Tempura (the word refers to both the cooking method and the finished dish) is a wonderful frying technique that adds flavor and texture to food without competing with its natural flavor. Raw vegetables or seafood are dunked in a simple batter and then briefly fried in a mild-flavored oil, just long enough for the batter to crisp and the food to cook through. As the batter cooks, it forms a translucent coating that protects the tempura and prevents it from absorbing too much oil. Unlike some versions of batter-fried food, tempura tastes clean, fresh, and delicate.
As a technique, tempura is straightforward, and it also adapts well to American ingredients. If certain aspects of the technique don’t feel intuitive at first, particularly the slam-dunk method of battering and frying, don’t be discouraged. You’ll soon become proficient, and eventually tempura will become as valuable to your cooking repertoire as roasting or braising.
Search out vegetables and top-quality seafood: Vegetables with assertive flavors and a low water content work best for tempura. You can try bell peppers, eggplant, green beans, and summer squashes like zucchini. You can also dip fresh basil leaves in tempura batter (one side only) for a pretty garnish to a platter of summer vegetables. Other great candidates for tempura include carrots, sweet potatoes, and celery root. Sweet onions and fresh shiitake mushrooms are also wonderful.
In the seafood department, try shrimp and calamari tempura-style. Their firmness and their clean, iodine-free taste make them worth the expense.
Reduce into bite-size pieces: Cut the vegetables to sizes and shapes that let them cook at the same rate as the batter. Large vegetables should be cut into slices, thin strips, or chunks; smaller, quick-cooking items such as green beans and shiitake mushrooms can be left whole. It isn’t necessary to dredge the ingredients in flour because my tempura batter clings well enough without it. But do make sure the vegetables and seafood are dry, and season the seafood with salt and pepper just before dipping it in the batter.
Set up your fry station: Use a large, deep cooking vessel and an accurate frying thermometer to monitor the oil. The pot should be made of heavy-gauge metal—cast iron or enameled iron are ideal because they retain heat so well. Use a pot at least eight inches deep so you can fill it with three to four inches of oil and still have a couple of inches on top to allow for splatters and bubbling. You will also need a mesh skimmer, called a spider, to lift the tempura out of the oil.
Add the oil: Use a mild vegetable oil with a high smoke point, such as canola or safflower oil. Canola oil is preferred because it is virtually tasteless. Be sure the pot is completely dry before adding the oil; water causes hot oil to splatter. If you plan to reuse the oil after frying tempura, let the oil cool completely and then strain it and store in a cool, dark place. Used oil turns rancid more quickly than fresh oil, so check it before using it again.
Heat the oil to between 350° and 360°F and monitor it periodically to maintain a constant temperature. If the temperature drops too much, the batter will absorb too much oil and you will get a ghastly result: greasy tempura. If the oil is too hot, the batter will brown before the food is cooked through.
Make the batter: Traditional tempura batter consists of just three ingredients: egg yolks, ice water, and flour. The yolks provide richness and flavor, and the flour gives structure. But the batter is tricky to use—it must be extremely undermixed to prevent gluten development, which would make the tempura tough, and it must be used within twenty minutes.
Dunk in batter, lay in hot oil, and fry until crisp and golden: With a mesh skimmer, transfer the tempura to a papertowel-lined plate; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Continue dipping more pieces in the batter (stirring between rounds) and frying. Skim off batter particles from the oil as necessary. Serve the tempura with individual bowls of dipping sauce.
Once the vegetables are cut, the oil is up to temperature, and the batter is mixed, you are ready to start frying. Prepare a workspace next to the stovetop, if possible.
Immerse an ingredient in the batter, lift it out with your hand, and quickly lay it in the hot oil. You will be tempted to shake off excess batter, but don’t do it. The key is to lift out the fully coated item and immediately put it in the oil without a moment’s hesitation. But this unhesitating technique is essential to achieving the thin, crispy coating that makes tempura so enticing. If you feel uneasy using your hands, use tongs or chopsticks.
Fry the tempura in small batches: Frying just four to six pieces at a time helps keep the oil temperature from dropping suddenly and gives each piece enough space to cook. If the pieces float toward each other, separate them with a firm nudge from your mesh skimmer.
Tantalize with seasonings: Sprinkle salt, pepper, and any other spices on the tempura as soon as they come out of the oil so the seasonings stick. Since the delicate coating doesn’t last much longer than a few minutes, serve each batch of tempura right away. The traditional way to serve the tempura is with a dipping sauce of soy sauce.