The art and very tasty history of one of our favorite Southern types of cooking: deep fat frying
People are moving toward Mediterranean, vegan or even raw-food diets. Yet we Southerners keep eating breaded, fried everything. Maybe it’s not so much that we’re married to fried foods any more. Maybe our love has evolved into a series of illicit, but delicious, affairs.
Researching this story, I first planned to reach out to my Southern family members whose fried dishes I enjoy so much. The fried okra crusted with cornmeal. The crispy chicken…mmm…I tried to think of a family member who deep fried anything anymore. Then it hit me: no one does.
My grandmothers and great-aunts are long gone and it seems so is the time honored tradition of frying anything and everything up to crispy perfection.
I called my mother to see if she remembered how to make my granny’s catfish or okra.
“Can I come over and cook with you? We’ll have a feast.”
“Sure, if you like, darling. But you’ll have to eat all that stuff. Your father and I don’t eat fried food anymore.”
Who me? You want me to chow through a plateful of catfish while two old folks nibble baked tilapia? Ouch.
I tried friends and colleagues. They were all packing for DragonCon or never use their kitchens or prefer to go out for sushi. That got me thinking... have we Chattanoogans stopped frying things? It just can’t be.
A Tennessee town does not simply stop frying things, so I decided to reach out Mary Haymaker, a writer and photographer for popular food blog Chattavore.com.
Lost Art? Not!
“I don’t think [frying food] is dying, but…it’s a long and messy process and these days we just don’t have time for all that breading and frying on a daily basis,” Mary says. “For me, it’s also about not wanting to use all that oil, then figuring what to do with it after!”
A teacher who’s been a food expert for years, Mary moved from an obsession with Food Network to “learning how to cook—like, really cook, from scratch.”
Cooking became her hobby, and when she mixed cooking and blogging, she found her “sweet spot” with her recipe blog.
Chattavore.com contains recipes and restaurant reviews, all beautifully photographed. Mary narrates everything in a clear, detailed manner, making it easy to create her recipes. She describes her thought processes, triumphs and mishaps, too, in a tone that moves lightly from aphoristic to confessional—Erma Bombeck for Millennials.
“I think that people are trying to eat in a more healthful way, too, so fried food doesn’t fit very neatly into that lifestyle.”
How Healthy Is That Fritter?
Lately, experts have told us to replace low-fat with low-carb…so that that mean cornmeal-battered, skillet-fried okra is safe?
It depends on how you fry it and how often you eat it. Eating fried food is strongly linked to high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and Type 2 diabetes, according to plenty of longitudinal studies with large sample sizes. But why? Is it the number of calories? The content of the crispy casing?
One group of researchers identified the “Spanish effect,” noting that people in Spain eating a similar quantity of deep-fried foods to Americans don’t have the same amount of heart disease.
The differences? The Spanish people were eating home-fried food, cooked at lower temperatures in olive or sunflower oil. The U.S. folks were eating restaurant-fried food, cooked at high temperatures in unhealthy oils, typically those that are solid at room temperature. And the oils were being reused (think fast food here).
There’s a lot of chemistry going on, but the gist is…the hotter the oil has to be for cooking, the more likely it will start to degrade, especially over long cooking times or repeated uses. Healthy polyunsaturated fats break down, while oxidation and hydrogenation speed up.
For your kitchen that means: don’t start with a scoop of hard shortening. Try sunflower oil instead. Cook at lower temperatures (I know: ehhh?) use fresh oil, and enjoy your fried treats only on occasion.
Out on the town, it’s a different matter. Fried is becoming fashionable. At 1885 Grill, you can get a small, artistically arranged stack of tangy fried green tomatoes with a side of luscious pimento cheese dip. Fried okra…wait for it…comes with a grilled pita. Delicious, but a bit precious?
“Interestingly, I think that in pop culture, Southern fried foods have become truly iconic over the last few years,” Mary says. “You can walk into just about any trendy restaurant and find fried green tomatoes or buttermilk fried chicken on the menu. We don’t eat as much of these foods, but they aren’t going anywhere!”
What’s good? My favorite is Herman’s on Brainerd Road; I am still lamenting their departure from Eastgate. Their fried okra is exactly like my granny’s from Mississippi.
