“It’s no secret that we Southerners love our fried foods. We’ll fry just about anything — okra, hushpuppies, hand pies, steak and, of course, chicken.
Much of the time, though, those platters of golden brown food come along not only with a side of only mac and cheese, but also guilt.
Fried foods are often thought of as some of the most unhealthy foods you can eat, and when we’re talking towers of fast food fried chicken and french fries, that assertion isn’t too off-base. However, fried foods aren’t actually all that bad for you — as long as you’re doing it right. Here’s why.
First, what is frying anyway?
Even if you’ve never heated up a pot of peanut oil and breaded a mess of chicken wings, anyone who’s watched a cooking show knows the basics:
Food, which is sometimes breaded and sometimes not, gets submerged into a hot, but not smoking, pot of oil, where it bubbles away vigorously until it cooks through and turns brown. The food is removed, patted dry and, preferably, eaten when piping hot. That’s about it.
But what’s actually going on in that pot of oil? Unlike steaming or boiling, frying is a dry cooking process, like sautéeing or roasting. It occurs over moderate heat — most fried recipes will call for oil to be heated somewhere between 325 and 375 degrees — and, when done properly, results in food with a moist, just cooked center, and a crisp, well-browned exterior.
When a piece of food is dropped in hot oil, a few things happen: First, moisture from the inside of the food rapidly heats up and turns to steam, quickly migrating out from the food to the oil. This process causes the oil to bubble rapidly as it gives off all of that steam.
Quick moisture loss on the outside of the food creates a dry surface, which will crisp in the hot oil. Because oils can heat up far past the boiling point of water, they allow for both the caramelization of starches and the browning of proteins, which is referred to as the Maillard reaction.