There are thousands of kitchen tools on the market that range from multipurpose to unitasker, but countertops and storage space are limited, so you have to make sure you’re only buying the gadgets that make the most sense for you and your situation. Case in point: my longstanding lack of kitchen thermometer.
Even the Little Mermaid understands that gadgets and gizmos aplenty won’t solve all your problems, so knowing how to get the most use out of what you already have on hand is always helpful. Since I don’t see myself buying a thermometer anytime soon, here are some ways to make sure the oil is hot enough for frying without checking its specific temperature at all.
Takeout staff writer Dennis Lee has been onto this hack for many years, having learned it from his mom. If you dip the tip of a single wooden chopstick into your frying oil while it’s heating on the stove, tiny bubbles (like champagne bubbles) will gather around the chopstick and come to the surface of the oil. This indicates that the oil is hot enough to start frying.
Saveur explains why these bubbles appear: Traces of moisture trapped inside the wood, when exposed to the hot oil, will boil and escape as steam. You can gauge the heat of the oil based on how intense the bubbles become. Hotter oil will cause rolling bubbles like what you might see in a hot tub, but oil that isn’t as hot will result in faint little bubbles.
You can also use the edge of a wooden spoon for this trick if you don’t have chopsticks. If you’re a frying fiend and plan to use this trick often, Woman’s World recommends soaking the spoon (or chopstick) in boiling water to help release all the oil it will absorb after a few uses.
If gauging bubble intensity isn’t accurate enough for you, tossing a small piece of bread in the oil could be another option. Cuisine at Home notes that tossing about a one-inch-sized cube of bread into the hot oil and timing how long it takes to brown is a simple test of the oil’s readiness.
If the bread takes close to a minute, the oil is likely at a temperature of about 350-365 degrees Fahrenheit, which is good for frying. However, if the bread takes longer than 60 seconds to turn a golden brown color, then the oil is too tepid to fry anything properly.
The upside to using a small piece of bread is that you know it won’t leave behind or impart any strong flavor to the rest of the food you plan to fry in the oil. Plus if you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to have bread in your kitchen than a thermometer.
Multiple sources recommend tossing a single popcorn kernel into hot oil to test the heat level. When the kernel pops, it means the oil is at that ideal frying temperature of 350-365 degrees Fahrenheit.
The only downside to this method is that there are more variables that could effect the kernel pop, so you may need to use more than one. You know how not all kernels pop when you make a batch of popcorn? That could be the case here as well (since it has to do with the moisture levels inside each kernel), so you might want to test three kernels, just to be sure you didn’t use a defective one.
The lesson here is that if you’re determined not to buy another kitchen gadget, you don’t need a thermometer to fry your food to a perfect golden crisp. Use what you already have—and be careful to avoid splattering.