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Golden Rules

21 November 2005

For cooking a full spectrum of foods, nothing equals a quick dip in the deep-fryer.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

On the brunch menu at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! units in Chicago and Las Vegas, an option far removed from typical morning fare is one of the top sellers: the Brick Egg, a deep-fried delicacy of egg and manchego cheese encased in golden pastry triangles.

The dish, a Spanish-accented adaptation of a classic French preparation, seduces with a crunchy exterior and warm, moist center that only foods cooked in hot fat can deliver.

As a cooking method, deep-frying is an everyday occurrence in most restaurant kitchens, and while some top-end chefs rely on it less than in the past, few walk away entirely.

"Sometimes you just have to sign on for deep-frying," says Susan Weaver, divisional chef for Chicago-based multiconcept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, co-owner with Gabino Sotelino of Cafe Ba-Ba Reeba!

With its wide-ranging versatility and nearly unparalleled customer appeal, fried food fits all foodservice settings, even healthcare, says Mary Spicer, director of nutrition services at Presbyterian Hospital of Plano, Texas. Weighing the value of whole plates and trays rather than individual items allows the hospital to consider options such as Executive Chef Gary Vorstenbosch's Southwestern Polenta Spring Rolls as part of patient meals.

Briefly fried in vegetable oil for a hot, crisp finish, the spring rolls are made with polenta cooked with low-fat milk, corn, peppers, black beans, queso fresco and cilantro.

"If baked in the oven it won't be as crisp because of the doughy texture of the spring-roll wrappers," Vorstenbosch says. "You need to deep-fry it, period."

Deep-Frying Decree

Chefs unanimously agree that when it comes to deep-fried foods, quality and nutrition vary greatly depending on technique. Operators avoid the greasy, soggy outcome that gives the method a bad name by following the golden rules:

  • Correctly apply and seal breadings, coatings and batters so fat can't seep inside.

  • Choose the right fat for the job (canola and peanut oil top the list of favorites for their high flash points).

  • Regularly filter and change fat.

  • Use deep-frying equipment that fits the task and explore options with built-in filtering units and temperature controls.

  • Maintain optimal oil temperatures.

  • When preparing frozen product, follow the manufacturers' suggested cooking method.

  • Properly drain and hold finished products.

Jasper White, chef-owner of five-unit, casual-seafood concept Summer Shack in Massachusetts and Connecticut, won't even discuss deep-frying without a primer on his own strict guidelines. For plates such as fish and chips, fried sea scallops and whole-belly clams, he cooks in canola oil, filtered at least after every meal period and changed every one to two days. Solid-state fryers in his kitchens keep products consistent by maintaining temperatures within a small window, even when new batches of food are introduced.

Because even 15 seconds can mean the difference between great and unacceptable results, White advises staffing fry stations with enough labor so one employee can focus solely on cooking while one or two others bread and plate items.

Not overcrowding product in fry baskets and shaking them at the right time (too early knocks breading loose, too late and items stick together) round out White's meticulous method that produces menu signatures such as soft-shell, whole-belly clams. Shucked, the clams are coated in a mix of corn flour, cornmeal and seasonings, cooked in the deep-fryer and drained on paper towels.

John Martin Taylor, author of "The Fearless Frying Cookbook" (Workman Publishing, 1997), suggests draining on racks so foods don't absorb their own cooking grease. The longtime deep-frying devotee says fad diets and false impressions about frying's healthfulness keep the technique cycling in and out of favor.

While the right heat does release moisture from food as it cooks, items that hold too much liquid can be disastrous when deep-fried, a lesson Executive Chef Scott Serpas learned the hard way at Two Urban Licks in Atlanta.

Early trials of Serpas' Lemon-Crab Fritters involved chopping shallots and garlic in a food processor before forming the ingredients into moist balls with crab, cream cheese, lemon zest, chives and cayenne pepper. Fritters were coated in flour, then buttermilk and finally panko crumbs, then lowered into the fryer-where they promptly exploded.

Now garlic and shallots are minced by hand, and the crab meat gently squeezed to reduce moisture.

Why fry?

Dishes prepped ahead are lifesavers in busy kitchens. While most chefs shy away from holding breaded or battered products before frying, with the right recipes, premeal assembly works like a charm.

Consider the fritters Chef-owner Tracy O'Grady menus at "modern Continental" restaurant Willow in Arlington, Va. Before service, shredded fontina and diced prosciutto are tossed lightly in flour, bound with egg and milk, formed into croquettes with rosemary and chives and rolled in panko breadcrumbs. Frying bite-size pieces in 350F peanut oil takes little time during the dinner rush and offers a crisp, savory starter for guests.

"You can make them up and have them ready. They're quick and delicious," O'Grady says.

At Thai-themed Bangkok Joe's in Washington, D.C., Chef-owner Aulie Bunyarataphan uses traditional cooking methods of her native country: stir-frying, steaming and, of course, deep-frying.

"With won tons, if you don't want to deep-fry you have to pan-sear and steam them," she says. "You won't get the same textures and it takes more time."

Bunyarataphan's smoked-duck won tons start with shredded, slow-cooked duck, tightly wrapped in prepared won ton skins with julienned carrots, water chestnuts and ginger. The won tons are deep-fried and cut in half for plating with house-made duck sauce, ginger mustard and a salad of tomatoes, basil and grilled portobello mushrooms.

