Pan frying (also called shallow frying) is closely related to two other cooking techniques, sautéing and deep frying (which we’ll cover next). There are specific differences that set pan-frying apart so we’ll look specifically at two different pan frying methods in this lesson.
By standard definition, pan-frying means to cook food in a small amount of fat. It’s a dry heat method in which the food is cooked more by the oil than by the pan, itself. Consequently, the pan needs more oil than is required when sautéing. Some will tell you that the oil should be deep enough that it is one-third to one-half the way up the side of the food. Deep-frying (as we’ll discuss more in detail tomorrow) requires food be completely submerged. So what do we call the method where the food is more than halfway submerged but not quite fully submerged? I’ve looked everywhere and I’ve found no definition. For that reason, I’ve taken the liberty to re-define pan frying.
pan frying: a dry heat cooking method in which food is cooked in a sufficient amount of fat over moderately high heat while still in contact with the pan
It may sound a little vague but it highlights three important musts for pan frying:
The amount of fat is key. Pan frying requires more fat than a light covering of the bottom of the pan (like when sautéing) but less than is needed to completely submerge the food (as in deep frying).
Moderately High Heat
This is the other factor that separates pan frying from sautéing. Sautéing requires high heat because there’s very little fat so the hot pan is the major source for cooking food. When pan frying, the oil is the major source and the pan is secondary. Since the oil comes more in contact with the food than the pan does, the pan doesn’t need to be quite so hot. Make sense?
Contact With The Pan
This is the other factor that separates pan frying from deep frying: when deep frying, the food is completely surrounded by oil and doesn’t have much (if any) contact with anything else. When pan frying, the food should still touch the bottom of the pan, which often helps the food get a little crispier than deep frying.
Equipment for Pan Frying
My pan of choice when pan frying is (unsurprisingly) my cast iron skillet. It has a wide enough base that I’m able to get a sufficient amount of food in it without the food touching and the sides are high enough to allow room for a good amount of oil. But the best reason for using cast iron: it holds heat like no other. Enameled cast iron will also work like a charm. Everything else (stainless steel, aluminum, teflon, etc.) will pretty much cook the same, which means less consistency in the oil temperature.
Most foods cooked in fat/oil have a layer of breading. Breading creates a barrier between the oil and the food so the food doesn’t absorb as much oil. If your breading fully coats your food and your oil is at a decent temperature (usually between 340°-375°F), your food will absorb relatively little oil. That means less fat and calories, less grease running down your arm as you’re eating, and a crispier final product.
(Note: I said less fat and calories… any kind of frying is never healthy eating.)
How to Pan Fry
Pan frying is the cooking method of choice in Oklahoma (we’re a healthy bunch) so I’ll show you two of our favorites today: okra and chicken. There are as many different recipes for either of these dishes as there are bison on our plains. This is the way I cook them at home.
First of all, I like to toss some green tomatoes in with my okra (I learned that from my grandmother). The tomatoes are a delightful, tangy surprise with the okra. My grandparents always seem to have green tomatoes around because birds attack their tomato plants as soon as they start to turn color. Sometimes the only way to get a tomato is to pick it green!
I used about 7-8 okra spears and a medium-ish tomato for two servings. Chop the okra and tomatoes the same size. Don’t even peel the tomato, just dice it up (and throw away the stem). Some people toss the stems of the okra, too, but I like them fried. That’s up to you.
Next, put your okra and tomatoes into a bowl and sprinkle them with kosher salt. For this amount, I used between 1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons. Stir so they’re all coated and let it set for about 30 minutes at room temperature. You’ll notice that the okra starts to get a little slimy the longer it sets. The sliminess is usually what people don’t like about okra but we’re going to use it our advantage; it’s going to become the glue that holds on the breading.
I like a light breading so I coat my slimy okra with a mixture of equal parts cornmeal and white flour (1/4 cup of each). You can go with a heavier breading if you like but to be honest, I wouldn’t even know which route to go because this is the way I’ve always done it.
Next, pour about 1/4-inch of oil (preferably lard but canola oil or shortening will work, too) into your pan and heat to medium-high. Don’t add your okra until the oil is hot enough. You can test the oil by tossing in a little bit of the leftover cornmeal mixture into the hot oil: if it bubbles vigorously, it’s ready.
Now add your okra. Stir them occasionally as they start to brown. Lower the heat of the pan if they start to turn really brown. They’re ready to eat when the cornmeal is golden brown. My grandmother likes them cooked until they’re a deep brown so that’s now how I eat them, too (you’ll see below).
