Trust Your Nose

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tilapiaIf you read my entry about the oven fire I discovered in the middle of the night last month, you remember the acrid smoke from burnt aluminum foil that I described. That smell lasted for three days, give or take.

Now I have a new smell to deal with. Let me tell you what happened.

Last night, I was frying up some tilapia. My usual process is to cut the filets in half, season them with some Old Bay, toss them in lightly in flour, being sure to pat off the excess. Then I dip the fish in either an egg wash, or, as I did last night, dip them in a bit of buttermilk seasoned with a tablespoon or two of hot sauce. Then a coating of panko. Fried in a half inch of hot oil, a couple minutes on each side until golden brown.

That’s where I ran into trouble. Instead of using the new bottle of canola I had within arm’s reach, I decided to go for the three-quarters empty gallon jug of peanut oil that I bought sometime in the distant past. When I opened the jug, I did get a faint whiff that the oil might be rancid, but nothing that knocked me off my feet or anything. I poured it into the pan, and heated it up. From the start, things didn’t seem to be right. As the oil heated, I noticed little white bubbles of foam coming up from the bottom of the pan. I’d never seen that happen before. Still undeterred, I tossed in three pieces of fish. The whole pan covered over with that weird white foam. That’s when the weird, super rancid oil smell hit. As the pan got hotter, the smell got stronger. And then the oil started to smoke. This was peanut oil — it doesn’t have the highest smoke point of oils on the shelf, but it’ll go until 300° before it starts to smoke. Clearly, something was wrong. I tossed out the three pieces of fish – total loss – and poured the hot oil into an empty milk carton, and rinsed out the pan as best I could, and started again, this time with that fresh canola. Too late though, for the smell, which still lingers and reached into every corner of the apartment.

I’d stored the peanut oil badly. Oils like cool, dark spots, without exposure to a lot of air — in a jug, that means minimizing the surface area exposed. This jug of mine was sitting out in the light, for who knows how long.

Lesson learned : trust your nose and avoid any oil that seems even a little bit off.