I always prefer extra-virgin olive oil for frying as for cooking. Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is the unprocessed “juice” of the olives, and seems much healthier to me than any of the industrial heat-processed seed oils. Besides, in Italian cooking, oils and fats are used as flavoring agents, not just for texture, and would you really do a canola oil tasting?
I’ve read in a couple of blogs that extra-virgin oil has a smoking point that’s too low for deep-frying. This does not make sense, because its smoking point is above 405 F, and you should fry at 360 F, or you’ll burn the food. Plus, if your oil starts smoking, it will be pretty obvious, and trust me, you won’t stick around long flipping latkas. Obviously, you should choose a mild-flavored, low-acidity oil, or they will taste too strong. I even like using olive oil for sweets (I choose a mild extra-virgin from Liguria), but some people prefer a less distinctive taste: in this case, peanut oil is a good choice (unless you are allergic, in which case you can try sunflower or canola), because it has a pleasant after-taste and a high smoking point.
Here are a few tips to quickly master the art of frying:
- Do not fry in your usual skillet: it’s too shallow! Besides the high risk of splattering, a skillet won’t fit sufficient oil. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but using too little oil will yield a soggy and greasy doughnut. Yes, you read right, I said “greasy”! When you drop your cold latkas into the pan, if the amount of oil is not much higher than the amount of latkas, the oil temperature will drop by several degrees. This will slow down the formation of the crust around the latkas (or French fries, or fritters, etc.), giving the oil plenty of time to penetrate inside. Always use a deep and heavy frying pan, and leave a space of a couple of inches between the oil and the top of the pan.
- Keep moisture out. If you don’t want the food to absorb a lot of oil, you should always remember that water and frying oil do not agree. Always dry any vegetables or other food you plan to fry before immersing it in the oil or batter (the wetness of the batter itself is not an issue because it will sear instantly, forming a crisp exterior). Of course, never fry anything frozen or very cold, both because the ice will melt and turn into water, and because the temperature of the frying oil will drop quickly.
- Fry in small batches. If you fry a large amount of latkes at the same time, they will stick to one another (besides lowering the temperature of the oil). Never allow the oil to reach the smoking point – this is not hard, because the smoke is very visible! When the oil starts smoking, it means that it’s deteriorating, and it becomes unhealthy. By the way, I know some people filter and re-use the oil after frying, but I learned from my mom not to do it and we all know Mama knows best.
- The right temperature. The ideal temperature for frying is about 360-365 F. If you don’t have a deep-fryer with a thermometer (I definitely don’t, in my Manhattan apartment), you can test the oil by dropping a small cube of bread dropped into pan: it should be immediately surrounded by lots of tiny bubbles, and brown in about one minute. For smaller items you can keep the temperature constant. For larger items, fry at 365 F or up to 380 F, for a few seconds until they form a nice golden crust, and then lower the flame slightly (if you are using a thermometer, lower the temperature to 315 F) to cook the inside without burning the outside. When ready, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and drain on a double layer of paper towels. You can repeat this step, to remove more oil – but never put paper towel on TOP, because it will trap the steam underneath, making the latkes soggy (once again, water and oil really don’t get along!). Fritters and doughnuts, which rise during the cooking, tend to absorb more oil than other foods, and it’s critical to fry at the right temperature and dry twice on double layers of paper towel. You can keep your first batches of fritters warm in a 200 F oven, uncovered or only partially covered, while you finish frying the rest.
- Avoid adding salt to food until after it’s cooked. Salt draws out the moisture from inside the food, and again you will end up with a soggy, rather than crispy, result.
Hanukkah comes only once a year… enjoy!
Try my recipe for Venetian Fried Custard you won't be sorry.