Fried Calamari With Red Sauce Recipe

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

There are few dishes more emblematic of casual American dining than fried calamari. These crispy, succulent strips of squid are easy finger food, perfect for sharing family-style with a side of marinara sauce for dipping.

Fried calamari is a relatively recent addition to the American menu. In fact, it only rose to prominence on American menus in the late 1970s, according to this The New York Times analysis of food trends. Around the same time, in an effort to curb overfishing, state and federal marine conservation programs pushed the restaurant industry to consider adopting squid on their menus. Today, you can find fried calamari pretty much anywhere, like roadside clam shacks, bars, and, of course, at tried-and-true Italian-American red-sauce joints.

And while sharing a plate of fried calamari at a restaurant is how most of us enjoy it, that doesn’t mean you can’t also have fried calamari at home—in fact, as fried foods go, it’s pretty easy. The key is in the details: namely soaking the squid before giving it a well-balanced dredging, followed by a quick cooking time, for a light, golden crust and tender squid that’s never squishy, grease-laden, or rubbery.

I start by soaking the squid in milk and salt for up to two hours, which mellows out any fishy flavors and seasons the meat. Because of its slight viscosity, milk also helps the flour coating adhere to the squid.*

*Marinating in dairy is said to have a tenderizing effect on meat due to lactic acid. While this technique may work for other meats, I didn’t find dairy to produce any game-changing improvements in the texture of the squid here.

Then, to build a crisp, evenly browned exterior, I opt for a blend of wheat flour and cornstarch. Proteins in wheat flour promote browning, a bit of baking powder aerates the coating, and cornstarch keeps the dredge crisp and mitigates greasiness. That said, the exact ratio is a matter of personal preference. If desired, you can dial down the cornstarch to reduce the crispness (or omit it entirely—the calamari will still be delicious), or increase it slightly for a more crunchy shell. Just compensate accordingly with the amount of flour so that you end up with roughly the same volume of dredge.

Quick cooking means tender squid, so when it comes time to fry, success is largely a matter of maintaining a steady temperature and cooking the squid for just a few minutes. To keep the temperature from dipping too low, the best approach is to start with the oil a bit hotter than you’ll really need (around 365°F/185°C) to so that it’ll drop into the ideal zone (around 275-300°F/135-150°C) once the squid is added. From there, just use a thermometer and adjust your heat accordingly to keep it in the zone.

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The Best Gifts for Beginner Cooks

Coming up with gift ideas for the beginner cook is pretty easy—even if they already have the essentials. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go wrong. There’s a host of bad products (and product bundles) marketed toward the novice cook, and the sellers are counting on the neophyte to know no better and opt for an expensive nonstick skillet over a cheap cast iron pan. Luckily for them, you’re around to steer them in the right direction, and give truly useful gifts that will reward their early ventures into cooking.

Whenever we shop for new cooks, we think back to our own starting mistakes. Why did we wait so long to buy an instant-read thermometer? Or a scale?

In part, that’s because once we’ve replaced a poor tool with a superior one, we have a far greater understanding of its value. The gift you’re giving is more than just the item in question: You’re passing on the wisdom of your experience.

A Nice Pan

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

Cooking is a lot more enjoyable if you have a decent pan or two. For novice cooks who are in the market for a Western-style skillet, we recommend investing in both a cast iron and a tri-ply stainless steel pan.

Cast iron pans are prized for being durable, versatile, and affordable. They are kitchen workhorses with excellent heat retention properties, making them well-suited for a wide range of tasks like searing steaks, frying latkes, and baking cornbread. Sure, cast iron requires a little extra care, but with just a few seconds of upkeep, this is a pan that will last well past a lifetime.

Tri-ply stainless steel skillets are much lighter than cast iron pans, better at conducting heat, and won’t react with acidic ingredients. They’re ideal for quickly sautéing vegetables, making pan sauces, and tossing ingredients like a badass.

An Awesome Chef’s Knife

Picking a knife can depend on a range of factors, such as hand size, experience level, and intended uses, which is why we’ve devoted an entire guide to knife-related considerations. But we’re confident recommending our house favorite, the Misono UX10, to the majority of cooks. This knife is sharp straight out of the box, and it will stay sharp despite repeated use. It’s light, well-balanced, and it will certainly make the prospect of learning how to chop and slice all the more enticing for someone setting out to master knife skills.

