Frying in virgin olive oil

Crispy croquettes, crackly fried anchovies, golden-brown fried potatoes. Fried foods are some of the very best of Spanish cooking. The technique is dead-simple -just immerse foods in bubbling hot olive oil. In Spain, where olive oil is an essential ingredient for home cooks, absolutely everything gets fried -croquettes, fish, potatoes, but also many traditional sweets such as doughnuts (rosquillas) or torrijas.

Fried foods historically play a part in Spanish cuisine. The olive tree was first planted in Spain by the Greeks and the Phoenicians. Besides its use in cooking, the oil was valued for light, for medicinal purposes, and for beauty treatments too. When Spain became part of the Roman Empire, the olive plantations were extended in a wide swath across what is now Andalusia.

During the centuries of Moorish rule, both the Islamic and Sephardic Jewish communities, neither of which used pig fat, cooked with olive oil. Some Jewish holidays, such as Hannukah, enshrined fried foods such as buñuelos, deep-fried pastry puffs, which are still made in many Spanish villages and cities.

Authentic Spanish flavor

Some cooks use lesser, cheaper, vegetable oils for frying. This is false economy, as scientific studies show that foods fried in olive oil absorb less oil than if fried in other oils, so the oil goes further and makes for less greasy food. Best of all, olive oil imparts authentic Spanish flavor.

Fried foods can be made in either a deep-fat fryer or a frying pan. The advantages of using an electric deep-fat fryer are three: the oil temperature is thermostatically controlled; the large quantity of oil helps maintain the temperature so the food fries evenly, and the basket is helpful for removing the foods. However, a deep frying pan with sloping sides works fine. Pour in oil to a depth of at least 2.5 cm / 1 in.

Starchy foods such as potatoes require no coating, whereas pieces of fish or chicken need to be lightly coated in flour or a protective batter. Fry food in small batches, without crowding, and allow the oil to return to frying temperature before adding a new batch.

Heat olive oil to a temperature of 180ºC / 360ºF. The oil will be hot, but not smoking. At this temperature a crust forms around the food so the oil doesn’t penetrate, but it doesn't brown too quickly, allowing the interior of the food to cook thoroughly.

Fried foods are best straight out of the frying pan, but many, such as croquettes, can be prepared -shaped, floured or battered- well in advance. No wonder traditional cooks love this easy cooking technique.

Janet Mendel is a food writer based in southern Spain. She is the author of several books about Spanish food, including Cooking in Spain and Tapas: a bite of Spain (Santana Books, Spain); My Kitchen in Spain and Cooking from the Heart of Spain-Food of La Mancha (Harper Collins), and Traditional Spanish Cooking (Frances Lincoln, UK).