I always look upon a frying-pan as the pet utensil of an incompetent cook. Those who scramble through the preparation of food instead of cooking it intelligently generally rely upon a frying-pan to save them from the difficulties into which their want of punctuality and forethought lead them. The result is that food from their hands is usually presented either burnt, greasy, or hard, very often all three, and it is nearly always indigestible.
There is no method of cookery that is so popular amongst a certain class of cooks as what they call frying, and there is no process that is so little understood by them as real frying. I am going to try to explain very clearly what true frying really is, and the difference between it and half frying.
You will remember that when we were talking about boiling I said that if meat were plunged into boiling water and boiled for about five minutes the albumen would coagulate on the surface, and make a sort of case that would keep in the goodness of the meat.
Now, frying is boiling in fat, and the cause of the difference between boiling in water and boiling in fat is that fat can be made so very much hotter than water that the work can be done much more quickly, while at the same time a peculiar brown appearance and tasty flavour is given to the article fried. If we had a thermometer we should find that when water is boiling it reaches 212 degrees. WE might make a fire large enough to roast an ox, but we should never get water hotter than that. Fat, however, can be made more than twice as hot as water, and therefore it conveys heat much more quickly. We have, I dare say, all felt what it is to be scalded with boiling water and that is bad enough; but the pain is trifling compared to that which we suffer when we are burned with boiling fat. And that is because hot fat is so very, very hot.
If we were going to boil anything in water we should never think of pouring a little drop of water into the bottom of a pan and laying the meat upon it, then leaving it till it was sufficiently cooked. In the same way, when we are going to fry anything, we should not be content to put a little fat in a frying-pan and cook the meat in this. And yet how many people there are who think a spoonful or two of fat is quite sufficient for frying! They would be quite horrified if we said that we must cover the article to be fried with fat before we could fry it perfectly. "Where are we to get such a quantity of fat from?" I can imagine them saying. "It would take a couple of pounds or more of fat to fry in that way. How extravagant to use a couple of pounds of fat to fry one dish!" Ah! I don't feel that the charges of extravagance can be fairly laid against me. Where, I would ask, is all the fat that these friends of ours have used for frying during the last three or four weeks? Is it not true that most of it was burnt away, and that the remainder was thrown out as soon as it was done with? If it could be collected and brought here there would be quite enough for our purpose.
The fact is, it is not wasteful to use a quantity of fat at a time. Fat lasts heated in quantities, and if properly treated can be used again and again; indeed, I do not hesitate to say that with care it could be used thirty or forty times over.
Before we can fry perfectly, however, there are one or two more points to be considered besides the quantity of the fat. One of these is its temperature. Fat used in frying should be hot, so hot that it is still. This sounds strange, I dare say, but it is quite true. If we put a saucepan half-filled with water on the fire it would at first be still, and as it became hot it would move about, and when it reached the boiling point it would bubble away in the most lively manner. Fat, on the contrary, would very quickly begin bubbling; then, as it grew hot, it would, if properly clarified, become quite still, and a light blue vapour would be seen rising from it This stillness and the appearance of the vapour is the sign that it is at the proper heat for frying. It would not do to wait until the vapour became smoke, however, for that would mean that the fat was beginning to burn.
If we had a proper thermometer we might know that fat was hot enough for ordinary frying purposes when 350 degrees of heat were registered. For whitebait it would need to be higher than this, and should reach 400 degrees.
There are ways by which we can test the heat of fat without the thermometer, and, apart from the stillness of the fat, one is to throw in a little piece of the crumb of bread into the fat, and if it at once becomes a golden colour the fat is hot and ready for whatever is to be fried. Another way is to let one single drop of cold water fall into the fat, and if this produces a loud hissing noise, the fat is hot enough for the purpose required.
Another point that must be looked after, if we would fry successfully, is that the article to be cooked should be dry. Unless it is, it will not brown properly. It is a good plan, in order to dry fish perfectly, to let it lie folded in a cloth for two or three hours before attempting to fry it, and it is very usually floured also to secure the same end. Of course the flour should be shaken off before the fish is put into the fat, especially if the fish is to be egged and breaded. Fish is, however, very good dipped in flour alone before being fried, thus saving the egg and bread crumbs.
It is evident that if we are to take as much fat for frying as I have said we ought to do we should never get on if we used only the flat shallow pan so common in English kitchens, and know as a frying-pan. Nor is it desirable that we should do so. In the kitchens of rich people there is found what is called a frying-kettle, or deep pan, for frying, which is provided with a wire lining, with a handle at each end. The cook lets her fat boil, puts whatever is to be fried on the wire, then plunges it into the hot fat, and when it has been in long enough, lifts the wire lining by the handle, and, of course, the fish or whatever is being fried is taken up with it, and the fat drains away as it rises. All that is then necessary is to place the fried article on kitchen paper for a minute or two, to take the grease from the surface, and they are ready to serve. I said, take the grease from the surface only, for if the fat is hot, and the fish has been plunged into it as I have described, there will be no fear that it will be greasy inside. The hot fat will have hardened the outside so securely, that not only will the goodness have been kept inside the case, but the grease will have been kept outside it.
