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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.