Nobody wants to fry at home, but most everyone likes to eat fried food. There’s the fear of the mess, of the smell, of the danger, of the hassle of disposing of used oil.
But these are all small prices to pay for crispy Imperial Rolls or Fish sauce Chicken Wings, and the reality is that if you fry properly and knows the basic rules and techniques – it’s no more messy or smelly or dangerous than any method of cooking.
In Việt Nam, fried food is generally not covered in a thick batter but simply dusted in cornflour or flour, which forms a crisp, light coating. It is almost always accompanied with fresh ingredients like lettuce leaves and fresh herbs and dipped into a bright sauce of fish sauce and lime.
One of the essential rules for successful deep frying is to allowed food come to room temperature before adding it to hot oil (just as with any cooking technique for meat), it fries more evenly and more quickly, with the exterior turning a deep golden brown just as the interior reaches doneness.
Deep-frying requires only a few tools, but one of the most essential is a deep-drying thermometer. If you fry a lot, you’ll notice the subtle changes in the appearance of the oil as it reaches the proper temperature for frying: the surface will ripple and shimmer just before it begins to smoke, a good indicator of its temperature. But because food fried at a temperature that is too low causes it to absorb oil too quickly and become greasy, therefore, you should invest in a reliable thermometer, one that you can clip to the edge of the pot.
Frying in small batches also reduces the likelihood of the food absorbing too much oil. If you add too much food to the pan at one time, the oil temperature will drop dramatically and the food will soak up oil before it begins to brown. Between batches, always let the oil return to the optimum cooking temperature.
Another handy frying tool is a Chinese mesh spoon known as a spider strainer, which has a large woven metal bowl and a long bamboo handle. You can use it to turn food and to retrieve it from the oil.
As for the danger of deep-frying: it’s really no more dangerous than any cooking technique, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions. If you heat the oil beyond the smoke point, it could catch fire. You don’t want to walk away from the hob when you’re heating oil, and you should always have a lid nearby. If oil gets too hot, the best thing to do is to cover the pan and remove it from the heat. Never, ever add water to hot oil, which will cause explosive splattering. It’s also just good general kitchen practice to keep a small fire extinguisher or fire blanket handy. You’ll likely never use it, but it’s an inexpensive insurance policy.
At home, you can reuse frying oil for several rounds of frying before disposing of it. Let it cool completely after each fry, then strain through a double thickness of muslin into a jar and store in a cool, dark place. You’ll know when it’s no longer good to use; it will have a rancid flavour and stale smell.
Fried food in Việt Nam is almost always served as part of a meal, not as the main course, and it is almost always accompanied by platters of vegetables and herbs for wrapping. Rarely do the Vietnamese sit-down and eat a huge portion of fried food – everything in moderation.