Some people have a sweet tooth, but not me. I love fried food; it’s one of my few remaining vices. Even as a kid, when my family would go out for ice cream, I wanted fried chicken…with French fries. When I became vegan, which foods I fried changed, but my craving for fried foods is still strong. Nothing makes me happier than biting into a piece of fried tofu with a beautiful golden-brown crispy coating and hearing that distinctive “crunch” that says it’s perfectly cooked. Except maybe the light, delicate but crispy shell you get when you fry vegetables in a tempura batter. That is pure heaven!
Unfortunately, there are times when my fried food has left a lot be desired, and I know my readers have similar problems because they write and ask for help. They want to know why the tofu in their Chinese dishes is soft rather than crispy. They ask how I get that incredible coating on my “Chicken-Fried” Tofu and my Tempeh “Fish” Fillets. Sometimes my followers bemoan that they couldn’t even get the breading to stick to the food and it all fell off in the pan. If you have been having any of these issues with frying (or all of them, if you’re an overachiever like me), I’m here to share with you some of the common mistakes people can make when frying food.
1. My Fried Food was Too Oily!
One of the main reasons fried food becomes too oily is because the oil wasn’t hot enough. When you fry foods, the oil needs to be hot. It depends on the recipe, but usually, oil needs to be between 300 and 400 degrees. If the oil is cold, the food will just absorb it like a sponge and will result in soggy, oily anti-deliciousness. How can you tell if the oil is hot enough? You can use a kitchen thermometer or just toss a drop of batter or bread crumbs into the oil. If it sizzles, the oil is hot. Another trick is to stick the end of a wooden spoon into the oil and if the oil is hot, little bubbles will form around the spoon. Oil in a pan will take on a distinct shimmer when it is hot; if it’s smoking, it’s too hot and you need to turn the heat down or start over. Don’t rush the oil to reach the right temperature. It should heat up slowly. Trying to heat the oil too fast will lead to burned, blackened oil and scorched, bitter food. Treat the oil right and you will be enjoying crispy food like my Eggplant Fries and vegan Mozzarella Sticks.
2. My Fried Food was Soggy!
Once the oil is at the right temperature for cooking, keep it that way by not overcrowding the pan or the fryer. I write it in my recipes all the time: “Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook in batches.” Sadly, I don’t always practice what I preach. Just because my pan can hold all 8 Tempeh “Crab” Cakes doesn’t mean I should cook them all at once, but I can be somewhat impatient. When a pan is crowded, heat becomes trapped under the food causing it to steam rather than fry. Make sure there is room in the pan, that the pieces of food are not touching each other and yes, cook in batches. Or use two pans. Plus, when you add food into the oil, it drops the temperature of the oil so even if you have a large pot of oil for making Struffoli, only fry 4 or 5 at a time. I know the pot can hold many more but the temperature of the oil will plummet and your beignets will be soggy. Oh, and be patient and let the oil come back up to temperature between batches of cooking (as my husband scolded me yesterday when we were frying latkes). Lastly, make sure the food you put into the oil is dry by patting it down with a piece of paper towel. Damp food will not become crisp.
3. My Breading Didn’t Stick to the Food!
If you are a fried food lover like me, you know that the best part of fried food is the breading. Whether you use bread crumbs, seasoned flour, Panko or corn flake crumbs, you want that crispy coating that is probably the reason you are making fried food in the first place. There are several reasons why breading doesn’t stick to the food. The first reason could be the breading method itself. The typical dredging and breading procedure has 3 steps: flour, “egg,” and bread crumbs. Set up 3 shallow bowls or trays: one will have the seasoned flour, one will have your liquid coating and the third will have the seasoned bread crumbs. The liquid coating can be vegan buttermilk (simply mix a bit of vinegar into any non-dairy milk and let it curdle), non-dairy milk mixed with some flaxseed or a spoon of vegan mayo or a batter made with chickpea flour and water. Dip the food into the flour and coat both sides lightly, shake off any excess flour and dip the food into the liquid coating. Shake off any excess liquid and finally, coat the food with the bread crumbs. Place the breaded food on a cooling rack and let it rest while you continue to bread the remaining food. This gives the breading time to set before you fry it.
