Here’s How: Crisp with Confidence

HERE’S HOW is a series where we share the best useful tips from our cooking adventures. We’ll answer questions before you have them and illuminate food mysteries with a blend of science and legend.

In next week’s box, we garnish flank steak with deliciously frizzled shallots. Take one minute to think about the best onion rings you’ve ever eaten, and you’ll understand why we decided that crispy shallots ought to rest atop the meat in this meal.

Still, we know pans of hot oil can inspire terror in even experienced chefs, so we wanted to demystify just what goes on when you turn squash into tempura or shallot slices into, well, frizzled shallots. We’ll walk you through what oil to use, what temperature to keep your pan at, and how to prep your ingredients so they’re ready to get crispy.

The Oil

First, a word about oil. In our recipes, we almost always pour olive oil and suggest that you do too. For drizzling on salads, high-quality olive oil is an unbeatable condiment. For sautéing anything from vegetables to chicken to shrimp, olive oil works well too. If you’re going to have only one bottle of oil in your pantry, olive should be it.

That said, when you’re heating up more than a super thin film of oil and you plan to render chicken or goat cheese crispy and delicious, we suggest you use a more neutral oil, one that can really stand up to high heat. (Different oils have different levels at which they start to smoke.) We suggest vegetable oil and its cousins: safflower oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. These are all virtually tasteless and can stand up to the high heat you’ll need to make food crispy.

The Temperature

When using oil to cook, you want to get that oil sufficiently hot that it cooks the interior of what you’re making at the same time as it crisps up the outside. We don’t use a food thermometer to test our oil (if you have one, you’ll usually want the oil to be about 325°F).

Even without a thermometer, there are tricks to be sure your oil ready. First, you’ll want to set your pan over high heat and leave it there for a minute or two before beginning to cook. This gives the pan a head start so that when you add in the oil, it’ll take less time to heat. Once the oil is hot, you’ll start seeing shimmery lines move around in your pan. Then, according to Food52, if you stick a wooden spoon right into the oil, little bubbles will form around the spoon. Never let the oil smoke–that means you’re way too hot. Turn off the stove and step away.

When the oil is ready, gently submerge whatever it is that you’re cooking. If you throw in your food, the oil may splatter.

The Coating

In order to help a crust form when cooking, we like to coat our ingredients in a starch or a batter. The coating also helps keep the food inside from becoming greasy, acting as a barrier between the high-fat oil and the inside ingredient, which actually does not absorb very much of the oil’s fat.

This coating can take a few different forms. For our crispy chicken and our goat cheese rounds, we use a classic three-step method. First, the ingredient is coated in flour. Next, it gets bathed in milk or buttermilk–the dry flour provides a surface for the liquid to stick on. Last, we place the ingredient in a plate of panko breadcrumbs, turning to get them on all sides. The crumbs stick effortlessly to the flour-milk coating below it, which acts as an adhesive. On the other hand, for both our shallots and our acorn tempura, we use a Japanese ingredient–rice flour–to keep the coating light and brittle.

Got questions about any of the techniques in our recipes? Leave a comment or shoot us a tweet and we’ll answer your question in an upcoming post.

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