People’s Biggest Fears: Heat and Hot Oil

On Sunday I had the distinct pleasure of making Parmesan truffle fries for my lovely family. (Well, at least some of my family.) Watching the fries bubble away, (after a rather scary incident during which I let the oil get way to hot and, yes, it overflowed just a little bit when I dunked the fries in), I began to understand the real reason why people invest in deep fryers, and an idea for a new “Fears” post started to form in my head.

First to settle the deep fryer question. People who want to deep fry foods are not in the least afraid of the hot oil; this is not a reason to buy a deep fryer. They buy them because what the deep fryers are really there for is to maintain the heat level of the oil. Home frying is fine as far as it goes, but it is difficult because the oil is constantly getting hotter and cooler, especially when one is using an electric stove (as I was on Sunday). In other words your first batch of fries or chicken or what have you might take 15 minutes to get crispy and the next batch only 8. The commercial deep fryer’s job, and the reason it is useful, is to maintain a constant heat level, so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not your oil will suddenly and terrifyingly overflow onto your beautiful clean stove.

But your “I buy take-out six times a week”, wants to cook more at home, first jobber is not home deep frying food. Neither is your busy Mom, or your working Dad, or your has-to-work-12-hours-a-day-to-pay-the-rent single person, all of whom also want to try and do a little more home cooking. In fact, a lot of people are far away from any notion of deep frying, and for now can’t even get over the fact that they need to use hot oil to cook their food if that is what they want to do.

Friends I have cooked for become frightened when I leave the pan on high heat for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. They shoot glances at me like “Isn’t that pan going to shoot up into the sky?” Then I pour oil in, and people really start to freak out. “Is that hot oil?”

Yes. Yes it is. And, believe me, it is your friend. It loves you and you should love it back. You should also treat it with respect and care. But really, that is all it requires to offer you its unbridled affection.

Yes you might get burned. More than once. It will hurt. But you will get over it. And the payoff is unbelievable. Hot oil gives you the sear you desperately want on your steak and  chicken, but you are too afraid of heat to acquire (although, be warned any meat you cook must also be dry in order to get a sear). Hot oil also gives your kitchen that amazing smell that will have your family or guests wondering “What are you cooking?” Hot oil allows you to actually fry an egg, or sautee some vegetables. Your veggies will be bland if they do not have some color on them: and it must be the color brown, from the sear they get, as they come in contact with the hot oil.

I’ve already talked about how fat and seasoning are really basic flavor builders. Well this is the third absolutely necessary one. Everything else is really just for show or decoration. For example, your steak will taste amazing if it is well-marbled (has fat in it), if you season it, and if you allow that first contact with the pan to be one of high heat and hot oil. All the other trappings (Black pepper!, cheese(blue of course)!, balsamic!, red wine reduction! mushrooms! THYME!) are just to add to what already tastes amazing. Trying to use them to fix your cut of meat is pointless.

Now while oil will splatter a bit, that is nothing to be afraid of. When you can feel the heat from your pan about 2 inches above it with your hand, you are ready to pour the oil in. Once the oil starts to shimmer and move on its own, it is ready for your ingredient. Allow whatever you are searing or sauteeing to stay on this high heat for a good minute or so without stirring to get that color, and then begin to mix. Once you start to feel like you have to mix it too often or the color is looking a little dark, so after about a total of three minutes in the pan or so, turn your heat down to medium to finish the cooking process. You will be golden!

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