With National Chip Week coming up next week, John Porter examines the best way to fry one of Britain's favourite foods plus how to choose the right oil, and weighs up what to look for in the perfect fryer.
It remains a source of some national disgrace that the French invented the chip. The first mention of pomme frites across the Channel dates back to the late 18th century, more than 50 years before London chef Alexis Soyer included a recipe for "thin cut potatoes cooked in oil" in his 1855 recipe book Shilling Cookery for the People.
However, there's also no doubting that the Brits seized the new culinary experience with enthusiasm, with the first fish and chip shops open by the early 1860s. National Chip Week, taking place this year from 21 to 27 February, is an opportunity to celebrate Britain's ongoing love affair not just with chips, but with deep-fried food in general.
The reason both potatoes and fish fry well is that they have a relatively high moisture content. When immersed in hot oil, the moisture heats up, vaporises, and cooks the food around it.
This is a good indication of which foods will deep-fry best. Beyond white fish, moist seafood such as prawns also fry well, as do fruits such as banana and pineapple, which make great fruit fritters.
Foods which have less moisture, such as red meat or chicken, dry out very quickly when fried. One tried and trusted way to cope with this is to batter food - when it hits hot oil, batter creates a protective layer which not only keeps moisture in but also stops the oil from being absorbed too quickly.
Batter is clearly a topic that chef and fishmonger Mitch Tonks has considered at some length. Owner of the RockFish Grill & Seafood Market in Bristol and both the Seahorse and RockFish Seafood and Chips in Dartmouth, Tonks says: "For our batter we keep it simple - flour, raising agent, salt and water, that's it. We mix it to a single cream consistency, dip the fish in, and fry.
"I know a lot of people use flour and rice cones, but if you mix the batter properly then you don't need it. I'm not a fan of yeast or beer in my batter either, I like the batter to be a thin crisp coating that you can eat comfortably rather than a thick, heavy batter."
Maintaining the right frying temperature is important, says Tonks. "I like to fry at 180°C for battered fish and 165°C for breaded and floured fish." Alastair Horabin, of fish and chip shop chain Seniors, agrees that "the temperature is key - frying at 180°C decreases oil absorption and allows the fish to cook through evenly."
The Horabin family own three Seniors shops, including the Lytham branch which was shortlisted in the 2011 National Fish & Chip Shop Awards. "We source the highest-quality in raw material, and we concentrate on food miles, sustainability and loyalty. We have a light and very thin batter, and we take great pride in serving all fish and chip meals with fresh chips, mushy peas and a wedge of lemon."
One trick sometimes used by Japanese chefs is to make batter with sparkling water, which helps to give the light consistency of tempura batter.
Whatever the approach, the amount of fried food in the national diet is a constant stick for the health lobby to beat caterers with. Neil Roseweir, development chef with equipment supplier Falcon, says: "It's accepted that fried food in excess is not a healthy option. However, a dish such as fish and chips that contains quality ingredients and is fried using quality, clean oil, can, in many instances, be better for you than a so called 'healthier' option such as a jacket potato, laden with butter."
So what do the experts think are the best foods to fry? With increased concerns about stocks of the more popular fish species, Mitch Tonks, owner of the RockFish Grill & Seafood Market in Bristol and both the Seahorse and RockFish Seafood and Chips in Dartmouth, says: "Flatfish such as sole are great, because they cook really quickly and the flesh stays moist and flaky. Gurnard is great, too."
Alastair Horabin, of fish and chip shop chain Seniors, adds: "Things that don't fry well are fish such as mackerel, salmon and squid. Salmon and mackerel all contain too much oil and squid reacts very aggressively to the pan, and pops and spits, causing my fryers to run for cover."
Tonks (pictured left) agrees that "salmon and mackerel are best grilled or roasted. I occasionally shallow-fry them just in flour and a little olive oil but never in batter - it is just too much oil." His advice to overcome the squid problem is to dip it in milk and flour for frying, rather than batter.
Selecting the right coating for the food is important, says Neil Roseweir, development chef with equipment supplier Falcon. The four basic coatings used in frying are batter, flour and water, breadcrumbs for dishes such as scotch eggs, and pastry on foods such as samosas.
"Thick pieces of food should be avoided to ensure even cooking, and you should fry similar food items of uniform size," he adds. "Where a selection of items is to be fried together for service at the same time, item size should be tailored to the consistency of the uncooked item." For example, half a mushroom will fry more quickly than a similar sized slice of pepper, which is denser.
Some things just won't work in a deep-fryer. Horabin recalls an occasion when "someone asked me for a battered cheese pie? Why? I turned the request down so they had a jumbo sausage instead."
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT OIL
While traditionalists insist that only beef dripping will do for frying chips, for health reasons most operators now use a vegetable oil to fry. Mitch Tonks says: "I like to fry in solid palm oil, although in our small restaurant fryer at the Seahorse we use vegetable oil."
Phil Cumming, UK sales and marketing director of frozen chip supplier Lamb Weston, says: "When deciding on the oil, remember that frozen fries will absorb oil during frying. This means that the type of oil used will affect the taste of the product. Dry oil will affect product taste, colour, appearance and quality of your fries, so you need to ensure that when the oil is hot, you can see the bottom of the fryer clearly.
"The number of times that you need to change your oil depends on how often you use the fryer, and the type of products you are cooking in it."