If you are not doing the 3 step breading method but are only using flour, be sure the food is patted dry before coating it in the flour. The flour will not adhere to wet food. Only put a light coating of flour as a heavy coating will not stick to the food. If you are using a batter or just frying up tofu cubes for General Tso’s Tofu, dust the food in a light coating of cornstarch or arrowroot to ensure crunch. I find this to be especially important in Chinese dishes where a hot sauce will be poured over the fried tofu. Again, be sure the oil is hot or the breading will fall off the food into the pan.
4. I Ripped the Breading Off the Food When I Turned It!
Everything was going perfectly: the oil was hot, the pan only had three pieces of tofu in it, and the breading looked like it was sticking. I picked up my tongs and turned the tofu cutlet over only to see the entire bottom layer of breading ripped off the food. Aack! If this has happened to you, I have just one piece of advice to give you – put down the utensils and step away from the food. Maybe it’s my impatience or maybe it’s my fear of burning the food but whatever it is, I tend to turn the food too soon and too often. When you set the breaded food down in the pan, you have to force yourself to leave it alone. Let it cook and develop that crust. One way to know that the food is ready to turn is that it will easily lift off the pan. If the food is still sticking to the pan, it isn’t ready to turn. Also, be sure to use the proper utensils for turning food such as tongs or a thin spatula especially when the food is fragile like my Fried Green Tomatoes.
5. Instead of Golden-Brown, My Food is Black!
When you fry food, two things have to happen: the outside has to become a crispy, crunchy golden-brown and the inside has to become fully cooked. That means that the outside needs to cook at a slow-enough pace to allow the inside to do its thing; otherwise, the end result can be raw or undercooked food surrounded by a burned, black exterior. I have been guilty of this more than once – my husband refers to this as “carbonized” food. The usual cause of this mistake is cooking with too high heat. Afraid that by using too low a heat, I won’t get that crispiness I desire, I overcompensate and turn the flame all the way to HIGH! Then I end up with Mini-Calzones that are black outside and raw inside. To avoid my mistake, make sure you use a heavy pan for frying so it conducts heat evenly. Use cooking oil that can withstand high temperatures and then keep the flame on medium to medium-high. Be patient, let the food cook and make sure the temperature doesn’t get too high. If the oil starts to smoke or turn black, it’s too hot and you either need to let it cool down or start over with fresh oil. Keep an eye on the food, flip it when it’s ready and remember that the second side always cooks faster than the first. If you have patience, you can bite into a crispy, golden-brown Mozzarella Stick and know the vegan cheese inside will be ooey-gooey perfect!
6. I Did Everything Right But It Tastes So Bland!
One of the most important steps in cooking happens long before you put any food in the frying pan. Think about how many layers there are to your typical fried food: the food itself, the flour, the liquid coating and the breading. Each layer needs to be seasoned or the food might taste bland. This is a mistake I have often made when making battered tempeh. I season the tempeh and I season the batter, but I often overestimate how much of that seasoning will come through after the frying. I have since learned that when I am frying food, I need to season more liberally. It also isn’t enough to just season the food or count on the seasoning in the marinade. Each layer needs to be seasoned. The food, whether it be tofu, tempeh or vegetables, should be seasoned or marinated. The flour you are going to coat the food with should be seasoned as should the liquid coating and the bread crumbs. When the food has been fried and transferred to a paper towel-lined plate, it should get a final sprinkling of kosher or sea salt. Seasoning every layer ensures there will be flavor in every bite.
Fried food has become a treat for me; it’s no longer something I eat every day. So when I do make fried food, I want to be sure it’s the crunchiest, crispiest, and yummiest it can be. Hopefully, you can learn a thing or two from my mistakes so that your fried food dishes will always be successful.
Lead Image Source: Vegan Mozzarella Sticks
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