How To Cook Tempura
Tempura. No other style of deep frying can produce such a light, lacy, crunchy crust that accentuates the natural flavors of ingredients and, yet, doesn’t taste greasy. Ingredients, typically vegetables and seafood, are dipped into a batter of flour, egg and water, and deep fried. That’s it. But of course, it’s not that simple. Fortunately, Chef Atsushi Kono, senior chef and tempura master at Chikarashi Isso, is here to help us master the subtleties of the technique.
As Chef Kono explains, the most critical elements to preparing tempura are:
- How you mix the batter
- Temperature of the batter (cold)
- Temperature of the frying oil (hot)
Let’s dig into tempura:
Getting the tempura batter right
The secret to preparing amazing tempura is getting its signature crust just right. And the secret to that starts with the batter. That’s the foundation. Chef Kono relies on this simple batter recipe:
- 100 grams AP flour
- 100 grams cold water (important that the water is cold)
- egg yolk (we’ll get to quantity in a minute)
(If you want extra crispy batter, he says use 80% flour and 20% baking powder instead of just flour)
Chef Kono adds about 20% of the yolk to the water and mixes it well. The little bit of yolk serves as a “glue” to hold the batter together. But too much yolk, he cautions, will ruin the batter. Chef Kono then adds the flour in two stages. Let’s watch:
What Chef Kono has achieved here, essentially, is to prepare two-batters-in-one: The well-mixed flour coats the ingredients and locks in moisture during frying, while the barely mixed raw flour creates the signature explosions of crispy crust when ingredients hit the hot oil, called hana in Japanese (“flowers”). And because Chef Kono barely mixes the second half of the flour, he prevents glutens in the flour from activating—so the batter doesn’t become bready like fried chicken batter.
The cold temperature of the batter is also critical, creating a shock when ingredients immerse in the hot oil that contributes to the creation of hana. Chef Kono adds a couple of ice cubes to the batter make sure it stays cold.
Final note about batter: Prepare it just before frying the tempura. You don’t want to let your batter sit, which will cause the flour to absorb too much moisture and form glutens.
Tempura Cooking Steps
Chef Kono deep fries tempura in a traditional tempura nabe (“nah-beh”), a cast iron or copper vessel that conducts and retains heat, and is large enough so temperature remains steady and ingredients don’t crowd while they cook. And he utilizes two pairs of specialized chopsticks, thick hanabashi and slender steel chopsticks, as we’ll see shortly.
For this demonstration, Chef Kono is preparing wasagi, a type of smelt from the frigid waters off Hokkaido, shungiku leaf, lotus root, and delicate fugu, stuffed with umeboshi paste and sesame, and wrapped in shiso leaf.
Three key factors to keep in mind when cooking tempura:
- Oil temperature, about 360° F
- Consistency and coolness of batter
Chef Kono starts by lightly flouring the ingredients. He then drips tempura batter into the hot oil to determine the temperature, the traditional method. When the batter drops hit the bottom and float up in about two or three seconds, the oil is ready.
(And in fact, his infrared thermometer confirms it—360° F.)
Chef Kono likes to use 100% soybean oil for tempura, but says you can also add sesame oil (1:1 proportion). He cooks the smelt and shunkigu for about 1-2 minutes, more for the fugu. For lotus and other root vegetables, cooking time is longer, about 5 minutes. For these thicker roots, Chef Kono starts cooking at a lower temperature, beginning at about 320° F and finishing for about a minute at 360° F.
How can he tell when the ingredients are ready? It’s all about watching the bubbles in the oil, as we’ll see:
Chef Kono adds an ingredient to the hot oil in a sweeping motion that helps keep the batter in place as it starts to fry—”swimming,” as he calls it.
As Chef Kono cooks tempura he adds a little flour to the batter, to maintain the unmixed consistency that creates hana. And speaking of hana, notice how Chef Kono dips his specialized hanabashi into the oil to add more drips of batter to the ingredients. This key move helps build the sublime lacy texture of the tempura. Hanabashi are about three times the thickness of conventional cooking chopsticks, so more batter adheres to them.
Studying the bubbles
Now, what about those bubbles Chef Kono studies to determine when an ingredient is ready? We asked Chef Kono to walk us through his process in detail:
As the ingredient cooks and releases moisture, it floats to the top and generates a multitude of tiny bubbles. When the bubbles transform into a few large bubbles and the oil “relaxes,” as the chef notes, the ingredient is ready.
Chef Kono gently shakes off excess oil and transfers the ingredient to a metal grate and pan to drain. Now it’s ready to be served.
At Chikarashi Isso, Chef Sono likes to serve his beautiful tempura presentation simply, with just Japanese sea salt.
If you prefer ten tsuyu, the classic dipping sauce for tempura, Chef Kono offers this method: 500 ml dashi, 100 ml shoyu, 100 ml mirin. Combine in saucepan, bring to a boil and turn off heat. Serve with grated daikon and ginger.
Thank you, Chef Kono!