Don’t Fear the Deep Fryer

Ever since I started farming out recipes to my small army of cookbook testers (have you pre-ordered it yet?), one question-slash-complaint has popped up without fail for each new batch. “Oh, you have to deep fry that recipe? I don’t have a deep fryer!”

Well, guess what. Working with boiling oil isn’t the medieval torture so many home cooks consider it to be. Like rolling out pie dough and shucking oysters, it’s a technique that becomes less nerve-wracking with practice and the right equipment.

homemade tater tots
I’m not going to lie: I love my electric deep fryer, which comes equipped with a digital temperature panel, a fry basket for easy dunking and removal, and automatic oil filtration and storage. It takes care of the most important elements of frying in one fell swoop, and to me, that’s well worth the price. But you absolutely don’t need an electric fryer to successfully crisp up a soft shell crab, serve homemade tater tots, or flash-fry quick batch of potato chips. A stovetop rig is perfectly fine as long as you have these three essential tools:

  • a deep, heavy bottomed pot
    Le Creuset or other enameled cast iron Dutch ovens are ideal for the task, since they both distribute and retain heat evenly. Stainless steel stockpots and Dutch ovens are your second best bet, though long-term deep frying will leave a ring of fried oil buildup around your steel pans that I’ve found more difficult to remove than on enameled cast iron. (May I recommend some Bar Keepers Friend?) Whatever you choose, please make sure the pot you choose has high sides and a sturdy bottom.
  • an oil/candy thermometer
    Unlike a regular meat thermometer, an oil/candy thermometer is designed to register higher temperatures and to stay immersed in the high-temperature liquids it’s monitoring for long periods of time. Like a deep fryer, it’s a one-time investment, but on a much more affordable scale. And there’s really no substitute for the safety and monitoring features an oil/candy thermometer provides. It takes so much of the guesswork out of frying or working with hot sugar and pays for itself in peace of mind.
  • a metal “spider” or flat mesh strainer
    The simplest of the three essentials, either of these tools will simultaneously scoop up your fried goodies and drain excess oil back into the pot. Metal tongs work in a pinch, too (get it?), but spiders and strainers are wide enough to grab more than one piece of food at a time. And when you’re doing multiple batches of fried food, you want to get to the eating part as quickly as you can!

Once you have your equipment on hand, you need the software—that is, you need the oil. I recommend organic vegetable or canola oil for everyday frying. Both of these oils have a high smoke point—that is, they won’t start to smoke and burn before they hit almost 450˚—and a neutral flavor that won’t interfere with the taste of your snacks. I love peanut oil too, but it has a distinctive taste that can work against certain fried foods.

For stovetop frying, be sure not to overfill your pot. Once the food hits the hot oil, it’ll boil and bubble and you’ll be in a lot of trouble if it starts pouring over the edges of the pot like a volcano. (Which, I should disclose, did happen to me once. I killed my Fry Daddy with the one-two punch of too much oil and too much wet food going into the small basket at once. All was well, but trust me when I say I speak from experience in these matters.)

duckfat fries
In all my deep frying recipes, I specify oil to a depth of at least 2 inches, since that’s generally deep enough to completely submerge the food as well as shallow enough to prevent boilover. My general rule of thumb is to use 1 quart of oil (that’s 32 fluid oz.) for every 3 quarts of volume in my stockpot, and to make sure that the oil doesn’t come more than halfway up the pot’s sides.

If you’re stovetop frying, clip your oil/candy thermometer to the side of the pot and make sure its tip is submerged deep enough to clear the “dimple” above the tip of the thermometer but not so deep that it touches the bottom of the pot. Bring the oil up to heat: depending on the size, shape, and heat retention of your pot, this can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as 45 minutes.

Why bother monitoring the temperature of the oil, by the way? When oil is maintained at the right temperature, it keeps whatever you’re frying from taking on too much grease. The food will stay moist inside and crispy on the outside, and the oil won’t be wasted, instead staying in the pot for the next go-round.

Whether your oil is heating in an electric fryer or on a stove burner, set up a draining station next to the frying station. I take a cue from the inimitable Alton Brown and line a baking sheet with paper towels, then cover that with a wire cooling rack flipped upside-down to put the metal in direct contact with the paper towels. This helps wick away additional oil to keep fried foods crisp instead of soggy from hanging out in oil puddles.

deep fry draining rack
Once your frying adventures are over for the day, don’t ditch it! If filtered and stored properly, you can re-use that oil for your next crispy expedition. First, let the oil cool to room temperature in the vessel you used for deep frying. Don’t try to decant it into anything just yet, simply move the pot off the hot burner and leave it uncovered until it cools.

Place a funnel in the mouth of a clean, sealable container (the plastic jug your oil came in is absolutely perfect, if it’s empty—if not, a Mason jar, wine bottle, or seltzer bottle works equally well. Just make sure the container is large enough to hold all your oil.) Place a fine mesh strainer or paper towel inside the mouth of the funnel to catch any errant fried bits, since they’ll make the oil go rancid more quickly.

With a friend’s help, if necessary, pour the oil through the funnel into the container. Seal and reuse, filtering each time, until you notice the oil darkening significantly. You can usually get about eight to ten uses out of your oil before it’s kaput, but remember that frying items with a distinct smell, like seafood or salami, will flavor your oil from there on out.

When the oil’s no longer usable, recycle it instead of pouring it down the drain—cooking oil clogs pipes and sewers. Check Earth 911 for local oil recycling facilities or talk with your neighborhood restaurant about adding your oil to their recycling pickup.

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  1. says

    I remember being terrified the first time I fried something, taking great care to prevent what I thought was inevitable maiming from the hot oil. My job helped me get over that, and I often find myself deftly handling large fry baskets, to the amusement of many chefs and the kitchen staff. I sell the oil and lots of stuff that goes in it, so I am no stranger to a large commercial fryer.

    Having one at home, however, is not an option for me as I would use it. I would probably use it every day. And that’s just a path I don’t want to go down.

  2. says

    Those curly fries are adorable! I have an electric fryer but hardly use it. I think I need to bust it out again soon. :-)

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Aimee, whenever your kids are older and in the sullen teen phase, I will remind them at every turn that you are ALWAYS a cool mom!

  3. says

    Ok, two questions – What’s the best way to keep oil at the proper temp when you’re frying on the stovetop? Mine always swings from way too hot to way too cool. And, I often slide things into the fryer just to have the lovely coating float away. What causes this, and how can I prevent it?

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Two answers! It’s not as easy to keep the oil at a stable temperature on the stove as it is with an electric deep fryer that monitors the temperature internally (think of an air conditioning unit constantly turning itself on and off to keep your house at a steady 78˚). You need to do that by turning the burner flame up and down yourself, and remember that cast iron holds on to heat for a long time, so it takes a while to make big temperature changes. I heat my oil up slowly, give it an extra boost of heat when I drop the food in, because that brings the temperature down significantly, and then turn the temperature back down again once the food is in, checking all the while with a clip-on oil thermometer.

      As for your coating issue, are you doing a multi-step dredging process? Here’s a whole discussion on Serious Eats on why you should start with flour, then build your coating with egg, then crispy bits.