It is not every one, however, who possesses one of these convenient frying-kettles; and when we have not got a thing we must do as well as we can without it. It is always bad workmen who quarrel with their tools. Fortunately for small articles, an ordinary iron saucepan will supply all we want, if only it is perfectly clean. If there is anything sticking to the bottom, we must expect that it will burn and spoil our fat. If we can manage to procure a little wire frying-basket upon which our materials can be placed before they are plunged into the fat, we shall be as well off as the fortunate possessor of the finest frying-kettle in the world. A basket of this kind can be bought for about half-a-crown, or people with clever fingers can twist one together with two or three pennyworth of wire. If the basket is not to be had, we can take whatever is fried out with a skimmer, and for a great many things that will answer quite as well. If the article to be fried is large, such as a sole, for instance, we shall, if we have no frying-kettle, be obliged to use the frying pan, only we ought to have in it enough fat to cover the fish. Fortunately though soles are broad, they are thin, so that this can be done without much difficulty. Very thick soles are seldom fried, the flesh being usually lifted from the bone, and cooked in fillets or small slices.
And now I must say one word about the fat that is used for frying. Lard is commonly taken for this purpose, and, unfortunately, nothing worse could be chosen, because lard always makes food look greasy; besides which it often has a peculiar taste. Oil is very good, but it is expensive, and it is rather difficult to manage, because it quickly boils over. Butter is also expensive, and it needs to be very gently heated. The very best fat that can be selected is what is called kitchen fat, that is, the skimmings of saucepans and the dripping from joints that in nine English kitchens out of every ten is put on one side by the cook and sold as her perquisite for about fourpence a pound. When the good fat is well out of the way, inferior fat, that is lard, is bought at 8d or 9d per pound to take its place.
It is quite a puzzle to me to make out how this most absurd custom arose, and a still greater one that it can be kept up. It is a comfort to think that when ladies get to understand cookery, it will soon be put a stop to. I have nothing to say against servants being well paid; if they do their work well, by all means let them have good wages; but why we should allow them to increase their wages by selling our excellent kitchen fat at less than half its value and then expect us to spend double the money in buying fat that is not nearly so good, is beyond my comprehension. I can only imagine that the practice was begun by some one who was ignorant, and kept up by someone who was dishonest. For fear of accidents we should let the boiling fat cool a minute or less in the basin before mixing the cold water with it, and we should add the cold water gradually.
But if, notwithstanding all our care, we are still short of the requisite quantity of fat, what are we to do? Make it up with lard? By no means. Rather gather together every piece of fat meat upon which you can lay your hands, cut it into small pieces, put these in a saucepan, and place this on a clear fire. Leave the lid off the pan, and boil the fat gently, stirring it every now and then to keep it from burning to the bottom of the pan. Afterwards we must pour the contents of the saucepan through a strainer into a basin, and then our fat is ready again for use.
If the pieces of fat taken from joints still do not afford as much dripping as we need, the best thing we can do is to buy what is called by the butchers ox flare, cut into pieces, and render it down in the same way. This flare can be had for about 6d per pound; it is much better than suet or hard fat because it produces a softer kind of dripping. A better fat still is the "twist" from the top side of the round of beef, but this can very seldom be obtained, as it is sold with the meat.
Fat does not need to be clarified each time it is used for frying. It requires only to be strained through a metal strainer to free it from any little pieces of meat or fish that are in it. Care should be taken, however, to remove it from the fire as soon as it is done with, to prevent its becoming discoloured, and also to let it cool a little before pouring it through the strainer, as otherwise it may melt the metal. The impurities will always settle at the bottom of the fat after melting, and they can be easily removed.
Fat that has been once used for fish is likely to have a fishy taste, therefore it should be kept exclusively for that purpose.
Now, perhaps you will feel inclined to say, Is there nothing we can fry without a large quantity of fat? Certainly there is. We fry pancakes and omelettes and slices of bacon with a small quantity of fat. Mutton chops and beefsteaks are often fried in the same way. Strictly speaking, however, this is not to fry them, but to sauté them. Chops and steaks, however should not be cooked in a frying-pan at all. They are sure to be greasy when thus prepared, and are much better broiled over a clear fire. And of broiling I will speak at our next lesson.