Q: I have been wondering for a while now if you can substitute frying with baking. If you can substitute, what temperature should the oven be? I will readily admit to being terrified of frying and I have no idea what to do with the leftover oil. If a recipe that mentions frying, I move on. Any tips and advice would be appreciated
—Allison Gibbons, Chicago
A: You can bake instead of fry but the results will be different. Just think of fried chicken hot out of the skillet as compared to the stuff that comes out of the oven. No matter what you do, the baked chicken will never quite has the oomph, the crunch, of the fried original. Whether you can live with that difference is up to you.
I would, however, encourage you to get over your fear of frying — simply because it's a basic skill that should be in every cook's repertoire. If you're sauteing, quickly tossing mushrooms in a skillet until nicely browned, say, you're already on the road to successful, no-stress frying. You just need more oil and usually more cooking time.
For frying advice, I turned to an old friend, Debbie Moose, author and Southern food authority based in Raleigh, N.C., whose latest book is called "Buttermilk." Your question is nothing new to her.
"I hear this all the time,'' she said. "People are afraid of frying. If you fry properly, the food doesn't absorb that much oil."
The key to frying properly? Getting the oil hot enough. Moose recommends buying a good oil thermometer and using it to ensure the right temperature is reached for your recipe. Fry in a good, heavy skillet for even heating, she said. Or, consider using an electric frying pan, Moose added, because you can set the heat and not worry about it.
"Frying does splatter,'' Moose conceded. "People say it makes a mess. Well, some good thing things in life make a mess."
Then there's the fact you have a pan of hot oil on the stove. You have to stick around and focus on the task at hand. Use medium heat and keep the skillet cover handy just in case the oil overheats (here's where that thermometer comes in handy) and ignites; the cover will stifle the flames.
The oil you use matters. Don't go with olive oil, which has a low smoking point, Moose said. Pick an oil meant for higher temperatures, like canola, vegetable or peanut.
As for the leftover oil, some cooks let the oil return to room temperature and strain it into a clean container and use it again for frying if they fry frequently. Moose does not; she prefers to double-bag leftover oil and dump it in the trash. Don't pour oil down the drain.
Frying takes a little bit of extra effort, true, but is worth it for Moose.
"Nothing else tastes like frying,'' she said.
I agree with Moose. Give frying a try. Choose a simple recipe, gather the equipment you need, take a deep, relaxing breath, and get cooking. The results will surely be delicious.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.