Tips for How to Lighten Up Your Latkes
Posted November 9, 2007
Updated November 13, 2007
Hanukkah can make a healthy diet hard to follow. But what do you expect from an eight-day Jewish holiday focused on oil and the wonderful ways it can be used to prepare food?
Which doesn't mean a healthy approach to the Festival of Lights, as Hanukkah also is known, is impossible. It simply requires an understanding of oil and how to use it.
Oil and oily foods are part of the Hanukkah tradition because they symbolize a miracle at the Temple of Jerusalem.
The Jews had just a day's worth of consecrated oil for the temple's eternal flame, yet the flame burned for eight days, the time needed to press and consecrate new oil.
To represent that today, Jews often eat latkes (deep-fried potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts (also traditionally deep-fried). But eight days of such goodies can leave you feeling a bit weighed down.
Liza Schoenfein, editor of Jewish Living magazine, says celebrants sometimes forget that it is the oil, not the deep-frying, that is symbolic of the holiday.
"There's no reason the oil has to be for frying," she says. "The tradition of incorporating oil into the meal can be made modern by drizzling a flavorful, beautiful olive oil onto steamed vegetables or fish."
Deep-frying works by immersing food in hot oil - typically 350 F - until the interior is cooked and the exterior is crispy but not burnt, says Harold McGee, author of "On Food And Cooking," a primer on the science of food.
He says many people are surprised to learn that when the oil is this hot, food does not absorb much. This is partly because oil and water don't mix well, and most foods are about 80 percent water.
"When the surface of the food gets up to the temperature of the oil, which happens quickly, the surface starts boiling off its water, and that means the surface begins to dry out, which is why you end up with a crust," McGee says.
It's when the food cools that the problem occurs. Food begins to absorb oil immediately, including oil left on the surface, when cooling begins, because the "water vapor inside the food begins to contract and sucks oil into nooks and crannies."
This is why blotting food after frying is a good idea.
Also key: Maintain oil at the proper temperature to minimize absorption during cooking.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
Rebecca Hays, managing editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine, says her staff conducted an experiment a few years ago to determine how much fat was absorbed by chicken while frying.
They measured the oil before and after frying, and it turned out there was exactly as much oil in the pan after frying as before. Shocked, the staff repeated the experiment several times, always with the same results.
The trick, Hays says, is "to keep the oil at the proper temperature."
For latkes, that's generally about 350 F, while doughnuts are cooked in slightly hotter oil, about 375 F.
While McGee says most oils work for deep frying, it's best to stick to those with high smoke points, which means the oil can handle higher temperatures before developing off or acrid tastes.
Canola oil is a healthy option for frying, as it has a moderately high smoke point and is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat. If you plan to fry for more than 15 minutes (even in batches), changed the oil to avoid bad tastes.
Cooks should constantly gauge the oil temperature with a thermometer (ideally a digital instant-read one that can clip to the pot) and adjust the stove setting to ensure the oil stays hot but does not burn.
Also, using a heavy pan, such as cast iron, is helpful because it maintain temperatures better than other metals.
Schoenfein says the key is to not crowd the pot. Fry in small batches rather than all at once.
"As you add cold food to the pan, it brings down the temperature of the oil," she says. "You can really tell the difference when you have something that's crispy, crunchy, delicious and golden and it's been fried in the right temperature oil."
If you'd rather avoid the mess and trouble altogether, there are techniques for adapting recipes for deep-fried food.
Elaine Magee, a dietitian whose book "Fry Right, Fry Light" focused on healthier frying techniques, says dishes such as potato latkes can be prepared with a light amount of oil in a nonstick skillet.
Others are first browned in a very hot nonstick skillet, then baked.
Another light-frying technique is to bake foods in the oven, but finish them under the broiler to quickly add color and crisp the exterior. Magee mostly uses olive oil and canola oil for this technique.
And depending on how much of the recipe you change, you may need to compensate for flavor.
Jessie Price, food editor of EatingWell magazine, says that when you take away taste enhancers such as shortening and butter, be sure to add herbs, spices, onions, citrus zest, or even a small amount of sharp cheese, to add flavor.