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Oven Fries: Having It Both Ways

Oven-frying is for those of us who tend to make peace with our cravings by surrendering to them. We still like ourselves for the fallen fools we are, but we suspect we'll like ourselves better with a streamlined figure and sleek, unclogged arteries.

I don't share this with just anyone, but when I was in college I had a real weakness for fast-food french fries.  This would be in the late '80s, when the beef tallow had recently been banished and the fries were now anointed with a whopping dose of trans fats. Sure, I had a student ID for an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, but like so many, I sometimes just couldn't resist the temptation to "Have It Your Way."

During this period, I also worked in a darkroom bathed in formaldehyde fumes, smoked menthol cigarettes, flew regularly in my boyfriend's single-engine plane and ate half-sour pickles and frozen semisweet chocolate morsels for breakfast. I didn't worry about my weight and didn't gain any.  So it may not come as a complete surprise when I say I wasn't worried about the health effects of frying. Another characteristic of being 20 is to believe you will never die and to test that hypothesis at every opportunity.

In the end, of course, I surrendered to the inevitable. Adulthood made me care about my weight, and parenthood made me care about my health. Enter oven frying.

Oven-frying is for those of us who tend to make peace with our cravings by surrendering to them. We still like ourselves for the fallen fools we are, but we suspect we'll like ourselves better with a streamlined figure and sleek, unclogged arteries. You may not be able to Have It Your Way anymore, but hey, thanks to oven frying, now you can Have It Both Ways.

Of course, you could just go ahead and take your fries with a side of Lipitor. It's no picnic, though, to deep-fry at home. It's hot, dangerous, greasy work on a good day. So the question isn't why would you look for a more healthful alternative to traditional fried foods, but why wouldn't you?

Fortunately, the experts have been busy answering this very question for you, though only a handful of fried foods tend to merit the oven makeover.  Chicken, fish, calamari, potatoes, sweet potatoes -- in other words, starches and proteins. Sure, I like vegetable tempura and fritto misto. But trust me, no one's crying because they can't have celery fritters or deep-fried kohlrabi.

Deep-frying is a delicate battle between oil and water -- the water evaporating at high speed, repelling the oil as it browns and sets the crust.  When you oven-fry, you replicate that central act of deep-frying by evaporating moisture from the inside of the food and browning the outside.  An oven isn't nearly as efficient as a deep fryer, so it's going to take a little longer (and sorry, folks -- chicken on the bone is going to take two steps).  But with sufficiently small pieces of food, sufficiently high heat and a bit of surface oil, the switcheroo can just about be pulled off.

Some oven-frying recipes need a stovetop step in addition to an oven step. For chicken on the bone, shallow frying sets the crust, and the oven cooks the interior through. For oven-fried potatoes, steaming cooks the interior first, and oven frying sets the crust.

Having it both ways sometimes means having to cook it both ways, too. But one of the conditions of surviving your youth is that you no longer take your luck for granted. You won't mind the extra step when you taste your fries: piping hot, mostly guiltless and liberally seasoned with the wisdom that comes with adulthood.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, NPR.org and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.