7 Tips to Get Better at Deep Frying

You like your food golden and crispy. But are you doing it the right way?
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Despite the tedious cleanup, deep-frying remains our favorite cooking method in the Philippines. If you spend a lot of time dunking food in hot oil, are you doing it the best way possible?

Here's 7 ways to master deep-frying:

  1. Don't Overcook
  2. Use a Thermometer
  3. Get a Wok (or a Cast Iron Dutch Oven)
  4. Don’t Crowd the Pan
  5. Pick the Right Tools
  6. Dry Your Food
  7. Rescue Your Oil

Don't Overcook

Have you tried eating Chickenjoy without the gravy? It's not fun.

Fastfood places always overcook fried chicken, so they end up dry and tough. This is why they give you so much gravy: when poured on top, that extra moisture makes your chicken feel less like jerky.

Most beginner cooks assume that if you end up with golden, crispy food, you did it right. But when you deep-fry, you need to manage the meat inside too. You want to get the exterior crispy and the interior juicy. It's not one or the other.

Getting that crispy exterior? No problem. Just fry the hell out of it. Dunk your chicken in hot oil until it's nice and craggy. That's all there is to it.

But here's a problem: The longer your food sits in the hot oil, the more your meat dries out as the hot oil vaporizes the water out of it. To get juicy meat, you have to lift the meat out before it overcooks—but you can't pull it out when it's not yet crispy, either.

This means your oil needs to be hot enough to get that crispy outer shell while making sure your meat still has its juices intact.

When deep-frying, you're playing tug-of-war. On the left, you want to fry it long enough so it gets crispy. On the right, you don't want to fry it long enough so the meat doesn't dry out.

Dark, Fatty Meat

Most of us in Asia don't like chicken breast. The reason: It doesn't have much fat.

Without juicy fat, meat feels drier and less flavorful, leaving it more prone to overcooking. In contrast, dark meat's higher fat content serves as a shield against dryness, so you can cook it longer without the leaving the meat tough. When you're frying different chicken cuts, it's always good to fry dark and white meat separately because their timings aren't the same.

The solution: Get a thermometer.


Use a Thermometer


Experienced cooks like to think that they can communicate with cooking oil, like telepathy.

While you can get away without checking your oil temp, you’re going to misfire once in a while. Without an accurate measure, you’ll use unreliable signals like waiting for oil to smoke, or throwing batter in to test the heat. These methods will degrade your cooking oil.

When you deep-fry, most dishes hit their sweet spot around 350-375°F (175–190°C). This range gives you the best of both worlds: a crispy exterior and a juicy interior.

Why should you keep your temp stable?

Because with a consistent reading, you can set a time that you can memorize and repeat. If you’re always at 350°F, you know that you can fry a perfect chicken breast at exactly 12 minutes.

Initial Temp Matters

Before you fry, your food may be at room temp. It may also come out cold if you're pulling it straight from the fridge. This affects your fry time: the colder the food's temp, the longer the internal cook time.

As a rule of thumb, you should fry when your food is still cold. This gives your exterior extra time to get crispy in the hot oil while you cook the cool interior.

Without a thermometer, you won't know what temp you started with. You also won't know how much your temp swings up and down every time you drop your food. Since you're working blind, setting a time won't do you much good. 12 minutes at 350°F leaves you with perfectly fried chicken. The same time in 250°F leaves it soggy and raw.

Soggy & Greasy

When you fry in cooler temperatures, you’ll end up with soggy food. You know how it bites—like a sad oil sponge. While this doesn’t exactly make the food greasier, it creates an unpleasant greasy mouthfeel.

If you’re budget-strapped, get a deep-fry (or candy) thermometer. Stick the device in your hot oil and you'll get a temperature reading after a few seconds.

If you can spare a bit more, get an instant-read thermometer. Unlike regular thermometers which take a while to read, instant-read thermometers give you a reading in two to three seconds. Makes life easier in the kitchen.

Get the Lavatools Instant Read Thermometer


Get a Wok


Nothing beats the wok for deep-frying.

If you don’t own one, you might be surprised at how much easier deep-frying gets with one. The wok does it better:

  • The wide, concave shape allows you to use way less oil compared to pots and pans.
  • The generous opening allows you to easily pick up crumbs and debris that will burn your oil.
  • It heats up and cools down faster.
  • You can fit a lot more food in with less crowding.

Apart from these advantages, woks also work great for other cooking methods like stir-frying or steaming. So if you’re not using it to deep-fry, you can do other tasks with similar grace.

Get the Pepper Essentials Cast Iron Wok


...Or a Cast-Iron Dutch Oven


Don’t want to make room for a wok in your kitchen? Your second best deep-frying device is a cast iron Dutch oven.

A Dutch oven doesn’t perform as great as the wok, but still much better than sauce pans or pots.

Cast iron possess higher heat capacity than aluminum or steel. Heat capacity enables cast iron to store a lot more heat. Think about sizzling plates (they’re made of cast iron)—they stay hot long after you remove them from the fire. Because it can keep heat, cast iron ensures that your oil temperature remains stable when you drop food in.

Get the Pepper Essentials Cast Iron Dutch Oven


Pick the Right Tools

When you deep-fry, you work with enough hot oil you can use to murder your enemies. Navigating the dangers of hot oil safely requires the right tools. If you fry with a spatula or a giant spoon, you’re inviting yourself to the emergency room.

