French-Fried Nirvana

For many people, French fries are a guilty pleasure, yet restaurants mostly peddle ones that are grease saturated, limp, and trans fats laden. In fact, there are probably a lot of people who’ve never had a good fry. Those who know will tell you: A well-fried fry is a transcendent experience. It’s crispy on the outside, tender and fluffy on the inside, and fresh and potato-y tasting.

The keys to getting fries right, along with corn dogs, elephant ears, samosas, and other deep-fried foods, are timing and temperature. You must fry hot enough so that the oil doesn’t saturate the food, and just long enough that a crust forms. And although they may not fly as spa cuisine, when fried correctly, these foods are not necessarily soggy sacks of gut-bomb grease. New home-frying gear gives you this level of control. And it also means you can use your own vegetable oil and avoid worrying about trans-fats. Not all restaurants fry in the heart-unhealthy oil, but if you’re eating from the drive-through, chances are it does.

“Why do I need special frying gear, when I could fry in a pot?” you ask. Because pots are wide at the bottom, require too much oil, and sometimes warp in the high heat needed for deep-frying. You could use a normal wok, like the ones used in many Chinese restaurants, but most woks are wobbly and unstable on a burner. Not a big deal when you’re making stir-fry, but scary when you’ve got a pot of bubbling-hot oil.

I tested two of the best pieces of frying equipment available for the home chef. The first is a cast iron wok from Lodge, which, though not marketed specifically as a deep-fryer, works great as such. The other is an electric deep-fryer from Euro Pro. In both, I made classic Belgian fries. These are the twice-fried, thicker-cut variety. You fry them once just to cook them through, then get the oil hotter and cook them again to make them crisp. Using vegetable oil and russet potatoes sliced into 1-centimeter sticks, soaked in water, then dried very well, I heated vegetable oil to 350°F to cook through, then 375°F to crisp. I used an infrared thermometer to make sure I was getting the right temperature of oil in both units.

Pro Logic Wok
By Lodge Manufacturing Co., $69.95

The beauty of the Lodge cast iron wok is that it’s heavy and solid, so you don’t have to worry about it rocking on the stovetop. The wok is part of the company’s newer Pro Logic line of cast iron pieces, which come preseasoned and ready to use right out of the box.

I filled the wok halfway with oil and heated it on my gas burner over a high flame. With an infrared thermometer, I monitored the oil temperature until it reached 350°F, then carefully added a handful of raw fries. I cooked them in batches for about seven minutes until they were limp but still pale, took them out to cool, and then cranked the heat until the oil reached 375°F. The fries went back into the oil bath, where they turned golden and crisp in about 90 seconds.

The cast iron maintained heat well, but it was necessary to monitor the temperature constantly with a thermometer, as there was no other way to tell how hot the oil was. This isn’t necessarily a deal killer—many people like to use a thermometer when frying, anyway. The wide mouth and deep bowl offered easy access with minimum spattering, but the open pan released frying smells freely into the air. The pan must be washed by hand—like all cast iron, it needs special care.

4L Triple Deep Fryer (K4318)
By Euro-Pro, $79.99

The Euro-Pro 4-Liter Triple Deep Fryer is for serious jobs. For one thing, it comes with three frying baskets—one large, plus two smaller snack-sized ones. The main benefit of baskets is that there’s no fishing around for food in hot oil with a slotted spoon—just pull them out when everything’s done.

The unit plugs in and doesn’t need a burner, which means you can use it on your terrace and eliminate indoor frying smells. It’s only about the size of a big toaster—9 inches wide by 11 inches long by 16 inches deep. The lid’s got an air filter and a clear glass window that lets you keep your eyes on the fries. The power cord snaps on with a magnetic breakaway connection that easily comes apart if the cord gets yanked. (Imagine knocking over a deep fryer—the horror!) And everything but the control panel/heating element is dishwasher safe, which means you can break the whole thing down and jam it in the dishwasher.

One other important feature allows you to set the temperature of the oil rather than having to use a thermometer. I used mine just in case, however, to make sure the settings worked. They did.

To test, I filled the oil container and set it to heat to 350°F. When the ready light went on, I lowered a half-full basket of raw fries into the oil, cooked them a few minutes, took them out, and reset the temperature to 375°F.

I finished the fries by putting half in one of the smaller baskets and the rest in the other. That way, I was able to take one basket out earlier for my sister, who likes her fries less crisp than I do. She was quite happy with her batch, as I was with mine. The latter were extra-crispy, golden, and well done. And it was fun to watch them through the little window while they were cooking.

The unit’s built-in thermometer made the frying process much easier, as it self-adjusted during cooking. But the metal parts on the sides got too hot to touch (they are supposed to stay cool). The filter on the lid also did little to absorb odor, but its snug fit—with silicone gaskets around the basket handle openings—minimized oil leakage. Being able to stick almost everything in the dishwasher offered another huge convenience, with no oiling or drying necessary.

Deep-Fry Convert

After testing these products, I don’t know why I never got deep-frying equipment at home before. The wok was stable and easy for small jobs: say, inviting a friend over for moules frites. My sister and I agreed that we were definitely busting out the electric deep-fryer for our annual Chinese New Year’s party to make egg rolls. Only, weather permitting, we’re going to do it outside.