How to Make Crispy Buffalo Fried Cauliflower
Anyone who is or has been married can confirm that it's a state of being that requires plenty of promise-making, and not quite as much following-through. You're constantly asking yourself questions like, if I say this now, will she remember it six months from now?* Or, its close cousin did I really promise six months ago to do this wacky thing that she's now telling me I promised to do?**
**Pro-tip: Doesn't matter, DO IT IMMEDIATELY.
Case in point: buffalo wings
My wife and fried chicken wings have been having an unusually long and torrid love affair that started in her youth and has continued to this very day. We even have a special clause in our marriage contract that allows for occasions of infidelity only if buffalo wings are at stake.***
The problems started when, a couple years ago, I went on a massive buffalo wing crawl to find the best wings in the city. She happened to be out of town, and wouldn't let me hear the end of it.
It happened again when I spent several weeks coming up with the ultimate buffalo wing recipe, again while she was out of the country. I promised then and there that any future wing project would be arranged to coincide with her presence. But whoops! I went and forgot all about that when I spent several weeks tasting Korean fried chicken around the city and worked out my own recipe for the delectably crunchy wings.
And now that my wife has decided to go 100% vegetarian for good, she's had to resign herself to the sad truth: that tangy zip, punchy heat, and crispety crunch of the perfect buffalo wing would never again be hers.
In an act of selfless valor befitting a husband of my stature, I made it my mission to provide her with a suitable alternative. And that's where deep-fried cauliflower comes into play.
Craving Cauliflower Crunch
On paper, the concept seems brilliant. Cauliflower is a wonderfully meaty and flavorful vegetable, and deep frying is a great way to build flavor, adding a caramelized sweetness and a bit of fat to help make it feel like more of a craveable bar snack. Add to it a nice crunchy batter, toss it in buffalo sauce, and you've got a finger food that even an omnivore should love.
The problem, however, is that most existing recipes for it miss the mark. I think it all comes down to the fact that many folks assume that vegans are health nuts (a phenomenon I have lamented about in the past), when in point of fact, most vegans, just like most omnivores, are perfectly willing to eat deep fried, salty treats—in moderation.
Because of this, most existing recipes make concessions on flavor in favor of health. This version from PETA bakes their 'flower in a soy milk batter, while this one from Clean & Delicious uses a spice rub and no crisp coating at all.
This will never do for my wife. If she's going to indulge, she's going to indulge. I'll see to that.
In attempting to figure out a good frying batter for the cauliflower—I wanted something that was shatteringly crisp and stayed crisp even in sauce, as well as being relatively thin and neutral in flavor so that the sauce and cauliflower really came through—I realized that I already had the obvious solution: Just use the Korean Fried Chicken batter I'd already developed.
The batter is stupid-easy to make. Equal parts cornstarch, flour, water, and vodka, along with a bit of salt and baking soda. The cornstarch cuts the flour to lower the overall protein content of the batter, which ensures that it stays nice and crisp (protein can interconnect, creating tough gluten), while the vodka helps by also limiting gluten formation (gluten doesn't form in alcohol), as well as being more volatile than water, allowing the batter to shed its moisture and crisp up far more rapidly than in a batter made with water alone.
On testing it in real life, it worked marvelously. Mostly. The only issue was with larger pieces of cauliflower, which tended to get soft much faster. The problem is that internal moisture continues to escape in the form of steam as the cauliflower rests, loosening and softening the crisp crust.
I tried double dipping, a common Korean fried chicken technique. Batter the cauliflower once, fry it briefly, pull it out, let it rest, batter it again, and fry until crisp. This worked reasonably well, but the batter coating ended up a little too thick for my taste.
The easiest solution? Just cut the cauliflower smaller. The smaller pieces cook faster, dehydrate a bit more, and steam less than the large ones, allowing them to keep their crunch far longer. 1/2 to 1-inch florets was a reasonable size to aim for.
And hang on a minute... if I'm going with a Korean-style cornstarch crisp coating, why the heck wouldn't I go ahead and make a Korean Fried variation of the same cauliflower? Why not indeed?
I fried off a few more batches, playing around with a couple of additions to the batter. I found that toasted sesame seeds stirred into the mix complemented the flavor of the cauliflower and sweet glaze nicely, while a scoop of unsweetened coconut flakes added even more surface area and texture.
For once, my wife was satisfied with the results. And honey, I promise I'll get those hot sauce stains out of the carpet. Just give me six months.