There are some cooking feats that we recoil at the mention of. Choux pastry. Soufflé. Filleting a whole trout. Sourdough bread.
Then, there's tempura. The battering technique (fun fact: it was created in Portugal, not Japan) that’s been embraced the world over is all-too-often flung far into the too-hard-basket. At a glance: what could be simpler? Ingredients (vegetables and seafood are usually the order of the day) that are coated in flour and water and emerge, perfectly-cooked inside and out - with a crunchy, golden, feather-light exterior - from hot oil.
But walking the tightrope between flakey and floury can be testing for the most seasoned of cooks. The intricacies lie in the recipe variations: eggs or no eggs? Still or sparkling water? Flour, or a mix of flour and cornflour?
In the case of this frying method, gluten is an enemy to avoid at all costs, testing as that may sound given that we’re working with two of playdough’s key ingredients: flour and water.
The traditional Japanese method is the most down-the-line: a humble batter of flour, eggs and ice water. But, in the wrong hands, this mix can become a thick, goopy challenge to work with. So, here are a few tips for achieving tempura glory.
The secret to a good tempura batter is the reduction of gluten, believes Adam Liaw. “Keeping the tempura batter cold and dry inhibits the formation of gluten, which can make a tempura batter doughy and tough. The lower the gluten, the lighter the batter,” the Destination Flavour chef says. Liaw likes to add egg to a batter made from low gluten flour and ice water, but only adds it in small batches. And, he cautions not to over-stir your batter – lumpy is good.
Liaw also uses chopsticks to flip the ingredients in the oil, which should be skimmed regularly with wire mesh to remove any batter bits and avoid a burnt flavour. Chef Shota Sato from Osaka Trading Co. in Sydney uses chopsticks to mix his batter, too. "If you mix too much, the gluten comes out in the batter and the water stays inside ingredients," he says. "Tempura is to dehydrate and to fry - that's why we use chopsticks: to mix lightly."
Don’t overcrowd your oil
To avoid an oily finish, fry your ingredients in small batches in sizzling (but not smoking!) vegetable oil: that’s around 175°C for seafood (which tends to cook quicker) and 165°C for vegetables.
Cut all your vegetables and seafood into small, bite-sized pieces ahead of time, so they’re ready to roll. And, make your batter last, so it's ultra-cold.
Cold as ice
“What’s really important in this dish is that the water is ice-cold and the fish is just out of the fridge,” says chef Matthew Evans in his documentary, What’s the Catch. Evans, like Liaw, is also a fan of clumpy batter. “Don’t let the batter sit for any length of time, and definitely don’t stir it until there are no lumps – lumpy batter, an anathema to European cooks, is just fine for tempura, and helps give the crisp, crunchy, multi-textured coating that defines the best versions.” Evans and Liaw both opt for still water over carbonated, but Sato uses a combination of both.
But it's not just the seafood and water that needs to be chilled; keep everything - flour and eggs included - in the fridge, says Sato. "This is the most important part. If you want to make crisp, crunchy tempura, everything must be kept in fridge." Sato prefers baker's plain flour over regular flour as it's finer.
Think outside the (bento) box
Prawns, sweet potato and eggplant are no strangers to the tempura treatment. At Osaka Trading Co., chef Sato has started plating up avocado tempura with a dashi sauce, and corn tempura with a creamy chilli and garlic dip.
Avocado and corn get the tempura treatment at Osaka Dining. Co.
Try experimenting with other ingredients like scallops, cod, okra, bamboo shoots, pumpkin, leafy greens like kale, butternut squash, or whatever else the season is offering. We've also heard of herbs, pickles, hard-boiled eggs and cheese getting dunked in tempura, if you're game. Check out this spring vegetable tempura recipe that is certainly worth the crunch!