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How to Fry Golden, Ultracrispy Calamari

By Steve Dunn Published

Squid is inexpensive, requires almost no prep, and cooks in minutes. And with the right coating, you can turn it into the best fried calamari you've ever eaten.

Fried calamari is an iconic restaurant appetizer across the United States, but that hasn’t always been the case. In the 1970s and ’80s, a handful of cephalopod supporters had to fight to move the needle on Americans’ squid squeamishness. Among these supporters were Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Paul Kalikstein, who outlined “The Marketability of Squid” in his graduate thesis, and reporter Florence Fabricant, whose 1978 appeal in The New York Times detailed the many practical perks of the “neglected seafood.” Several state and federal marine programs also encouraged restaurant chefs to replace overfished stocks with squid—and to call it by its more enticing Italian name, calamari—in an effort to buoy a struggling seafood industry.

These campaigns made their mark: By the mid ’90s you could find a plate of crispy rings and tentacles at any reliable sports bar or red-sauce joint in the country. Squid’s bait-to-plate ascent was so impressive, in fact, that The New York Times used a “Fried Calamari Index” to compare the trajectories of other trendy foods over time.

However, home cooks rarely buy and prepare squid themselves, so I’ve decided to join the campaign and bait readers with a fried calamari recipe of my own. One of squid’s best features is that it cooks in minutes, but since it can quickly go from tender to rubbery—the most recognizable flaw of subpar restaurant versions—I needed to nail down the frying time. And I needed a formula for the perfect coating: golden brown, crispy, and delicate.

During the five-recipe test, Associate Editor Steve Dunn found that the fried coatings ranged from thick and bready to thin and insubstantial.

Milking It

Frying squid is superfast. All you do is dredge the pieces in a starchy coating (all-purpose flour, cornstarch, and cornmeal are all common) that helps them crisp and brown quickly, drop them into a pot of hot oil, and fish them out a few minutes later when they’ve turned golden brown. Season them with salt, pair them with a dipping sauce (or lemon wedges), and serve immediately.

But there’s an inherent challenge to frying something that cooks so quickly: There’s barely enough time for the exterior to brown and crisp before the interior overcooks. Squid is packed with collagen, which is why there’s such a narrow window of doneness when it’s pleasantly springy-tender. As the old adage goes, you can cook squid either hot and fast or low and slow, but avoid anything in between. So I focused on ways to keep the squid tender and to encourage the coating (for now, I used all-purpose flour) to brown rapidly.

Shopping for Squid

Never cooked squid at home? Not only is preparing it fast and easy, buying it is also straightforward, once you know a few pointers. 

 

GOOD SQUID LOOKS PRISTINE 

Squid should look moist, shiny, and ivory‑colored.

 

CLEANED SQUID IS SOLD IN TWO PARTS

Most fishmongers sell both squid bodies and squid tentacles. The bodies tend to be smooth and tender, while the tentacles offer pleasant chew and more surface area.

 

BUY WHOLE BODIES WHEN POSSIBLE

Though we’ve found the quality of precut rings to be just fine, buying whole bodies allows you to cut them to your own specification.

 

MOST SQUID HAS BEEN FROZEN

Unless you have access to squid direct from the boat, anything you buy has been previously frozen and treated with additives such as sodium citrate and sodium carbonate to inhibit spoilage and enhance texture. But that’s fine: We found the quality of frozen squid—both frozen in the supermarket freezer section and thawed at the fish counter—to be good, and we didn’t detect any off-flavors or textures as we have in other types of treated seafood.

 

If you buy thawed: Ask the fishmonger how long it’s been thawed. For the best quality, thawed squid should be cooked within two days.

If you buy frozen: Many supermarkets carry frozen squid packaged in blocks of whole bodies or rings. To use part of a frozen block, wrap the block in a dish towel and press it against the edge of a counter or table to break it.

 

STORE UNCOOKED SQUID ON ICE 

Like all seafood, squid deteriorates rapidly. Keep it in the back of the refrigerator, where it’s coldest, in a zipper-lock bag resting on a bed of ice.