Another benefit: It’s nice enough that it’ll provide ample motivation for the new cook to learn how to properly store and take care of their knives, and the importance of keeping them sharp, either by sending it out for proper sharpening or learning how to sharpen it themselves.

A Set of Tongs and Tweezers

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

A pair of tongs is invaluable for moving food around during cooking, acting as an extension of your hand. From fishing out noodles from boiling water to turning steaks or cutlets, these tongs from OXO can handle it all without damaging or scratching your pans. And if you’d like to get really cheffy, pick up a pair of tweezer tongs. They’re an affordable stocking stuffer that will impress and excite any kitchen newbie.

An Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven

[Photo: Emily Dryden]

A Dutch oven is another piece of equipment that we use all the time for making soups, stews, and braises, as well as for deep frying, and even baking bread. They’re sturdy, easy on the eyes, and will last a lifetime. Staub and Le Creuset make the best investment piece Dutch ovens on the market.

The Right Stand Mixer

[Photo: Vicky Wasik]

If the budding chef in your life is in fact something closer to a budding pastry chef, they won’t be able to realize their dreams without a good stand mixer. Many baking recipes pretty much require a stand mixer. Stella recommends the KitchenAid Pro due to its powerful motor and its solid-metal gears, which help it power through things like cold butter easily and quickly. Throw in standard attachments, like a pasta maker or meat grinder, and it’s basically a one-stop shop for specialty food production.

Measuring Tools

A cook can’t accurately follow a recipe if they don’t have the correct tools to measure out their ingredients, so getting your giftee a set of measuring cups and spoons is a great place to start. But also, keep in mind that volume isn’t the only (or best) way to measure out a recipe’s ingredients. For accuracy and ease of use (especially with baking projects), a digital kitchen scale is hard to beat, and it makes for a great gift.

A Cutting Board

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll probably want some milk. If you give a cook a knife, they’ll need a cutting board to put it to use. Whether you choose plastic or wood is up to you. (Of course, we did the research and can help you find the best of each.)

Plastic cutting boards are inexpensive. Our favorite from OXO is sturdy, but light, and it’s dishwasher-safe. It’s the kind of thing a new cook can feel comfortable using because they’re hard to damage and easily replaceable. However, a good wooden cutting board, like this one from The BoardSmith, is worth owning. It’s extremely durable, gentle on your knives, and very good looking.

Spices (Fresh Ones!)

It’s possible that your beginner cook already has a few basic spices in their pantry, but lord knows how old they are. If they’re over a year old, they might as well be sawdust. So do your giftee a favor and pick up a bundle of fresh spices from Burlap & Barrel, one of our favorite spice purveyors. You can build your own bundle with classics like dried thyme and ground turmeric, while also adding a couple exciting options in there, like Icelandic kelp and urfa chile, to inspire your giftee to experiment in the kitchen.

Fun Pantry Ingredients

[Photo: Daniel Gritzer]

A few weeks ago, we wrote a story about our favorite pantry ingredients worth the splurge.

There’s no better way to get a new cook in the kitchen than a basket full of tasty ingredients, like Sicilian tomato estratto for rigatoni alla vodka, fish sauce for Brussels sprouts muchim, and olive oil for well, everything.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules with this one. But if you love cooking with a certain ingredient, chances are your beginner cook will too.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.

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Diacetyl: The Molecule Responsible for Butter Flavor and Popcorn Lung

Illustration of butter being poured on movie theater popcorn

After about a year of working at the Glister-Mary Lee microwave popcorn factory in Jasper, MO, Eric Peoples started having breathing problems his doctors couldn’t explain. Eventually, he was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans and informed he would likely need a double lung transplant in the future. A suspiciously high number of his colleagues at the same factory received the same diagnosis. Lawsuits followed and, because he had the worst symptoms, Peoples’s case was heard earliest. In 2004, he and his wife were awarded a total of $20 million in the first so-called “popcorn lung” case.

The culprit of Peoples’s ailment turned out to be diacetyl, the exact chemical that used to makes buttery popcorn so delicious. It’s found naturally in dairy products like sour cream, buttermilk and, yes, butter, and before the Peoples case, it was a common ingredient in artificial butter flavoring. (If you enjoyed “buttered” popcorn at a movie theater or out of the microwave before the mid-2000s, you almost definitely know what diacetyl tastes like.) It’s safe to eat, but it can cause permanent damage to the bronchioles—the narrowest parts of the branching airways in the lungs—if you inhale it. Like if, say, you’re a microwave-popcorn-factory employee working over the giant tank of flavorings.

