Why This Recipe Works
For a shrimp tempura recipe that would produce sweet, fresh-tasting shrimp covered in a light, crisp coating, we chose the largest available shrimp, since it’s easy to overcook small ones. Finding that a high temperature gave us greaseless tempura, we deep-fried the shrimp in a large Dutch oven in 400-degree oil. For our tempura batter recipe, we substituted cornstarch for flour, which contributed to lightness, and we substituted a surprise ingredient—vodka—for water, finding that alcohol mixed with flour didn’t produce toughening gluten and burned off during cooking, leaving no traces of alcohol flavor.
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Do not omit the vodka; it is critical for a crisp coating. For safety, use a Dutch oven with a capacity of at least 7 quarts. Be sure to begin mixing the batter when the oil reaches 385 degrees (the final temperature should reach 400 degrees). It is important to maintain a high oil temperature throughout cooking. If you are unable to find colossal shrimp (8-12 per pound), jumbo (16-20) or extra-large (21-25) may be substituted. Fry smaller shrimp in three batches, reducing the cooking time to 1½ to 2 minutes per batch. See Straighten Out Your Shrimp below for tips on preventing the shrimp from curling.
1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees. In large, heavy Dutch oven fitted with clip-on candy thermometer, heat oil over high heat to 385 degrees, 18 to 22 minutes.
2. While oil heats, make 2 shallow cuts about ¼ inch deep and 1 inch apart on underside of each shrimp. Whisk flour and cornstarch together in large bowl. Whisk egg and vodka together in second large bowl. Whisk seltzer water into egg mixture.
3. When oil reaches 385 degrees, pour liquid mixture into bowl with flour mixture and whisk gently until just combined (it is OK if small lumps remain). Submerge half of shrimp in batter. Using tongs, remove shrimp from batter 1 at a time, allowing excess batter to drip off, and carefully place in oil (temperature should now be at 400 degrees). Fry, stirring with chopstick or wooden skewer to prevent sticking, until light brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer shrimp to paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle with salt. Once paper towels absorb excess oil, place shrimp on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet and place in oven.
4. Return oil to 400 degrees, about 4 minutes, and repeat with remaining shrimp. Serve immediately with Ginger-Soy Dipping Sauce.
TOO THICKOvermixed batter fries into a thick, breadlike coating.
TOO PUFFYWhisking whipped egg white into the batter creates a balloonlike coating.
TOO THINUndermixed batter remains thin, contributing to overcooked shrimp.
JUST RIGHTA surprise ingredient and the right technique keep our coating crisp and airy.
Booze for Better Batter?
The batter for shrimp tempura is devilishly hard to get right, easily turning thick and heavy if you overmix even slightly or let it sit too long. Even when a first batch came out light and crisp, subsequent batches were progressively thicker and greasier. In the past, we’ve guaranteed success with another finicky foodstuff—pie crust—by replacing some of the water with vodka. Would the same swap in tempura batter lead to a coating immune to overmixing and resting?
We fried two batches of shrimp in two different batters. The first batter contained 1 egg, 11/2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of cornstarch, and 2 cups of seltzer water. In the second, we replaced 1 cup of the seltzer water with 1 cup of vodka.
The vodka-batter shrimp was identical from the first batch to the second, turning out light and crisp each time. The shrimp dipped in the batter without vodka came out heavier and greasier in the second batch.
When water (in this case seltzer) and flour are mixed, the proteins in the flour form gluten, which provides structure—but it only takes a few too many stirs (or too many minutes of sitting) to develop too much gluten and an overly heavy batter. Because vodka is about 60 percent water and 40 percent alcohol (which does not combine with protein to form gluten), it makes the batter fluid and keeps gluten formation in check no matter how much you stir or allow it to sit.
Straighten Out Your Shrimp
When cooking shrimp for tempura, the underside tends to shrink more than the top, causing the shrimp to curl tightly and the batter to clump up and cook unevenly inside the curl. Here’s a way to alleviate that problem.
After peeling and deveining a shrimp, hold it on its back on the cutting board. Use the tip of a paring knife to make two 1/4-inch-deep incisions on the underside about 1/2 inch apart.