Just as with almost any other kitchen task, no, you don’t need a special appliance for deep frying. In the case of deep fat frying, though, a quality electric fryer does remove one of the variables that make the process tricky. I’m speaking of temperature control. With an electric deep fryer you need only set the dial and wait until the appliance indicates it’s reached the correct temperature.
This is important because frying at the correct temperature is essential for good results. If the temperature is too low, your food will be pale, soggy, and oil-laden. If the temperature is too high, the outside of the food will brown, or worse, burn, before the inside has a chance to cook. At the proper temperature – somewhere between 325°F and 375°F – deep fried foods are cooked through, tender on the inside, and deliciously crispy on the outside.
There are some other advantages to using a fryer. Because it’s enclosed, there’s less oil, steam, and smell released into the kitchen; and it’s safer than using an open vessel. Some have filtering systems, which makes recycling and saving used oil easier.
However, and this is tricky, less than commercial grade equipment doesn’t always have accurate temperature control. If you find the fryer you bought doesn’t reach proper temperatures or takes too long to recover the temperature once you add food to the oil, will you be able to return it? Ask around, check reviews, and get recommendations as to brand before you invest.
Would you rather try your hand with a simple pot? It’s easy enough. The pot must be deep enough and wide enough to hold a sufficient amount of oil and food. Remember that once you add food to the oil, the level will rise considerably. If you use a wire basket to hold the food, that too will create volume. So something like a Dutch oven is called for. I once taught at a school where they deep fried in a lovely Le Creuset enameled cast iron Dutch oven. It worked well, but the pan was never the same afterward; oil has a way of creating a sticky film that’s extremely difficult to remove. I recommend a cast iron one; they’re less costly, too. A wok is also a good choice.
What else do you need? A good thermometer. A candy/deep frying thermometer attaches to the side of the pot and keeps your hands free. Tongs, a skimmer, or a slotted spoon can be used to remove food from the oil. Plenty of paper towels or a brown paper bag absorb excess oil from cooked food. Thick oven mitts will protect you from burns.
It seems odd, but deep frying is actually a dry heat method of cooking. The moisture inside the food is driven out by the heat, and oil replaces it. Only a small amount does, though, so it’s not an especially fattening way of preparing food. Pan-fried breaded cutlets, for example, absorb a lot more fat than, say, deep fried clams.
You can overdo it, though. I’m reminded of the day I bought my deep frying kettle. My middle stepdaughter was living with us at the time, and Dad wasn’t home. So we girls fired up the kettle and dined on french fries, potato chips, and donuts that night. I think it was months before we ate anything deep fried again – at least it was for me! So have fun whichever way you choose to go, but you might want to exercise a bit more restraint then we did.