It is a truth universally acknowledged that a crisper drawer full of fast-wilting vegetables will disappear quickly and easily into soup. And soup is a good option. But sometimes you just want to fry everything in sight, which is where tempura comes in.
At its most basic, tempura is a Japanese technique of frying ingredients after they've been coated in a thin batter. Traditionalists will say shrimp and shrimp heads, eel, squid, squash, and other vegetables. Less traditionally—that is, between you and me—anything goes, even fruit or ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms.
Because the languishing produce drawer (and frying mood) can come at any moment, it's good to have the tempura technique at the ready. Here it goes (you don't even need a recipe!):
1. Put a quart of club soda or seltzer water (or beer) in the fridge (or, depending on how soon you'd like to get frying, the freezer).
This bubbly water is a crucial part of your tempura batter—and the colder it is, the crispier your tempura will be. Some say that this is because it slows how quickly oil penetrates the batter; others suggest that because gluten in flour develops more quickly with warmth (and more slowly with cold), colder batter will yield a crispier, less chewy result. Whatever the reason, it doesn't hurt (and then you can drink the chilled seltzer alongside your tempura).
2. Ready your raw vegetables (or shrimp, or whatever else you'd like to fry) into bite-sized pieces.
Remember that, for the most part, you'll want to be able to eat each piece in one bite. Broccoli or cauliflower should be snipped into florets, potatoes into rounds 1/3-inch thick, scallions trimmed to a manageable size, onions sliced into rings. If you'd like to fry shrimp, peel and devein them, but leave the tail shells on. Apples would also work! Just core them and slice them into rings.
3. Set up your fry station.
Get your oil heating before you put together the batter. The oil won't get too hot if you start it on low heat, and you don't want the batter to sit too long, because the carbonated water will go flat. (Bummer.)
You'll need a heavy-bottom pot (a Dutch oven will work), a paper towel-lined baking sheet or cooling rack, a set of tongs, and a good amount of oil with a high smoke point. (Canola and peanut oil are both good options.) Pour about 3 inches of oil into the pot and begin to heat the oil to between 340° F and 360° F over medium-low heat.
If you have a thermometer, use it! If not, look for oil that's shimmering. It will be ready for frying when a spoonful of batter dropped into the pot dips towards the bottom and then quickly rises towards the top of the oil.
4. Make the batter.
Whisk together all-purpose or rice flour with some salt; a good place to start is 3 cups of flour with a heaping teaspoon of salt. (This will get you 30 to 40 pieces.) This is also the time to whisk in spices if you want them! For 3 cups of flour, a heaping teaspoon or more of cayenne adds a kick. Cinnamon, lemon zest, or matcha would all be welcome, too.
Grab your club soda (or seltzer or beer) from the fridge. With your whisk at the ready, slowly begin pouring and mixing the club soda into the dry ingredients, whisking constantly to combine. The batter should be quite thin—close to the consistency of pancake batter. Try to get rid of as many clumps as possible, but do not over-mix! You don't want the gluten in the flour to develop.
5. Dunk the pieces in the batter.
It's good to do this in batches: Dunk a group of vegetables and start frying that batch while you dunk the next round of vegetables. You can dunk piece by piece or toss everything in at once, letting excess batter drip off the pieces before you fry them by scooping them up with a slotted spoon or your fingers. Too much batter will make for soggy tempura.
If you're dunking seafood as well as vegetables, avoid cross-contamination by doing the vegetables first.
6. Fry, fry away!
When the oil is between 340° F and 360° F, start frying! Take care not to crowd the pot, as this will lower the temperature of the oil—which will result in soggy tempura. (And there's nothing worse than soggy tempura.)
Use tongs or a spider to remove the tempura to a paper towel-lined baking sheet or cooling rack.
7. Serve hot.
They're good eaten as is, with fingers or chopsticks, but also make for a special topping on rice (or alongside soup).
That's it! Now you go: Share your own frying advice in the comments.