To Avoid Mushy Fried Green Tomatoes, Oil Temperature Is Everything

It takes a lot of patience to wait for home-grown tomatoes to ripen on the vine, which can take approximately six to eight weeks from pollination. However, savvy cooks know there's a tasty cheat when you're waiting for backyard tomatoes to turn red: Sneak a couple of underripe fruits from the vine and make fried green tomatoes. 

Made popular by the 1991 movie of the same name, fried green tomatoes are exactly what they sound like — slices of unripened tomatoes that are breaded and pan-fried for a delicious, crispy summertime treat. They're quite simple to make, but you need to get your oil temperature to 360 degrees Fahrenheit before beginning to fry. Otherwise, you'll end up with mushy tomatoes.

If the oil isn't hot enough, the crust on the tomatoes won't become crispy and brown. If its temperature is too cool, you'll soak or boil the tomatoes in warm oil instead. The tomatoes will get soft and break down like they would when sweating vegetables for tomato sauce, the coating will soak up the oil, and your tomatoes will end up greasy. Before you start frying, ensure you have a calibrated frying or candy thermometer so your oil temperature stays within the correct range.

Why oil temperature matters when frying

No matter what you're frying, you won't get very far if you don't hit the frying temperature sweet spot. To get the crust on your fried green tomatoes to turn out nice and crisp, the oil must be hot enough for the Maillard reaction – the scientific process of browning — to happen. Browning doesn't occur until around 300 degrees Fahrenheit, so cooking your green tomatoes in oil at any temperature lower than that will be more like boiling or poaching.

Another thing to keep in mind is that when you add food to a pan of hot oil, the oil temperature will drop. This is especially true with fried chicken, as the meat is typically refrigerated before it gets breaded and fried. The same is also true with fried green tomatoes, to a lesser degree, so bring the temperature of your oil up to around 360 degrees Fahrenheit before placing any tomatoes into the pan. This way, you can afford to lose 10 to 20 degrees and still be in the ideal temperature range for browning.

Thermometers are your best friend in the kitchen because they eliminate any guesswork. If you want to fry green tomatoes (or anything else), invest a couple of dollars in a frying or candy thermometer that clips onto the side of the pan. This way, you can monitor the oil temperature without wasting any precious breaded tomato slices.

Don't burn your tomatoes, and experiment with breading

On the other end of the temperature scale, you should be cautious not to overheat the frying oil. If the oil is too hot, you risk burning the outside crust of your fried green tomatoes, while the inside won't get cooked. When tomatoes are still green, they have a lot of malic acid, the same acid in green apples. Therefore, burnt fried green tomatoes will be bracingly sour to boot. When they are cooked through at the proper temperature, the acidic nature of these tomatoes will mellow.

For truly crunchy fried green tomatoes, in addition to monitoring the temperature, you can play around with different types of breading to get the perfect crunch. Many traditional recipes are made with cornmeal, but you can swap your go-to breadcrumbs for panko for an extra crunch. Panko breadcrumbs have a light, extra-crispy texture and won't absorb extra oil.

After your tomatoes are cooked and browned on both sides, the last step to preserve their crunch is to let them drain on a wire rack over a paper towel. Don't stack or cover them with a lid, or the steam released will collect and make the crust soggy. Once you master perfectly crisp fried green tomatoes, your only challenge will be leaving a few fruits on the vine to fully ripen.