Because the best things in life are fried.
My first introduction to tempura was shrimp tempura. It’s simple, but I am sure other people share my sentiments. The thin, airy batter that coated the shrimp formed a light, crispy fried shell that was unlike other fried foods I’d ever had. Little did I know that this magical batter is used far beyond shrimp to fry just about anything.
Tempura is the Japanese method for deep frying foods, typically vegetables and seafood, in a chilled batter. The key to perfectly fried, crunchy tempura resides in your batter formula and oil temperature. Once you master this simple technique for frying, you can get creative and venture into tempura frying ice cream, fruits, and even pickles.
What to Tempura
When attempting to tempura batter and fry various ingredients at home for the first time, stick to the basics and gradually experiment with other ingredients after a few tries. It’s good to start with a few vegetables such as broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, carrots, asparagus, onions, zucchini, green beans, and a firm avocado. To prepare the vegetables, cut them into medium bite-sized portions. You want to be able to eat them easily within a couple bites. When you cut them, also be sure to have paper towels nearby to remove any excess water. We already know that oil and water do not mix; plus, the food needs to be dry to ensure that the batter will adhere and not slip off during the frying process. When the ingredients that you intend to tempura are prepped, you can move on to preparing the batter.
At the most basic, tempura batter is essentially a combination of flour (rice flour, cake flour, or all-purpose flour) and iced water. Different recipes may incorporate spices, baking soda, baking powder, cornstarch, eggs, seltzer water, or soda water. Instead of using still water, the use of a bubbly liquid keeps the batter light and airy. In addition to thoroughly drying your food prior to dipping, ensuring that the fizzy water is very cold is imperative to the batter adhering to the food.
Another pro-tip is to avoid over-mixing the batter; an overmixed batter draws out the gluten from the flour… and we don’t want that. A more glutenous batter has a pasty, dense consistency and absorbs more oil during the frying process, yielding a heavy, undesirable finished product. Point being, don’t go trying to mix all of the lumps out of your batter. A surprising ingredient that can help halt the gluten formation is good ol’ vodka. This is why you’ll sometimes come across tempura recipes containing vodka; given its alcohol content and neutral flavor, it’s the perfect booze for the job.
Per the recommendation of Food and Wine executive editor, Mary-Frances Heck, I stuck with the basics in developing an easy-to-follow tempura formula. The batter is thin and lightly clings to the food, creating an airy, crispy coat that allows you to identify the ingredients within the golden casing when fried.
Perfect Tempura Batter
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- ½ cup cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ cups chilled club soda
In a medium bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, cornstarch, and salt. Gently stir in club soda. Do not over-mix; remaining lumps are okay.
As you prepare your ingredients and the batter for frying, heat a large heavy-bottomed pot, such as a Dutch oven to temperatures between 375-400F°. Since you are essentially flash frying, the oil should be hot enough to begin frying the battered food items immediately upon contact. The use of a thermometer will help you accurately gauge the temperature of the oil and maintain the right temperature.
You’ll want to use a neutral oil with a high smoke point so that it can withstand frying temperatures without burning. Canola and peanut oils are both great choices. Work in batches by dipping a few pieces of whatever you’re frying into the batter, allowing the excess to drip off, and carefully add to oil. The frying times will vary by ingredient, but overall, this will be a fairly quick fry. It will take, on average, about 2 to 3 minutes in the hot oil. Use tongs, a slotted spoon, or a mesh spider to retrieve your tempura and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet lined with paper towels.
After the first batch, check your oil temperature to make sure it is hot enough before adding additional batches. You may need to allow it to heat up again before proceeding with the remaining ingredients. Once all is fried with a faint touch of golden color, enjoy your tempura immediately.