The long and the slow of perfect calamari
For something you might expect to be a cinch, calamari can be a real headache for the home cook.
Journos in Cape Town in the late 70s and early 80s lived on calamari. Most of us had never heard of it before then; it was not yet a thing in South African eating out culture. It was the Cape Hope squid but fishers called it chokka and used it for bait.
Then our after-hours hangout at the Café Royal in Church Street, Cape Town, put fried calamari rings on the menu. For 85 cents. Your alternatives were Steak Chasseur (“Hunters’ sauce” with red wine, mushrooms and tomatoes) for 95 cents or the Mixed Grill for the outrageous price of R1.20. For R5 you could get a bottle of wine and two calamari dinners.
The wine, called Roma White, was probably more accurately described as white vinegar with top notes of battery acid. How we survived is a miracle and a mystery. We were young and foolhardy; our older palates would reject it out of hand.
But the Café Royal’s tender yet crispy deep-fried calamari was the best-kept secret in Cape Town, even before the Chapman’s Peak Hotel became famous for its superb and still memorable calamari. I don’t think any of us ever thought of trying to cook it at home in those days.
It was only in the early 90s that I tried my hand at cooking calamari rings for the first time, and I went in blind. It was a journalists’ union meeting (okay, party) at our house and I was catering. Deep fry them, they said. They’ll be perfect, they said. Delectable. Right. Perfectly tough. Delectably inedible. Even after only three minutes of cooking. That’s how lessons are learnt. For calamari, even two minutes might be too much. Anything more is madness. But I didn’t know that then.
Or they can be shallow fried, which will require cooking for one minute on one side, then turning for another minute on the other. There is another, slower, way. This requires cooking them slowly for at least half an hour, such as in a seafood stew. Either way, there are tricks to be learnt.
If two minutes is too long, how long is just right? Many chefs say one minute, others two. Some say that only 30 seconds is all you need, but I don’t buy that; the temperature must be shockingly high. In my experience, try to fry calamari rings or strips in just 30 seconds and you’re likely to find them still pale and wan and rather sad. You want crunch on your calamari. You want golden caramelisation on your calamari. That’s the problem: you have to balance the temperature with the time so that the heat will give it that colour and texture very quickly without the blighters becoming tough and rubbery. Or burning.
So, while I usually advise 160℃ as the optimal temperature for deep frying potato chips or battered fish, I find that calamari needs a touch more. I’ve successfully fried calamari rings for two minutes at 160℃, but that’s taking it very close to the risk of overcooking them. I’d spike it up to 170℃, even 180°C. On one condition: after barely more than one minute, get them out of there (with a slotted spoon) and onto kitchen paper in a colander to drain.
A few handy hints:
Always have everything ready before you start cooking. There’ll be no time to faff about trying to find something while your lovely calamari rings turn to burnt rubber.
Get the oil to the right temperature and moderate it at that temperature before you start cooking them.
Cook in batches; don’t overcrowd the pan.
Return the oil to the correct temperature between batches; it will drop when you remove a batch of cooked calamari.
Keep your eye on the clock, or set a timer.
Have your calamari rings ready to go in the oil. This means they must be defrosted (in a colander is best for draining), then patted dry again and again with kitchen paper or preferably a clean towel. Then leave them to air dry for at least half an hour, just to be sure there’s no excess moisture left in them. Then, coat them in flour or cornflour into which you have mixed your chosen spices (salt, white pepper, crushed dried garlic, paprika, dried herbs, cumin, turmeric, whatever you fancy). Then shake off any excess flour and have them on a board ready for the pot. All of this needs to be done before you even start to cook them.
Also have everything else ready: rice or noodles already cooked and kept warm; crusty bread or garlic bread, piping hot; any dips, sauces, lemon wedges and garnishes; plates and cutlery set up, ready to go. Because cooking the calamari is the very last thing you’ll be doing for this meal, and you’ll want it straight from the pan to the paper-lined colander, onto the plate and to the table. Like a scout, be prepared.
Deep fry them in batches for 1 to 2 minutes at 170℃ or 180℃, remove, drain, and serve. (I’m hedging our bets here: you’ll be able to assess for yourself whether they’re right after a minute, and if you continue cooking do so very watchfully, but don’t go beyond 2 minutes.)
Or try cooking it the long way, as in this recipe. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.
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