Plenty of recipes call for soaking the squid in buttermilk or milk, because theoretically the lactic acid (though milk has only a small amount) tenderizes the flesh and extends the cooking time before it toughens. But the soaking tests that I ran on squid with both types of dairy and for varying lengths of time showed that dairy did not affect tenderness. However, I did learn that dunking squid in milk—not buttermilk—before dredging it helps ensure that just enough of the starchy coating will cling. The thicker buttermilk grabbed too much dredge, and thinner water didn’t grab enough, resulting in coatings that fried up either thick and tough or insubstantial. Plus, proteins and sugar in the milk encourage browning.

The one trick that enhanced tenderness was cutting thicker rings. Presliced, squid rings tend to measure about ½ inch wide. By the time the coating was browned, these slim rings, which cooked very quickly, threatened to turn tough. It was better to buy whole cleaned squid and slice the bodies (also called “tubes”) crosswise myself into ¾-inch-thick rings. (I cut any long tentacles to match the size of the shorter ones.)

Resting the dredged squid on a wire rack while the oil heated up allowed the flour to fully hydrate, preventing a dusty film from forming on the fried calamari.

Flour Power

I knew that the dredge I chose would impact the coating’s texture and how quickly the calamari browned, so I decided to test all the starches I saw in recipes: rice flour, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, fine cornmeal, and semolina. I tossed 1 pound of squid in each dredge, making sure to shake off any excess; dropped half the pieces into 350-degree oil (frying in two batches ensured that the oil temperature didn’t drop too much and prolong cooking); retrieved them as soon as they were tender (exactly 3 minutes later); and repeated the process with the second batch.

The Dredge Report

We dredged the squid in a variety of starches to find the perfect formula for a delicately crispy, golden-brown crust. Most options fell short, but all-purpose flour, plus baking powder to add lightness, did the trick.

 

The coarse semolina fried up hard and the cornmeal gritty, while the rice flour was crunchy (not crisp) and the cornstarch was pale. But the all-purpose flour batch boasted deep golden color since the flour contains proteins that brown. Although it was dusty and not as delicate as I wanted, I moved forward with it and added baking powder to lighten up the texture. To rid the surface of that dusty film—I recognized this as unhydrated flour—I dredged the squid before heating the oil and spread the pieces out on a wire rack to hydrate while the oil came up to temperature.

’Tis the Season

Though the tweaks I’d made seemed subtle, they added up to exceptionally good fried calamari: lightly springy pieces encased in a delicate, lacy shell. I sprinkled salt onto the squid right when it came out of the oil, just as I would with any fried food, and dug in to what I thought was the perfect batch—but I quickly realized that the seasoning was off. Some bites were salt bombs, others bland. I tried again and seasoned the dredge instead. But the seasoning was still uneven, and this time the problem was obvious: The willowy tentacles picked up considerably more dredge—and thus considerably more salt—than the rings. The best approach turned out to be seasoning the milk so that it evenly distributed the salt.

All I needed were the fixings: a quick marinara sauce for the traditional style, an even-quicker sriracha-spiked mayonnaise, and banana peppers fried along with the squid for a proper Rhode Island–style version. A crowd‑pleasing party platter or a quick dinner, this was the stuff that food fads are made of.

Recipe Fried Calamari

Squid is inexpensive, requires almost no prep, and cooks in minutes. So why aren't you frying it?

Recipe Quick Marinara Sauce

Make this dipping sauce in just 15 minutes.

Recipe Spicy Mayonnaise

Sriracha, lime, and smoked paprika add vibrancy to rich mayo.

Recipe Rhode Island-Style Fried Calamari

Squid is inexpensive, requires almost no prep, and cooks in minutes. So why aren't you frying it?

Recipe Fried Calamari for Two

Squid is inexpensive, requires almost no prep, and cooks in minutes. So why aren't you frying it?

Recipe Quick Marinara Sauce for Two

Make this dipping sauce in just 15 minutes.

Recipe Spicy Mayonnaise for Two

Sriracha, lime, and smoked paprika add vibrancy to rich mayo.