Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Theories on Frying

Frying is an interesting thing to me, especially deep frying. The fat is like a pan that can completely surround every molecole of exposed surface area, including the little nooks and crannies. It is a cooking method in which part of the cooking equipment is actually edible, and becomes a part of the food being cooked. How cool is that? Steaming is close, but not really quite the same.

Bearing that in mind, I have heard several cooks proclaim that other cooking methods technically qualify as deep frying. For instance, if you take a potato, you coat it in oil, and then you toss it in the oven, the oven is actually heating the oil, which then cooks the potato. This is partially true, and I used to even believe that this was a form of deep frying. I am now starting to reconsider.

You see, there's more to deep frying that just hot oil encapsulating the food being cooked. In fact, there is a lot of oil. And that oil is being kept in a container of some sort. Either that container itself or a heating element inside of it is being heated, which heats the fat, which cooks the food. How does this differ from my baked potato example? One word: air. In the oven, there is a lot of air between the heating device and the food. As it turns out, air isn't very dense. It doesn't really hold onto heat very well. And when you open that oven door, a good deal of that heat will escape, even if you've been preheating the oven for three days and the walls are nice and hot.

I'm a big fan of oven fries. My recipe is simple: wash some russet potatoes, slice 'em into wedges, toss them in oil and spices, and bake at 400F until fork tender. How simple is that? And yet, I discovered a problem recently. Normally, especially if I have a lot of potatoes, I just toss them all on a sheet pan and bake them more or less however they fall. One day I decided to stand the potatoes so that they were sitting with the peel side on the pan. This would expose the least amount of pan to potato, which would cut down on burned spices. Or so I thought.

The resulting fries were disappointing, to say the least. Some were well-cooked, but most of them were hard and raw-tasting. If I'd been a customer at a restaurant, I would have sent them back. In short, they sucked. I decided to try something different the next time around. This time I decided to lay down the wedges on their sides. After 20 minutes, I turned them all over onto the other side and gave them another 20 minutes. This would provide direct contact with the pan on 2/3 of the surface area. I was running a chance of burning my spices, but now I had science at stake. After 40 minutes of baking, I would stand the wedges on the backs as I had done the first time and let them finish like that.

The results were staggeringly different! The sides of the fries had a deeper, more golden brown color. Each one was perfectly cooked and had the same fluffy potato goodness inside. The oil seemed to have protected the spices, which weren't even remotely burned. Even better, they achieved this level of greatness after only 40 minutes! The first batch had taken well over an hour, and some of the fries were still hard! Still, potatoes aren't the only ingredient in question here. I had to test bacon.

Something that I learned just before heading off to cooking school was how to cook bacon the way the pros supposedly cook bacon. Take a sheet pan, put a cooling rack on top of it, and then line the cooling rack with bacon. Toss it in a hot oven and let the excess fat drip away while the bacon baked its way to a crispily lean deliciousness. Unfortunately, this method always seemed to produce limply palid strips of greasiness when I tried it. The only advantage was volume: it's much faster to cook large volumes of bacon this way, unless you have a commercial griddle hanging out in your kitchen. Most people don't. Actually, come to think of it, there's a second advantage too: your bacon ends up straight. This is mostly a cosmetic advantage.

I prepared another sheet pan. I had used aluminum foil on the last one to eliminate cleanup, so I decided to use the same conditions. I had no delusions of no-mess cleanup with the bacon, but I did hope that there would be less scrubbing involved than without the foil. In fact, I had baked bacon last week without foil, and would eventually find with this that there was in fact less scrubbing, even if the bacon fat did find its way under the foil. But I digress. I lined the pan with a pound of bacon, directly on the foil. With the oven set to 500F, I tossed the pan in and checked it every few minutes. I would occassionally pull the pan out and flip the bacon with my tongs.

This produced the straight strips of bacon that I was used to with the cooling rack method. But it also produced crisp pieces of bacon. In complete defiance of Alton Brown's warnings to the contrary, I laid out my bacon on paper towls to drain off the excess fat. Despite the paper towels supposedly holding the fat up against my bacon, it was still markedly less greasy than the cooling rack method. It was crispy, flavorful and good. Even better, it didn't have grid marks from the cooling pan. And just like with the cooling rack, I was still able to drain away the fat easily once the bacon was removed from the pan.

Now, under the above theory about "deep frying" potatoes, I think that cooking bacon with just about any method would qualify as deep frying, just because bacon contains enough fat that it might as well be coated in it. However, using the air to heat that fat seems to be an excercise in failure in several instances. What is really needed is direct contact. This is why cake decorators use a heating core when baking unusually large cakes: the core provides additional direct heat contact to the middle of the cake, which certainly would be gooey were it left to the air to do the job. So apparently it's time to reconsider this theory of what qualifies as deep frying and what doesn't. If you're baking it, then call it baking. If you're braising or steaming, that's what you need to call it. A coating of fat may provide some advantage, but it's not deep frying.


  1. Do you have any recomendations for seasoning combinations for the fries? I usually do a base of paparika with oregano, basil, and things like that.

    Of course I just had this idea, what if you used some brown sugar, that could have some interesting results.

  2. I realize this is a terribly late post, but I too was wondering you could perhaps let us know your recipe for fries either by post, comment, or perhaps you wouldn't mind just e-mailing me the recipe. It sounds great and I would love to know what's involved.


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