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Putting deep fryers to the test

Special to The Times

CALL it County Fair Syndrome. Americans in droves are becoming frybabies. New versions of electric deep fryers have been elbowing their way onto our kitchen counters, enabling us to drop anything edible into hot oil.

Some fryers are compact, for quick, easy crisping of small ingredients -- you might use one for snacks, side dishes or to create a garnish or topping. Other, bigger models are billed as “professional” in style and seem geared to quantities that would allow a home cook to set up a drive-by window for, say, the neighborhood football team.

I recently tested six new deep fryers. The smaller models could fry up about one cup of, say, mushrooms; the larger models could handle about as much as four cups of, for example, hand-cut fries at a time. They range in price from $20 to $130. Some have such bells and whistles as a digital-display control panel or an odor-control filter; others offer simple but useful features such as a pour spout for removing oil after use. I assessed the machines based on the quality of fried food each made, the ease of use and cleanup, safety, whether special features were useful and effective and whether the fryer was a good value. I was tempted to fry Twinkies, but common sense prevailed. For my test, I put the fryers to work on batter-coated zucchini sticks, using canola oil.

All six machines offered up crispy zucchini in three minutes or less and were easy to assemble and operate. But some had safety and/or cleaning issues. And choosing the right machine for your kitchen depends on how much room you have and how many servings you want to prepare at one time.

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My favorite fryer was one of the mid-size, mid-price models, the Presto CoolDaddy cool-touch deep fryer. It has a sleek, modern look, and its oil tub is nonstick and removable, making cleanup a breeze. Zucchini fried in it for two minutes was tender and moist, tucked inside a light, crispy crust.

The two biggest and most serious-looking fryers, the Euro-Pro ($80) and the Waring Pro ($130), were efficient for cooking super-size portions. In both machines, the heating element sits in the oil tub along with the food. Some cooks prefer this configuration, because the oil has a faster “recovery” time -- that is, it returns more quickly to the proper temperature -- when you’re cooking multiple servings. But I couldn’t get past the idea that you don’t wash the heating element (the instructions say to wipe it off). That didn’t fly with my inner fussbudget.

All deep fryers come with lots of warnings and cautions. It’s a good idea to carefully read the directions before getting started. The bottom line is that parts of each of the machines I tested, (and, of course, the oil) get dangerously hot.

But, having said that, if you’ve got a craving for something delicious inside a crunchy coating, the convenience and ease of home fryers is clear, and for most of us, they allow a degree of control that’s harder to obtain on the stove top.

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food@latimes.com

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How hot, how cool?

The fryers are listed in order of preference. The sources indicated are a sampling; some models may be available at retailers in addition to those listed.

Fry me to the moon

The mid-size Presto CoolDaddy deep fryer, with its sleek black plastic “cool-touch” exterior and nonstick interior, has a 1,500-watt heating element housed under the removable oil tub. There’s a charcoal antiodor filter in the lid. A large window lets you keep an eye on the food.

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What’s the difference: A clever mechanism allows an exterior handle to lower the basket into the oil when the fryer lid is closed, to prevent splattering. When the cooking is done, the handle raises the basket back up so the excess oil can drain off.

What we thought: The best of the bunch, it’s a well-designed machine that is easy to operate and gives good results. The removable tub and innovative basket system are important pluses.

How much: About $50 at Macy’s or ChefsCorner.com ( www.chefscorner.com).

Pint-size performer

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Though it’s not much bigger than a toddler’s shoe box, the Cuisinart Compact Deep Fryer has a 1,000-watt heating element, which is permanently affixed to the underside of the die-cast frying tub. The housing unit is brushed stainless steel, with black plastic cool-touch handles. The lid and cooking basket are dishwasher-safe.

What’s the difference: The square oil tub has a spout to pour out the used oil. The tub is not removable; to clean, you fill the unit with water and baking soda and boil.

What we thought: Great results in a machine that takes up very little counter space. A nice design feature allows the oil to drain from the elevated basket before it is removed. One caveat: Be careful to touch only the handles; other surfaces get hot enough to burn a finger.

How much: About $50 at Bed, Bath & Beyond and Home Depot.

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Family feeder

Resembling a bread-maker, the T-Fal Family Deep Fryer has a 1,500-watt heating element housed under the removable, nonstick oil bowl. There’s a large odor-control filter and a viewing window.

What’s the difference: This is a mid-size machine, but it can handle as much food as some larger models. Like the Presto, it has the same clever basket-lowering and -raising mechanism. The entire exterior remains cool.

What we thought: Smooth operation and easy cleanup. The only drawback was that when the lid was popped open after cooking, the steam that had collected on the inside splattered into the oil below.

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How much: About $50 at Bed, Bath & Beyond and Amazon.com.

Serious sizzler

This all-business, large Waring Pro machine can fry more than 2 pounds of food in its 1-gallon removable stainless steel oil container. The 1,800-watt heating element is inside the cooking unit.

What’s the difference: Three mesh frying baskets are included, with collapsible handles for storage. There’s an on/off toggle switch and a built-in timer.

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What we thought: If your goal is to fry large quantities of food, then this machine gets the job done. The immersion-style heating element makes for quick oil temperature recovery time, a good feature if you’re cooking for a crowd. But you can’t wash the heating element.

How much: About $130 at Williams-Sonoma and Amazon.com.

Hi-techie

The imposing stainless steel Euro-Pro can fry about 1 1/2 pounds of food at a time. The 1,800-watt heating element is inside the oil container, with the food.

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What’s the difference: The control panel is an easy-to-use digital display. After you set the desired temperature, the machine beeps to let you know when it’s ready to start frying.

What we thought: For such a high-tech machine, there should be a safer way to lower the frying basket into the hot oil. You have to manually maneuver it, prompting this warning from the manufacturer: “Lowering the frying basket too quickly can result in the oil overflowing and splashing.”

How much: About $80 at Bed, Bath & Beyond and Target.

Budget bubbler

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Rival’s Cool Touch Deep Fryer looks like a mini rice cooker. Its 1,000-watt heating element is under the permanently affixed fry tub. There are dual filters to reduce cooking odors, and the lid can be removed for cleaning.

What’s the difference: This fryer does not come with a food basket. Instead, there’s a heat-resistant slotted spoon for putting in and taking out the food.

What we thought: This is a basic, no-frills machine. The small price and size are nice, but cleaning the nonremovable bowl was challenging. Following the temperature guidelines in the owner’s guide produced overcooked food. You may have to experiment to find the right temperature and frying time.

How much: About $25 at Target and Wal-Mart.

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-- Emily Dwass


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