There’s also an anonymous food truck that frequents the Brainerd Road/Germantown intersection area and serves up magnificent fried fish sandwiches topped with cole slaw. Any time you see a truck with someone frying fish in a big cauldron nearby, it’s probably a good idea to stop and get some.
1885 Grill, Lamar’s, and Ooltewah’s Countryside Cafe get callouts from Mary.
“[Countryside] is like what you’d have for Sunday dinner after church at your grandmother’s house,” she says.
And if you’re looking for fried pies, nothing beats the fried fruit pies at Big Biscuit Barn in Rossville. The peach pie is like hand-held heaven.
How hard is it to recreate home-fried Southern cooking? For me, the most difficult part is striking a balance—respecting whatever you’ve got inside the breading, while still making the finished product crunchy and excellent. It’s no good having a golden-brown crust if the squash inside has turned to mush.
Mary has some secrets for keeping breading crispy while cooking interiors, whether they be meats, veggies or fruits, to perfection.
“For tender foods such as vegetables, the trick is the make sure the oil is plenty hot,” she says. “It will zap the crust and get it nice and crispy without overcooking the vegetables. The same goes for fish.
“For chicken, though, you have to make sure you get the center cooked through without burning the crust, which can definitely be tricky. I fry chicken at a lower temperature so the crust and interior will cook at the same rate.
“I use a probe thermometer to check the temperature of the meat and remove the pieces to a 200-degree oven as they are done (165 degrees) to keep them warm.”
Oil selection is important, too. Mary favors peanut or canola oil; however, she notes, she doesn’t deep-fry her breaded goodies as often as she oven-fries them.
“I will bread the food in panko crumbs, cracker crumbs or even potato chips, spray it with olive oil spray [using a] Misto, and bake it in a super-hot (450 degrees) oven on a preheated pan. This is how I make fries—except I don’t bread them—and onion rings.
“I love to cook chicken, pork chops and squash this way, too.”
How Mary Makes Fried Peach Pies
What should Pulse readers fry next (or first)? Mary suggests peach pies or fried pickles “I am completely obsessed with fried pickles,” she says.
Just today, though, a colleague went to Big Biscuit Barn before work and only brought back one peach-filled fried pie, so I think that’s where I’ll start.
Here’s Mary’s recipe:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- ¾ cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into chunks
- 4-6 Tbsp. ice water
- 1 tsp. white vinegar
- 1 large egg, beaten
- ½ recipe of pie dough (freeze and save the rest, or double the filling and make lots of pies)
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 3 large peaches, pitted and sliced
- 2 Tbsp. brown sugar
- ¾ cup canola or vegetable oil
Make the dough: Stir together flour and salt in medium blow. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. In small bowl, whisk together 4 Tbsp. ice water, vinegar and egg. Add to flour mixture and stir until a ball forms, adding remaining ice water as needed. Turn onto a piece of plastic wrap and press into a disk. Refrigerate one hour.
Make the filling: Melt butter over medium heat. Add peaches and brown sugar. Cook, stirring frequently, until juices are syrupy. Pour into bowl and cool to room temperature.
Assemble: Use half the dough mix; freeze the rest for later. Allow to stand until room temperature. Roll onto floured surface to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into 5-inch rounds, using a bowl as a guide. Fill each round with a heaping tablespoon of peach filling. Fold edges and crimp closed with fork. Place on baking sheet in refrigerator.
Fry: Pour oil into 10-inch skillet. Heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add half the pies at a time and fry until golden. Flip and fry other side until golden. Remove and drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
Mary’s pies are excellent—the filling is succulent, the interior of the pie crust is pillowy, and the exterior is crunchy and brown. It took me about an hour to make (I used all the dough, and repeated the filling recipe using apples).
I really should have a skillet devoted to frying; the only thing I do with mine is sauté vegetables to go on ramen noodles. Result: my pie crust tastes faintly like soy sauce.
If you have a little leftover filling, warm it up and put it on butter pecan ice cream.
Mary’s blog features a raspberry dipping sauce, too. Try it yourself at: chattavore.com/peach-fried-pies-raspberry-sauce.
If you’re moved to try her fried pickles instead, visit: chattavore.com/southern-fried-pickles.
There’s even a lime dressing to dip them in. They’re sassy!
And if you still have a parent, grandparent, great aunt or great uncle who makes fried Southern anything—run, don’t walk, to their house and get them to show you how it’s done.