100 Techniques

Technique #90: Fry Ethereally Light-Crusted Food

With lacy, crisp, melt-in-your-mouth golden battered shrimp or vegetables, tempura-style fried food is a delectable treat that is deceptively simple to master at home.

Published Aug. 3, 2023.

This is Technique #90 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Tempura-style fried food is so desirable that some Japanese chefs even devote their entire careers to this one technique.

However, the tempura template is deviously simple: Stir together a batter of egg and equal parts flour and ice water; dip in pieces of food; drop into hot oil; and fry.

But success hinges on this batter, which easily turns thick and heavy from being overmixed or left to sit for too long, resulting in fried food that’s greasy and doughy, more the stuff of a county fair than a restaurant.

With a few careful add-ins and some precise timing, we can teach you how to produce ethereally light fried food every time.

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Temperamental Tempura Batter

Tempura-style batter is persnickety because of its gluten.

When water and flour are mixed, the proteins in flour form gluten. Protein from the egg buttresses the gluten structure. As it hits the hot oil, the water in the batter rapidly expands into steam, creating small bubbles.

At the same time, the egg and gluten coagulate and stiffen, strengthening those bubbles. This chain of reactions is what gives tempura-style crusts their intricate, lacy-crisp texture. But when the batter sits for any length of time, it quickly turns tough, because gluten develops even without stirring.

A tempura batter fried shrimp.
A perfectly lightly fried tempura shrimp.

The Optimal Trio: Cornstarch, Seltzer, and Vodka

To significantly improve tempura batter’s lightness, replace part of the flour with cornstarch, which does not develop gluten. Cornstarch also contributes to great crispness by increasing the batter’s starch content.

Switching from tap water to effervescent seltzer water lightens the batter further, because its bubbles provide lift as they escape during frying, making the coating even lacier. And the carbonation makes the batter slightly more acidic, limiting how much gluten can form.

But the ace in the hole for ethereally light fried food can be found in the liquor cabinet. The test kitchen has used vodka to minimize the effects of gluten in pie dough, since the alcohol in vodka inhibits gluten development by limiting the amount of water that’s available to the flour.

Substituting vodka for a portion of the water solves the problem of batter that toughens as it sits in an unconventional but very effective way. Because vodka is about 60 percent water and 40 percent alcohol, it makes the batter fluid and keeps gluten formation in check no matter how much you stir the batter or allow it to sit.

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Step by Step: How to Fry Light-Crusted Food

Now that you know the "why", take a look at the key steps in this technique.

Step 1: Heat Oil

Heat oil to correct temperature in Dutch oven.

Step 2: Make Batter

Whisk flour and cornstarch in bowl. Whisk egg and vodka in second bowl. Whisk seltzer water into egg mixture.

Step 3: Whisk in Seltzer

When oil has almost reached correct temperature, gently whisk seltzer mixture into flour mixture (it’s OK if small lumps remain).

Step 4: Dip Food in Batter

Working in batches, dip food into batter. Remove from batter, allowing excess to drip back into bowl, and transfer to hot oil.

Step 5: Place Fried Food on Paper Towel

Using slotted spoon or spider, transfer fried food to paper towels to drain. Serve immediately.

Watch us demonstrate this technique in our Crispy Vegetable Fritters recipe.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Ready to fry ethereally light food at home? Try one of these recipes that use steps from this technique.


Shrimp Tempura

Japanese chefs spend years learning how to create a light, crisp coating on these quick-fried fritters. We turned to a different secret weapon: the liquor cabinet.
Get the Recipe

Fried Cheese-Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

For a fried zucchini blossom recipe that would produce plump, delicate flowers covered in a light, crisp coating, we started with the filling. 
Get the Recipe

Crispy Vegetable Fritters

Shred vegetables, mix into batter, fry—could crispy fritters really be that easy?
Get the Recipe

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