Dozens of popcorn factory employees (and even one consumer—a Colorado man who ate two bags of popcorn every day for 10 years) won millions of dollars in lawsuits over the chemical, and diacetyl became molecule non grata in the processed-food world. Orville Redenbacher’s declined an interview for this story, but a spokesperson said that it stopped using diacetyl in its products in 2007, along with all other popcorn products produced by companies owned by its corporate parent, Conagra Brands, which include ACT II and Jiffy Pop. Diacetyl is still entirely legal (and safe!) to use as a flavoring, but it would be rolled up in “natural flavorings” or “artificial flavorings” on an ingredients list: You’d never see it named on a label. (I reached out to Jelly Belly, whose buttered popcorn-flavored jelly beans may use diacetyl—or may have used it in the past—but the company also declined an interview.)

Givaudan, the world’s largest maker of flavorings and fragrances, also stopped using diacetyl in the US in 2007. “Although it has been designated as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in food by the FDA, we made the decision based on the ongoing threat of litigation and the related public perception,” says Stephen Collins, head of communications for Givaudan Taste & Wellbeing North America.

But if you’re a wine drinker, diacetyl has a very different reputation. “In wine, there’s a sharp acid called malic acid that tastes like green apples,” says Maggie Campbell, a wine and spirits expert who is president and head distiller of Privateer Rum, a member of the boards of the American Craft Spirits Assocation and the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, and a frequent speaker at drinks conferences about things like yeast physiology. “If you want to soften that, you can do a bacterial fermentation called malolactic fermentation that turns malic acid into lactic acid, and that also produces diacetyl.” One of the more common white wines to use malolactic fermentation is Chardonnay, which means that when a wine geek calls a Chardonnay “buttery,” it’s literally true.

And she’s been technically trained as a taster to pick out individual molecules.

In addition to being a huge fermentation nerd, Campbell has been technically trained as a taster to pick out individual flavor molecules, and she notes that esides Chardonnay, nearly all red wines undergo malolactic fermentation, and the subtle hint of movie-theater-popcorn that produces is actually useful for sommelier-level wine analysis. “If I’m tasting a red wine and notice a note of diacetyl, that can help me figure out the balance of malic and lactic acid, which helps me figure out how ripe the grapes were and the climate where they were grown,” Campbell says.

glass of white wine being poured

Buttery Chardonnay is a good thing, but buttery lager, less so. “Diacetyl in general is hated in beer,” Campbell says, explaining that it’s produced there by yeast fermenting very quickly or with insufficient nutrients. Sometimes, makers of slower-fermenting beers like lagers even include a “diacetyl rest” period during production that lets the yeast break down any diacetyl that might be around and get rid of any lingering buttery flavor. But there are a handful of beer styles where a little bit of butteriness is a good thing. Take British-style stouts (like Guinness): A bit of diacetyl contributes butterscotch notes and a slightly oily mouthfeel.

Will drinking too much Chardonnay give you lung disease? No. Campbell hadn’t even heard of “popcorn lung” before our interview, and isn’t aware of any safety regulations about diacetyl for beer, wine, or spirits producers. Fermentation produces it at low concentrations, and even then, the diacetyl is unlikely to get into the air where it can be inhaled.

“Popcorn lung” associated with actual popcorn has pretty much disappeared in recent years, but bronchiolitis obliterans has reared its ugly head as a flavoring agent in the world of nicotine vapes. A 2015 study at Harvard University found diacetyl in more than 75 percent of the flavored e-cigarettes and refills tested. And late last year, a Canadian doctor published a paper on a 17-year-old with “popcorn lung” apparently caused by vaping. The FDA banned flavored vape products at the beginning of the year, but that was done to keep teens from getting hooked; the announcement makes no reference to diacetyl.

So the next time you catch a whiff of that old movie theater popcorn flavor, it’s a good bet that what you’re sniffing is diacetyl, whether you’ve got your nose buried in a Chardonnay, a glass of badly fermented beer, or a bag of butter-flavored anything, even if you can’t find it listed on the ingredients. But you’ve been warned: delicious as it is, you may not want to breathe that sweet, sweet scent in too deeply.

All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.

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