Published May 1, 2009.
Japanese chefs spend years learning how to create a light, crisp coating on these quick-fried fritters. We turned to a different secret weapon: the liquor cabinet.
A few preliminary attempts at making tempura made us see why some Japanese chefs devote their entire careers to this one technique. Success hinges almost entirely on the batter—which is maddeningly hard to get right. Under-mix by just a hair and the batter remains thin, barely providing a barrier against the hot oil and allowing the shrimp to overcook. Overmix by a similarly small degree and you wind up with a coating so thick and doughy that it seems more at home on a corn dog than shrimp.
We wanted perfectly cooked shrimp tempura—light, crisp, and so fresh-tasting that it barely seemed fried. Done properly, the essence of sweet, tender shrimp should define its taste.
We settled on using the largest shrimp available, since it’s easy to overcook small shrimp. Instead of a wok, we substituted a large Dutch oven, the test kitchen’s preferred deep-frying vessel. Cooking the tempura in 400-degree oil also helped limit grease absorption. However, we ran into problems with batter consistency. Even when a first batch came out crisp and delicate, subsequent batches were thick and doughy. This occurred because the water and flour formed gluten, which provides structure. But a few too many stirs or too many minutes of sitting were all it took for too much gluten to develop, creating a thick, tough batter. To prevent this, we reviewed our batter ingredients one at a time, starting with flour. Replacing a bit of the flour with cornstarch improved the structure and lightness considerably. We then considered the water. We were using ice water, which slowed down gluten development−at least until the water warmed up. Searching for a smarter alternative, we recalled a recipe that used seltzer. Because seltzer is a little more acidic than tap water, it slows down gluten development. As an added plus, the carbonation helped the batter to fry up into a wonderfully airy coating. Unfortunately it was still too easy to overmix and the batter still turned thicker as it sat. The solution came from an unexpected ingredient. While water contributes to gluten, alcohol does not. We replaced half the seltzer with vodka and the shrimp we pulled out of the hot oil was not only consistent from the first batch to the second, but also the lightest and crispest we’d made yet.
All that was left were minor tweaks. To prevent the batter from clumping on the inside curl of the shrimp, we made two shallow cuts on the underside of its flesh. We also streamlined the traditional sauce, which uses a Japanese stock made from dried kelp and bonito flakes, and came up with a simple, sweet ginger-soy dip.list of recipes