A staple on Japanese menus in Japan and around the world, tempura are deep-fried, lightly battered delights often served solo with a simple dipping sauce, pinch of salt, or squeeze of lemon and eaten just about as fast as they hit the table. It’s a dish now so ingrained in Japanese cuisine and culture, with tempura houses dotted all across Japan where highly trained chefs specialize exclusively on the art of making tempura, but the technique was actually first introduced to Japan in the 16th century by the Portuguese through a traditional fried vegetable dish called peixinhos da horta—literally meaning “little fishes from the garden,” for the small, colorful shapes of the fried vegetables.
But just because there are highly trained tempura “masters” dedicating years of training to the preparation of all things tempura, if you’re a fan of the shatteringly crisp, delicate crunch, you can make it at home—here’s how.
Can You Tempura It?
The most common things served tempura-ed are seafood or vegetables. From shrimp to scallops, catfish to crab, the sky is the limit when it comes to battering and frying up seafood tempura. As long as the pieces of fish are boneless (for easy eating) and fairly thin (for quick cooking and easy battering), you’re probably good to go.
Some of the more popular ingredients for vegetable tempura are sweet potatoes, mushrooms, squash, bell peppers, and lotus root, but onion, carrots, pumpkins, and eggplants are all perfectly well suited for tempura.
For either seafood or vegetable tempura, there are few things you should keep in mind:
- Prepare the ingredients before preparing the batter.
- Keep each ingredient approximately the same size for even cooking.
- Pat the ingredients dry with paper towels before adding to the batter, as the batter could have trouble sticking to a wet surface. If the batter still manages to have trouble sticking, lightly dust the ingredient in loose flour before dipping into the batter.
How to Make Tempura Batter
The key to making restaurant-worthy, "impress your friends" tempura at home all comes down to the batter. Traditional tempura batters are made of a 1 to 1 mixture of flour and ice water and an egg or egg yolk. Once the flour becomes saturated with the water and egg, it won’t fry up to the right consistency, so it’s important to only very lightly mix the batter, plus it can’t be too thick or too thin but—like the third bed in Goldilocks and the Three Bears—just right.
Here’s our recipe for tempura batter, plus a few more tips to keep in mind:
1 1/2 cups cold all-purpose flour (sifted)
1 1/2 cups ice water
1 large egg
- Add flour to a cold bowl.
- Add ice cold water and the egg to a separate bowl and mix well to combine.
- Add liquid mixture to the flour, mix together a few times with chopsticks—the batter should be lumpy and dry pockets of flour should remain. Use immediately.
When preparing tempura, do not over mix the batter—swirl the chopsticks through gently in a figure eight motion for no more than one minute. Prepare the batter only immediately before you are ready to fry (ingredients prepped, frying oil hot and ready) for the best, crispiest outcome. The longer the batter sits, the more gluten will start to develop, leading to a denser, oilier tempura. Add a few ice cubes to the batter as needed to keep it cool and prevent gluten from forming as you continue to batter and fry.
How to Fry Tempura
Whenever you want to deep-fry anything at home, it’s important to choose the right oil for the job (a neutral oil like vegetable, canola, or even peanut work well for tempura) and to get that oil to the correct temperature.
Make sure to prep a paper towel-lined plate or baking sheet before you start, as the frying will happen fast and being prepared will ensure you don’t burn any precious tempura.
Now let's get frying! To start:
- Add enough to the pot or wok so that the tempura will be fully suspended in the frying oil, and bring it up to 350°F over medium-high heat. If you don’t have a thermometer, submerge wooden chopsticks (or the handle of a wooden spoon) into the oil—if small bubbles steadily form around the tips of the chopsticks, the oil is ready for frying.
- Dip the ingredients into the batter, letting any excess drain off, and then gently lay them into the hot oil.
- Use chopsticks to turn the ingredients over as you fry, and make sure not to add too many things at once—this will lower the temperature of the oil.
- Once the batter is crisp and pale golden in color, approximately one to three minutes, remove the tempura and lay the pieces on a paper towel-lined baking sheet or plate.
The Finishing Flourishes
Depending on the type of tempura you make, you may want to serve it simply with a sprinkle of salt or a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice. If you're looking for something a little more flavorful, you can whip up a dipping sauce (tentsuyu) with just a handful of (albeit special) ingredients: Mix six tbsp dashi, two tbsp mirin, and two tbsp soy sauce together in a small bowl for a tasty side.