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Feb 17, 2010 08:46 AM

Frying: checking oil temp w/o a thermometer

I've heard of putting a cube of bread into the oil, and sticking in the end of a wooden spoon or wooden chopstick (bubbles will surround it if the oil is hot enough). Today on PBS' Gourmet's Adventures with Ruth the cook floated a wooden match in the oil. When it ignites, the oil is hot enough for deep-frying. (She used tongs to pluck it out of the pan.) That was dramatic, to say the least! Has anyone got other non-thermometer tricks to recommend? (I do have a thermometer, but where's the fun in that?)

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  1. Not to sound like a downer, but how does one check the temperature once food is added to the fry oil? If you don't have an accurate reading, how do you know how much to rebound the oil? That's probably a more important question. Otherwise you'll be left with overly greasy food.

    6 Replies
    1. re: taiwanesesmalleats

      Rhetorical reply: How did people cook when all they had was a wood fire or cast iron stove with no settings or dials, much less a thermometer?

      1. re: greygarious

        Are you really going to compare the cooking methods of a few hundred years ago to today and the foods that can presently be produced? Also in the past, deep fat frying was a rarer because of the high cost of using that much fat.

        1. re: taiwanesesmalleats

          Cast iron stoves were common well into the 20th century and are still used. And what about woks and similar pans in bare-bones Asian kitchens today? Pakoras? According to Wikipedia, tempura was brought from Portugal to Japan in the 16th century.

          1. re: greygarious

            I wasn't saying that things like cast iron stoves weren't used. What I am saying is that while those stoves could make say cornbread or cakes, they didn't have the ability to such precisely control temperature in a way that can produce the range of textures and tastes that's possible today.

            I'm not saying deep fried foods didn't exist. I'm saying they weren't as available as they are today. Even my dad, who's only in his 50s, once remarked that when my grandparents were able to serve fried foods for Chinese New Year, it was a huge deal. They didn't worry about how much oil was absorbed by the food or even if the outside was a little burnt. The fact that they had it was crazy enough.

            Just as a side note, the Fahrenheit scale was invented during the mid 16th century.

            1. re: taiwanesesmalleats

              Not to speak for grey, but I think grey's point was that even before the invention of the thermometer people were frying food. Not that frying food was easier back then, just that it was done.

              Which leads to grey's rhetorical question ... How did people cook when all they had was a wood fire or cast iron stove with no settings or dials, much less a thermometer?

              1. re: ipsedixit

                I wasn't trying to say you can't fry without a thermometer. I was merely saying if given the opportunity, why not use one? It's better control. Just my $0.02.

    2. I usually use the end of a wooden spoon or a stem of fresh herbs. When the oil is hot enough, the leaves will crackle when touching the surface of the oil even for a brief moment.

      1. Stale corn tortillas often lurk in some corner of my kitchen as I debate whether their future lies in my stomach or the composter. If the edge of one sizzles happily but not fiercely, the oil is good to go.

        1 Reply
        1. I've taken to using a tip I learned from Cooks Illustrated: a single popcorn kernel in the oil will pop at around 350 degrees.

          1. Has anyone got other non-thermometer tricks to recommend??

            I've used what I will call the "pinch" method...I saw my grandmother, mother and family cook use it many times...While waiting for the oil to get hot to fry chicken, and having floured some of the chicken, they would reach into the bowl of flour and get a pinch (of flour)....maybe some that was kinda damp from flouring the chicken, and toss it into the oil....Obviously the reaction would tell those very accomplished cooks if the oil was ready or not....Another was too simply pick up a piece of chicken, fish, potato, etc and stick just the tip of it in the oil...from the sizzle and again through years of experience... they knew if the oil was right for frying...or too cold..or too hot. ~~ I've also seen (and used) the match trick you describe...mostly by the men folk on the farm when frying large quantities of fish in big wash pots...Then there's the bread trick...where a small piece of bread is placed in the oil...depending on how fast the bread browned was a indicator of how hot the oil was..

            How did people cook when all they had was a wood fire or cast iron stove with no settings or dials, much less a thermometer?

            Instead of pushing buttons, they pushed pots...As any accomplished BBQ pit master knows the nuances, of hot spots, warm spots etc in their "appliance" the cooks who cooked on wood stoves knew their appliance, their fire, and how to control it. For instance they knew that the "eyes' on the back of the stove nearest the chimney was the blazing hot spot for "stir frying" and rapid boils...another hot spot for frying, a moderate zone for sauteing, and an area of slow steady heat for braising... Pots could be moved from one kind of heat to cooking often demands...They also used trivets, even bricks to elevate their pots/skillets above the wood cook top to control cooking rates...In a lot of ways they were far more accomplished cooks than those of us (sissies) who can't walk into our kitchens without our Thermapens, Kitchen Timers, and a big clock on the wall.....

            Have Fun & Enjoy!!!.