When deep-frying, use the best tools:

  • Steel-end tongs (not silicon!)
  • Oil skimmer or strainer

Tongs can precisely grab most food with ease. They can also help you maneuver around food when they’re bumping into each other like passengers on the LRT. Great when your pan feels crowded.

With the oil skimmer, you get a lot of versatility. Due to its wide, round surface, you can easily lift small fried food (ex. chicken karaage) with ease. That same wide surface allows you to extract foods with large surface areas as well (ex. a whole fish).

The best part: Oil skimmers do a great job fishing out floating crumbs that can burn and ruin your frying oil.


Dry Your Food

Anything wet won't get crispy.

Water acts as a shield that keeps oil from crisping up your food. As long as water exists on the surface, hot oil will try to remove the water first.

This is why oil splatters when you drop wet food in hot oil. The aggressive movement from the hot oil pushes moisture to the surface. The tiny water bubbles fight with the hot oil and eventually lose.

So when wet food comes in contact with oil, all the hot oil will focus on dispelling the water first. This takes a lot of time and energy. So while it's busy trying to remove water on the surface, your interior's already overcooking.

Crispy Science
The human body is mostly water. The same goes with most food. Meat, vegetables, all sorts of food is water—they appear solid, but it’s mostly liquid holding them together. Now, anything that’s wet won’t turn crispy. If you want crispy food, you need to dry it out. So when you deep-fry, and because water and oil don’t mix, you’re pushing out all the surface water with very hot oil. When hot oil comes in contact with water, tiny surface explosions (the bubbles you see) create craggy, crispy food.

With breaded food, you don’t need to worry too much. It's not bone-dry, but the breading or batter contains enough starch and solids to prevent splattering from a water-oil fistfight.

When you’re frying uncoated food like Pinoy-style chicken, whole fish, or tofu, pat them dry with a paper towel before dropping them into the hot oil.


Don't Crowd the Pan for Real


Every frying recipe tells you not to crowd your pan. A lot of us don’t listen. I mean if it fits, just dump everything in there, right?

But there’s a reason why this piece of advice keeps on getting repeated. It matters.

We’ve talked about the importance of maintaining your temperature. When you deep-fry, you don’t want your temperature to drop because that will turn your food soggy. This is why cast iron works well in deep-frying: Its heat retention protects your oil from a drastic temperature drop.

But when you overcrowd your pan, you’re bringing down the temperature big time. Before they hit the oil, your food usually sits cold or at room temp—much cooler than the 350°F oil you have waiting. So when the hot oil comes in contact, you’re not just making the food hotter, you’re also cooling down the oil.

When you dump in more food than your hot oil can handle, the temp can drop a whopping 100°F or more, robbing you of a crispy exterior.

Beyond that, overcrowding your pan can lead to bubbling, overflowing oil. This isn’t a trivial matter. When something like this happens, you will wake up at the hospital.

And here's a great upside: When you don’t overcrowd your pan, your food fries faster! Because you’re maintaining higher temps, your food cooks quickly. Eventually, you’ll save time and get perfectly crispy food out of it.


Rescue Your Oil

Frying oil works like clothing. You can reuse it more than you realize if you take care of it.

Not all types of oil have the same lifespan. Those with higher smoke points can endure higher heat and live longer lives. So the first thing you need to do is to choose the right oil.

But even with the right oil, you still need to do some work. The best thing you can do is to keep your oil free of impurities. When you deep-fry, parts of food break off and float around like debris in the oil. The more of those crumbs you see, the faster your oil goes bad. As you fry, use a skimmer or strainer to remove the harmful debris.

You should also consider when your oil overheats. The higher the temperatures you bring your oil to, the shorter its life becomes. As a general rule, if you see smoke when you deep-fry, it’s probably too hot. But you’d be much safer using a thermometer to check the temp.

Flash Point

When oil degrades and breaks down, it gets closer to its flash point. The flash point is when the oil will ignite when its vapors come in contact with an ignition source like fire. If that sounds scary, it is. If your oil looks bad, don't risk it—throw it out.

After you fry, you want to move your oil to a container. We recommend you buy an oil pot with a strainer—it filters your oil's impurities as you store it. Once transferred to a pot, move your oil to a dark, cool place (light and heat degrade oil).

Extra tip: Use multiple oil pots for different flavored food. You don’t want your chicken tasting like fish.

If you want to preserve oil further, Serious Eats has a terrific guide on how to use gelatin to clean it. They say it works like magic!

So when your oil turns dark, should you throw it away?

Not quite. Dark oil doesn’t mean its gone bad. In fact, the dark color helps brown your food better so you want some of it. (Some people mix old with new oil for better browning.)

What you need to watch out for is how fast it smokes. When your oil smokes before it even reaches your frying temp, you can't use it anymore.

A summary of all the ways to get better at deep-frying. Don't forget:

  1. Don't Overcook
  2. Use a Thermometer
  3. Get a Wok (or a Cast Iron Dutch Oven)
  4. Don’t Crowd the Pan
  5. Pick the Right Tools
  6. Dry Your Food
  7. Rescue Your Oil
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