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If in Doubt, Fry It!
- Part One

by John Raven, Ph. B.

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Texans love fried food. Up until about forty years ago, everything we ate was boiled, barbecued or fried.

Mama went through gallons of Crisco feeding me and Daddy through the years. Mrs. Tucker's shortening was cheaper, but it was bad about letting things stick to the bottom of the frying pan. Mama would have preferred hog lard, but it was so much trouble to kill a hog and then render the fat into lard.

There are three main ways to fry foods. Pan-frying, which uses a skillet or frying pan with an inch or less of fat; Deep-frying, which uses enough fat to completely cover whatever is being cooked; and Stir frying, which is the oriental method of using a wok, very little fat and stirring the foods so they all cook evenly. We Texans don't consider stir-frying really frying. It's more like sauting.

When pan-frying or deep-frying, the temperature of the oil or fat must be correct or the results will be poor. The temperature of the oil should be between 350 and 375F degrees. If the oil is not hot enough, the batter or coating will fall off your food and it will absorb the oil. If the temperature is too high, the outside of your food will burn while the inside remains undercooked.

Unless you have an electric deep fryer or skillet with a temperature control, the only way to check the temperature of your oil is to use a thermometer. A candy thermometer will work if you can't find a deep frying thermometer. Clip the thermometer to the side of your cooking vessel. Make sure the sensing bulb is not touching the side of the vessel. It takes longer than you might think for the temperature to come up to cooking speed, so be patient. Remember that you are looking to go better than 100 degrees hotter than the boiling point of water.

When the temperature is correct, you may have to cut the heat down a little so as to stabilize the temperature. When it remains stable for three or four minutes you are ready to cook.

To check and see if you have the correct temperature for whatever you are cooking, say you are cooking hush puppies, drop one into the oil. When it is golden brown, remove it from the pot and cut it in half to see if the center is cooked the way you want it. If the center is still undercooked, you will need to reduce the temperature of your oil about ten degrees and try another sample. This will make for slower cooking, thus giving the center more time to get done without overcooking the outside.

When you are satisfied the temperature is correct, you can start frying. Don't over crowd the pot. The temperature of the oil is going to go down with the addition of the food. Drop the pieces in one at a time with a slight pause between pieces. This will prevent the oil temperature from dropping too low.

Due to the extreme temperatures you are working with, frying can be dangerous. It's not something for little kids or clumsy adults to mess with. Be very careful not to splash the hot oil around. Better to gently lower the food into the pan than just dump them in. When the moisture in your food comes into contact with the hot oil, it's going to boil and splatter. Don't try frying chicken livers while wearing a bikini.

Rule of thumb is: When it's golden brown, it's done. (Here's a little something I've learned. When you are deep-frying fish, the fillets or whatever will sink to the bottom of the pan. When they float to the top, they are done.) Remove the food with a slotted spoon or strainer, letting the excess oil drip back into the pot before you deposit your food on a layer of paper towels to drain further. If you are cooking a big batch of whatever and want to keep it warm, spread it on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels and put it in a warm oven with the door open. If you try to cover fried foods, they will get all soggy.

Okay, let's fry something.

My favorite steak recipe: Pan fried steak

You'll need a round steak no more than one-half inch thick cut into serving size portions. Season the steak with salt and black pepper. Drop it into a pan of flour and coat both sides and the edges. Shake off excess flour.

Fry in about one-quarter inch of the oil of your choice heated to 360F degrees until the first side is the golden brown you prefer. You can lift one edge of the steak to peek at it. When the first side is done to your liking, turn it over and do the other side. Remove the steak to a platter lined with paper towels, and keep it warm while you make your cream gravy.

This method works for any kind of red meat, chicken or fish.

Chicken Fried Steak

To turn pan fried steak into the famous Texas chicken fried steak, you will need a large flat bowl with a couple of beaten eggs in it. Also a large pan of flour. Season the steak to your liking. Dredge it in the flour, getting a good thin coat all over the steak Shake off the excess flour. Dip the steak in the beaten egg, coating it well. Let the excess drain back into the bowl. Dip the steak in the flour and coat it well. Again, shake off the excess. Put the floured steak on a cookie sheet and let it rest in the icebox for ten or fifteen minutes before frying. Most folks don't know that you have to let the steak rest a while so the coating won't all come off in the frying pan. Fry the steak pieces in about a half-inch of oil. There are a lot of variations on chicken frying steak, but this will get you started.

Cream gravy for anything you fry

Pour off all but two tablespoons of the fat remaining in your pan after frying. Add two tablespoons of flour. Mix it well, scraping all the goodies loose from the bottom of the pan. After it's cooked a minute or so, add a cup of cold, whole milk or light cream or, even better, condensed milk. Stir with a whisk to break up the lumps. As it begins to thicken, add more milk, a little at a time, until you get the thickness you like. Season with lots of fresh ground black pepper.

Don't forget the biscuits.

Next month we'll do the deep-frying.

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