Now let’s talk about chicken. You really should go skin-on… frying is already unhealthy and the skin gets so crispy and delicious, there’s no good reason to leave it off. And you definitely want bone-in chicken… chicken has more yummy flavor when it’s cooked on the bone. Of course, you could go with boneless, skinless but then it’s not real fried chicken. But I won’t judge you.
Also, you want smaller cuts of meat. The Barry Bonds chickens in the grocery stores are just too much. They’re so big that they take forever to cook and when the center is finally done, the outside is overcooked. It’s hard to find a normal sized chicken when you buy them already butchered so I normally do it myself (learn how here). Look for a bird as close to 3 pounds as possible. Anything larger really is ridiculous. And completely unnatural. If you go with pre-cut chicken parts and the breasts are ginormous, cut them in half so they’ll cook evenly.
I’ve tried chicken marinated in buttermilk and brined in saltwater and, surprisingly, they taste pretty similar. You can’t go wrong either way but ultimately, I prefer buttermilk. I also like to add some hot sauce (Louisiana or Tabasco). I fried 2 chicken thighs and 2 small breasts and I used 2 cups buttermilk and 1/3 cup hot sauce (use more or less hot sauce depending on your taste). Stir and you’re ready to marinate.
Add your chicken to your buttermilk bowl and turn to coat the chicken well. Cover with plastic wrap and stick in the fridge for at least 8 hours and up to overnight.
After your chicken has marinated, remove it to a wire rack (like what you use for cooling cookies or cakes) sitting nicely over a half sheet pan. Let it set at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour. This will let the excess buttermilk drip off while leaving it well-coated. It will also allow the buttermilk to dry a little which, after it’s coated in flour, will make a nice, crispy crust. Just like with sautéing, meat should come to room temperature before frying.
While your chicken is resting, mix up your flour in a brown paper bag. I never measure but my mixture usually looks something like this:
- 1 cup flour
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp pepper (cayenne or black, depending on the day)
- 1/4 tsp salt
(I hear people suggest using paprika in the breading but I’ve found that it tends to burn when fried in oil for long periods so I skip it. It’s fine for items that don’t take as long to fry.)
Drop your chicken in the bag with the flour, one at a time, seal, and shake. This may seem cliché but it’s done like this for a reason: it really is the best way. (You can toss it in a deep bowl if you don’t have any brown bags lying around.) Remove the chicken and place it back on the rack while you get the oil ready.
I like to use lard (real lard won’t have the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredients lis) when frying chicken. Nothing else will give you quite the same texture. Canola oil is also an acceptable choice. Never use olive oil. Ever. (Why?)
If you’re working with a normal 3-pound chicken, you need about 2 inches of oil in your pan. If you opted for the jumbo versions, you’ll want more like 3-inches of oil. It needs to mostly cover your chicken.
Put your pan over medium-high heat and bring the oil to approximately 340°F (clip a candy thermometer to the side of your pan, you’re gonna need it again). When your oil comes to temperature, gently place 2 pieces of chicken in the pan. You can add more but I cook them in small batches because the addition of the chicken will cause the temperature of the oil to drop. If it drops too much, the chicken will take on oil and you’ll end up with a grease-fest.
Keep an eye on the thermometer to make sure your temperature stays around 340°F; adjust the heat if it goes above. (Once you’re comfortable with frying chicken, you can put a lid on it for more even cooking and to prevent splattering. I find those new to frying chicken prefer to have the thermometer in place so they know they’re not cooking it too high.)
Check your chicken for color after about 4 minutes. Flip to the other side when it’s a nice, golden brown. (Return the lid if you’re using one.) You’ll notice the chicken is now sitting higher out of the oil, that’s because meat tends to plump up in the center when it’s cooked (like burgers on a grill).
Cook an additional 4 minutes after the flip. Probe the chicken with a digital thermometer into the meatiest part: your chicken is ready when it reaches 165°F (see this guide). When it’s done, remove it to a clean wire rack, over a sheet pan to catch drippings.
The result… a perfectly crispy and flavorful piece of fried chicken. My friend Bridgette would say, “that’s one brown plate of food.” But it is a delicious plate of food. Especially with some of those spiced sweet pickles I canned last summer (hanging out in the background). Yum.
As if I hadn’t already met my quota of fried food for the month, next up is deep frying.by