Fish and chips, a classic in the deep-fried repertoire, make a cameo appearance on the "rustic gourmet" menu at Café 909 in Marble Falls, Texas, not as entrée but as a starter that reflects Chef-co-owner Mark Schmidt's English heritage.

Though it is traditionally battered, Schmidt prefers breading the fish for crispness and easier handling. He marinates 4- to 5-inch-long ocean smelts, meant to be eaten whole, in milk and buttermilk. Excess liquid is drained from the fish before it is breaded in panko crumbs (blended with cornstarch in a processor for finer texture) and cooked to order.

Coating Choices

Batters and breadings serve dual purposes in deep-frying, protecting food from fat's heat and contributing welcome layers of flavor and texture.

"I decide what coating to use based on the consistencies of what I serve around the deep-fried element," says Roberto SantibaÁ±ez, culinary director for New York City-based Rosa Mexicano. "A battered fish would go best with something like apple slaw that is crisp and sharp, because batter is a little less crisp. For breaded chicken, I might pair it with mashed potatoes for variation and contrast in texture."

SantibaÁ±ez also drops nonbattered or breaded options into the deep-fryer at the upscale, four-unit Mexican chain. For Empanadas de Jaiba, crab meat is folded into a mixture of sautéed onions and garlic, oregano, cumin and jalapeÁ±o chiles and spooned onto corn tortillas, which are pressed together like turnovers and deep-fried in vegetable oil. Plated three to a serving, the crisp, flaky packages are matched with peach pico de gallo and avocado sauce.

Deep-fried foods enhanced with savory batters and breadings remain in high demand at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia despite students' professed interest in more-healthful options, says Tim Zintz, Aramark Corp.'s district executive chef for campus services.

Many options at the university are deep-fried from frozen, which means staff must first check to see if items such as french fries or breaded chicken pieces have been precooked. Raw products require longer fry times, while others need only enough time to crisp and heat through. Whether products are fresh or frozen, kitchens boost efficiency by cooking in half batches rather than filling baskets to capacity, so fryers need less time to recover to optimal temperatures and can cook more food per hour.

French fries and mozzarella sticks are popular among students, but fried chicken ranks No. 1.

"Our students actually prefer chicken made with just seasoned flour because they perceive it as more healthful than using flour, egg and breading," says Zintz.

Another common coating is tempura batter, most often found on Asian menus but increasingly appearing in kitchens of all kinds.

At Mediterranean-influenced American restaurant The Red Cat in New York City, Chef de Cuisine Bill McDaniel loves tempura for the light, airy crispness it brings to specialties such as tempura-battered bacon perched atop an appetizer of black-eyed pea, white bean and arugula salad with roasted green-chile vinaigrette.

McDaniel's mix, less heavy than standard batters that might include eggs, buttermilk or beer, features only egg whites and soda water, sometimes kept cold with added ice to maintain its effervescence. The indulgent combination of thick-cut, smoky bacon and flaky tempura stirs appetites.

"The bacon is intriguing; it's not something they've eaten a million times," McDaniel says. "People are going back to the idea of 'everything in moderation,' so you can get away with this decadence every once in awhile."

Fry Right

Few foods illustrate deep-frying's allure like french fries and fried chicken.

For flawless hand-cut fries, chefs advocate two-step frying. First, cut potatoes as desired and soak in water to pull out surface starches. Drain well and blanch the potatoes briefly in the deep-fryer on low heat-275F to 325F-until they just become tender. Fries should then be drained, cooled on sheet pans and refrigerated. To finish, fry again at 350F to 365F until crisp and golden brown.

For frozen french fries, by far the most common type used in foodservice settings, cook in hotter oil for faster results, using a separate fryer if necessary. Follow the manufacturer's guidelines; many suggest frying from frozen, a step that should be followed.

Finding techniques for the best fried chicken is like asking chefs what makes true barbecue: Everyone's opinion differs. Two quick-service chicken chains, Atlanta-based Church's Chicken and Charlotte, N.C.-based Bojangles' Restaurants Inc., share tips and tricks.

  • Choose young, 2- to 3-pound chickens

  • Season product in layers, from marinating to flouring to breading, for high-impact flavor from crust to bone.

  • Double-batter chicken by flouring, battering and flouring again; keep batter cold for better adhesion.

  • Use medium- or hard-wheat flour rather than soft flour that is more likely to burn during long fry times.

  • Drain chicken bone-side down on racks or in pans with grates to let air circulate around product to keep it hot and prevent soaking up grease.

  • For optimal quality, hold chicken under heat lamps no longer than 45 minutes to an hour.

Tackling Trans Fats

Trans fatty acids, known to increase the risk of heart disease, have become a major target in the public-health arena. Pittsburgh-based Eat'n Park Restaurants recently joined the ranks of companies making the switch to trans-fat-free canola oil, a costly venture spanning the company's 79 eateries as well as the corporate, university, museum and senior-living facilities served by its Parkhurst Dining Services and CURA Hospitality divisions. Director of Menu Development Regis Holden shares advice and lessons learned.

While trans-fat-free oil is pricier, the longer life span-it should be changed at least every seven days rather than every three-recoups some of the cost.

Oil can be filtered at room temperature, a safer process.

Residue from the oil does not build up in fryers as much as with previous products.

When working with products such as preblanched french fries, make sure vendors are working with trans-fat-free oil as well.

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