroccan stew. But buraniyya has died out east of North Africa. This fairly rich recipe, combining fried eggplant with yakhni (a modern Lebanese stew), is a speculation about what Lebanese buraniyya would be like if it existed.

STEW

2 onions, diced

3 tablespoons oil

2 to 3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 1/2 pounds boneless beef or lamb

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups water

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lemon

Cook onions in oil in large skillet over medium heat until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Add garlic to skillet and stir 1 minute. Cut meat in 1-inch chunks and add to skillet. Saute, stirring frequently, until meat has changed color.

Dissolve tomato paste in water and add to skillet. Season with cinnamon, pinch of allspice, salt and lemon juice. Reduce heat to low, cover skillet and cook until meat is very tender, 1 to 2 hours.

FRIED EGGPLANT

1 large eggplant

Salt

1/2 cup oil or more for frying

3 cloves garlic

Juice of 1 lemon

Cooked rice, optional

Lemon wedges

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