Question for food historians re deep-frying

Deep-frying a piece of fish for lunch, watching the hot oil (and the dog) to make sure there were no accidents, and thinking about deep-frying. I know oil (and fat) has been around forever but how long has it been used for deep-frying?

I read a lot of historical fiction and it seems that people are salting, boiling, baking, roasting, grilling, and maybe frying in a little bit of animal fat, but they’re not deep-frying. If my perception is correct, why not? Oil/fat too expensive?

I don’t know, but I love the Wikipedia note on the history of deep frying.

Would it have been something reserved for the wealthy, or only sold ‘commercially’ (eg at food stalls in the street)? It would have been very expensive back in the day to come up with such a huge volume of fat, no?

Also, can one deep fry in solid fats, like butter or rendered animal fat? If not, how widely available were vegetable oils before, say, 1850? Olive oil was obviously available for millenia in regions that grew olives, but I can’t think of any others off the top of my head.

You can definitely deep fry in animal fats. Lard, beef tallow, etc., are common deep-frying mediums.

I should actually say they’re “common enough.” Maybe not as common anymore. Lard’s smoke point is around 375F (but it can be higher or lower, depending on how its rendered), tallow is closer to 400F, butter is generally 350F or below, but clarified butter’s smoke point can be well into the 400s (I’ve seen as high as 485F listed, but that seems really high to me.) Deep-frying generally requires a minimum of 350F to be effective, but I prefer getting the oil to 375F (especially since it drops in temp as soon as you add the food.)

So there’s the expense, and maybe even the high temperature. If you’re cooking over an open flame or on a range that burns wood or coal, it can’t have been easy to sustain those temperatures.

Still chuckling over Brooklyn’s ancient culture. :smiley:

Used oil can be filtered and reused with minimal loss, but heating is a cost/resource issue no matter the cooking method.

Good point and duh:me. I hadn’t thought about people trying to conserve energy from wood and coal but I suppose they did. Maybe even moreso, since you can see wood and coal disappearing. With gas and electricity, we see the bill but we don’t see the resource being depleted.

Well, I’ve used several medieval recipes that call for deep frying. E.g. cryspes, which are like funnel cakes:

The bolded bit (from Austin’s "2 15th C Cookbooks) translates as “then take a pan full of fresh grease(lard, gee, oil? The author doesn’t specify) boiling”). Sure sounds like deep frying to me. FYI, “eyroun” is eggs, “berme” is yeast.
Also various forms of fritters sweet and savoury. There’s also Cruste Rolles, which are fried flour chips, kinda like nachos.

Here’s a 13th C. recipe for deep fried pastries:
Funny thing, we make something exactly like this in South Africa to this day (only with syrup rather than honey).

I’m no historian, but as I understood it, deep-frying as a general rule of thumb was more popular/prevalent in cultures from hotter climages. Food cooks faster in hot oil, so you don’t have to stand over a hot stove/heat up the house for hours.

For example, you can fry chicken in a matter of minutes, but if you’re roasting one whole, you better have a good hour-and-a-half of constant high heat available. Thus, deep-frying didn’t take off as much in colder climates, where it was sort of nice to have a warm, toasty kitchen.

One can also consider that up until about 200 years ago, animal and vegetable fat were the primary sources for light energy (oil lamps) for much of the world. So that would make for an interesting inflationary market hitched to animal and vegetable fat as a dual purpose commodity- Something like, “GE… we light up your life… and make delicious donuts!” Although, once you fried a bunch of stuf… you could still use the leftover oil for lamp fuel. Must have made for some interesting smells at night in ancient cities.

ehh… I don’t know about 200 years ago… That figure may be a bit errant. I just know that oil lamps were around much longer than candles.

I’ll bet sacrifices smelt delicious.

I doubt it. You can roast a whole chicken in 50 minutes, and it takes around 20 to fry a batch. Considering it takes 2 batches to cook a whole chicken using a 10 inch skillet, you haven’t really saved much time.

You can’t really deep fry in a skillet, unless it’s a very small and flat item. (And a 10 inch skillet is tiny.) I imagine old-fashioned deep frying would take place in cauldrons or big kettles, as would any type of large boiling application.

No, but oil retains and conducts heat better than air, I’m guessing it probably requires less fuel to bring oil to heat and induct food with it. dates the phrase “deep fry” to 1922 but it is seems fairly obvious that people were “deep frying” for perhaps centuries before this. What was it called before 1922?


I thought deep frying was introduced into Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century?:o

Deep frying is very popular in parts of sub-Saharan Africa where life often resembles life in the past. In Cameroon, deep-fried savory fritters and deep fried sweet potatoes were the standard street-food snacks. It was common to deep-fry meat as a way to preserve it- you can keep hunks of deep-fried meat covered in oil unrefrigerated for a week or two. Fried chicken was popular, but chicken is expensive so it was reserved for special occasions.

They used peanut oil, which can be created at home. The oil would be re-used god knows how many times. Wood consumption didn’t seem to be a problem- but then since these items were often sold as snacks, maybe the price was enough to cover it. I can’t remember if it was more common to deep fry over wood or charcoal. Anyway, most women were extremely good cooks and had no problem keeping the correct temperature, etc. Most frying took place in a deep wok-like container. Remember that back in the day, people were generally cooking for A LOT of people at a time- a household could easily have fifteen people in it.

I would guess deep frying might not be as popular in places where food is traditionally cooked over the fireplace- that seems like it could get dangerous. But it’s probably always been popular in places where people cook outside over single fires.