Modern fryers with built-in filtration help to extend the life of cooking oil. Preparation methods also make a difference. Paul Hickman, development chef with equipment supplier Lincat, says: "Many chefs are now choosing to steam their chips prior to frying. This allows the chips to be fried just once, in hotter oil. This reduces the quantity of oil which is absorbed by the potato and therefore produces a healthier, less fatty chip."
Fryer oil should be topped up daily to replace that lost during frying and completely changed as soon as the colour or smell indicates it is past its best. "I couldn't stand the thought of cooking in dirty oil, it really is the key," sums up Tonks.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN THE PERFECT FRYER
Gas or electric?
The energy used to heat up electric fryers costs more than for gas ones, but they are efficient once they reach temperature. They can also be re-sited quickly and easily. Modern gas fryers have efficiency ratings of between 45% and 55%, or up to 75% for those incorporating infrared heaters.
How many fryers?
If trade varies from day to day, consider buying several smaller units rather than one large one as it may save on running costs. For example, using three small-size fryers on a Saturday night and only one on a Monday, rather than one large capacity fryer all week long.
The biggest single factor that can help extend the life of the oil is use of a filter system. Filter systems are designed to remove the contaminants that cause undesirable flavour transfer and oil breakdown. Some manufacturers offer convenient integral filtration systems, built into the fryer. On the other hand, a separate filter system can be used with all your fryers.
For operators with limited space or who are frying less than 30kg per hour of chips, a counter top fryer is a good option. Power inputs for these models are about 13kW to 21kW (45,000 to 72,000 BTU/hr) for gas models, or 5kW to 22kW per hour for electric models. The oil capacities range from 6.8kg to 13.6kg, and production is typically 10kg to 35kg of chips per hour.
Larger operations should consider full-size floor models or batteries of fryers. Power inputs for floor models range from 24kW to 60kW (80,000 to 200,000 BTU/hr). With an oil capacity of 6kg to 95kg, full-size fryers can turn out 28kg to 136kg of chips per hour.
Source: CESA (Catering Equipment Suppliers Association)
EQUIPMENT CHEF'S CHOICE
At Aston Villa FC's Villa Park stadium, executive chef Peter Reed oversees a catering operation which includes the Holte Suite, a purpose-built venue which offers match-day facilities for season ticket holders as well as hosting events.
"Popular match-day meals are roasts, pies and curries, and it's chips with everything," says Reed.
Two FRIMA VarioCooking Centers were installed at Villa Park by Bournville Catering Equipment in 2010. Using the greater throughput offered by the VarioCooking Center over a standard deep-fat fryer, the Holte Suite has seen the number of portions of chips served on a typical match day increase from about 1,500 to 2,300 portions.
The first Wagamama's opened in London in 1992, and there are now 65 of the pan-Asian inspired noodle restaurants and a central kitchen in the UK, with a further 30 outlets around the world. Kitchen equipment has to withstand a 14-hour service, and a quarter of the Wagamama's menu is reliant on frying, including the signature Chicken Katsu Curry, which sells more than 32,000 portions a week.
Working with specialist equipment distributor CRIS, Wagamama group executive chef Steve Mangleshot has installed Frymaster fryers from Manitowoc as part of an upgrade across a third of the outlets.
"We put a number of brands through their paces by trialing them in live kitchens and in the end the benefits of the open tank of the Frymaster became very clear. Not only is it far easier to clean, without tubes getting in the way, it also has a much greater efficiency, which has to be an important consideration when the product is in constant use."
The Five Bells pub at Colne Engaine, Essex, offers a take-away fish & chip menu on Thursday and Friday evenings. Co-owner and chef Darran Lingley says: "There was demand for take-away food from the local villages, and it's also a way for people to try our food."
With up to 70 take-away meals and up to 100 covers served in the pub on a busy night, the fryers need to be robust. The Five Bells has just upgraded to higher volume Valentine fryers, with cool zones which allow debris such as stray batter to be filtered out, as well as quicker re-heat times. "Demand for take-aways isn't constant, so it's important that the fryer is ready to cook quickly when we get an order," says Lingley.
THE FRYER THAT LASTED A QUARTER OF A CENTURY
Last October, Rod Needham took over "Spud's Plaice", a chip shop in Anglesey, and set abut updating the ageing equipment in place.
But it wasn't until he called the fryer manufacturer that he realised quite how ageing his equipment was.
Lincat's service department informed him that his LDF25 (pictured right) had last been manufactured in 1985, making it at least 25 years old.
"It was great to hear that one of our fryers was still going strong after so many years", explains Lincat marketing director Nick McDonald. "We decided immediately that we'd like it for our show room, and offered to replace it with a new DF66 [pictured below left].
The last mention of this model was in our November 1985 price list and was priced at £201. That works out at around £8 per year depreciation which must be good value in anybody's eyes. I wonder how many servings of chips it has delivered over that time?"
Needham says he had no idea the fryer was so old. He adds: "It's amazing that it had lasted such a long time in a busy chip shop.
"We use the new DF66 at busy times during the weekend for things like sausages and scampi, to free up our frying range. It also looks good, which is important since we use it front of house."
Falcon 01786 455200
FRIMA 020 8996 5102
Frymaster/Manitowoc 01753 485900
Lamb Weston 0800 963962
Lincat 01522 875500
Valentine 0118 957 1344