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.