Why It Works
- Slicing the squid bodies into thicker rings extends the cooking time long enough for coating to brown and crisp adequately, while still producing tender calamari.
- Milk mellows out fishy flavors, and provides enough viscosity for the dredge to stick to the meat.
- A blend of wheat flour, cornstarch, and baking powder results in a well browned, light, crispy exterior.
- A brief 15-minute rest after dredging the squid allows the flour to fully hydrate, ensuring a batter that stays on the calamari and doesn't fall off.
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.
- 1/2 cup (120ml) milk
- 1 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 pound (454g) cleaned squid, bodies sliced into 3/4-inch thick rings, tentacles left whole
- 1 3/4 cups (7 ounces; 200g) all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup (1 1/2 ounces; 44g) cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 quarts (1.9L) vegetable or other neutral oil
- 1 recipe Quick and Easy Italian-American Red Sauce in 40 Minutes or Less (see note)
- Lemon wedges, for serving
In a medium bowl, whisk together milk and salt. Add squid and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate squid for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, pepper, and baking powder until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Set aside.
Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet and place a colander on top of the rack. Set a second wire rack in another rimmed baking sheet and line rack with paper towels. Heat oven to 200°F (95°C).
Using clean hands, remove half of squid from milk mixture, allowing excess liquid to drain back into bowl, then transfer to flour mixture. Toss squid to coat evenly. Gently shake off excess flour and transfer squid to colander set over wire rack. Shake colander to sift out any excess flour, then transfer squid in a single layer to wire rack. Repeat with remaining squid. Let dredged squid rest for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat oil in Dutch oven or wok over high heat to 365°F (185°C). Add half of squid and fry until golden brown, stirring occasionally to prevent pieces from sticking to each other, about 3 minutes (the oil temperature will drop significantly once the squid is added; adjust heat to maintain temperature between 275-300°F/135-150°C).
Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer calamari to prepared paper towel–lined rack, season lightly with salt, then transfer to oven to keep warm.
Skim any browned bits from oil and discard. Return oil to 365°F (185°C) and repeat with remaining squid.
Transfer calamari to plate and serve immediately with red sauce and lemon wedges.
You may want to reduce the red sauce by gently simmering it on the stovetop until thickened to a consistency better suited to dipping. It's hard to predict how long this may take, since it will depend on the starting consistency of the sauce, its volume, the size and shape of the vessel it's in, and the heat level of the stovetop; it will often be as quick as a 5 or 10 minute simmer, though it could take longer to thicken the sauce up to a calamari-coating consistency.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The calamari can be soaked in milk up to 2 hours before frying, but is best fried immediately before serving.