Fried Calamari (Air Fryer, Paleo, Gluten free)


These crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside fried calamari are simple to make on the stovetop or in the air fryer! If you’re gluten-free, nut-free, paleo, or doing a Whole30, you can still eat this Italian-American-inspired crunchy appetizer with gusto!

A shot of platters of paleo fried calamari next to small bowls of marinara and sliced lemons

Since childhood, one of my favorite appetizers at Italian restaurants has been fried calamari (or calamari fritti), the iconic crunchy rings of tender squid that you can dunk in marinara sauce. But when I went paleo and gluten-free over a decade ago, I thought my days of munching on platters of calamari were over…until now!

It took a lot of testing, but my recipe for fried calamari got a big thumbs up from everyone in the family. Bonus: if you hate the muss and fuss of deep-frying your food, I’ve included air fryer instructions that work just as great (or even better) than the standard cooking method!

A hand dipping paleo and gluten-free fried calamari in a bowl of marinara sauce.

Where can you buy calamari?

Calamari, the Italian word for squid, is commonly used as the culinary term for any dish that features squid as the main event. You can buy it at your local fish market or in the frozen section of many supermarkets.

It’s easy to prepare; unless you’re buying it fresh, most squid comes frozen and already prepped for cooking. All you have to do is thaw it and cut it up!

I buy frozen 1-pound packages of The Town Dock brand’s fully-cleaned wild calamari—in fact, I keep several packages in my freezer. You can find a store that sells it near you right here.

When I have a fried calamari craving, I simply throw the package in the fridge and let it thaw for 8 to 10 hours. (Don’t want to fry calamari? Here’s my recipe for Grilled Calamari and Roasted Peppers.)

How do you tenderize calamari without milk?

Un-tenderized calamari can take on a super rubbery texture, so most folks tenderize it by brining it in some buttermilk or milk. However, if you’re dairy-free like me, you need to find an alternative method that’s equally effective. After doing some research, I came across an America’s Test Kitchen recipe that uses a baking soda and salt brine to tenderize and flavor the squid.

Adding salt to a glass bowl filled with water and baking soda to make an alkaline brine.

Per the food nerds at Cook’s Illustrated, “briefly soaking meat [or protein] in a solution of baking soda and water raises the pH on the meat’s surface, making it more difficult for the proteins to bond excessively, which keeps the meat tender and moist when it’s cooked.” And guess what? This method works perfectly.

Yay! Science!

Can you make calamari in the air fryer and Whole30-compatible?

Yes! You can definitely make this dish in the air fryer—detailed instructions are included below  In fact, the calamari comes out crispier and stays crispier longer than the squid I fried in avocado oil. Added bonus? This recipe is Whole30-compatible if you cook it in the air fryer!

An air fryer basket filled with paleo, gluten-free, and Whole30 fried calamari

The trick to getting perfect fried calamari from the air fryer is to make sure you spray on a nice coat of avocado oil onto the squid before cooking and to shake the basket midway through the cooking process. Because every air fryer is slightly different, you should start checking on it at the 6-minute mark to make sure you don’t overcook the calamari.

Reheating leftover fried calamari in the air fryer is also my preferred method to get crispy results—just pop them in at 400°F for 2 to 3 minutes or until crunchy again. (Psst! This is the air fryer I recommend.)

Ingredients

An overhead shot of the raw ingredients to make paleo fried calamari in the air fryer or on the stove.

  • Calamari, tubes and tentacles: Buy pre-cleaned calamari that have both whole bodies and tentacles. Pre-cut squid rings can be too thin sometimes.
  • Baking soda: To tenderize the calamari, I make a brine with baking soda, kosher salt, and water.
  • Diamond Crystal kosher salt: I use this salt in the brine and also as a finishing salt when the calamari comes out of the deep fryer or air fryer. If you’re using table salt or Morton’s brand kosher salt, use about half the amount of salt specified.
  • Cassava flour: A gluten-free and paleo-friendly flour that is a good substitute for all-purpose flour. I buy and recommend Otto’s brand.
  • Tapioca starch/flour: To give the coating extra crispiness, I add tapioca starch. This is a grain-free option that replaces rice and cornstarch in traditional recipes. Potato and arrowroot starch also work.
  • Freshly ground black pepper: It adds a spicy bite to the calamari.
  • Egg whites: I use whisked egg whites to help the flour coating adhere to the calamari. The protein in egg whites also helps with browning the coating on the squid. I’m not sure of a good alternative if you don’t tolerate eggs—if you try one that works, let us know in the comments!
  • Avocado oil or avocado oil spray: Avocado oil is my preferred oil for deep frying or high temperature cooking. It has a great fatty acid profile (mostly oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat) and a high smoke point.
  • Lemon wedges: a squeeze of fresh lemon juice adds a tangy brightness that balances the richness of fried calamari.
  • Marinara sauce (optional): If you’re feeling nostalgic for an Italian-American restaurant experience, warm up a small bowl of marinara sauce as the dipping sauce. Of course you can use homemade, but I usually just pour out some store-bought Whole30-compatible Rao’s marinara sauce.

How to make paleo and gluten free fried calamari

Cut up the calamari

Pat the calamari dry and cut the body into rings that are ¾-inch thick. Got tentacles? Trim any super long ones.

Slicing cleaned calamari into 3/4-inch rings on a wooden cutting board.

Make a quick brine

Add the baking soda, some Diamond Crystal kosher salt, and water in a large bowl and stir until dissolved.

A blue silicone spatula is stirring a salt solution in a clear bowl.

Submerge the prepared calamari in the brine, and stick the bowl in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Two hands are adding sliced calamari to a clear bowl filled with a clear liquid.

While the calamari is brining, prepare the ingredients to make the coating.

Prepare the coating for the calamari

Whisk together the cassava flour, tapioca flour, black pepper in a shallow bowl.

A hand is using a whisk to mix flour in a shallow brown bowl.

In a separate medium bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy.

A whisk is beating egg whites until they are frothy in a glass bowl.

Lastly, place a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet. You’ll be putting the flour-coated calamari on this rack before you fry them.

Dredge the calamari

When the 15 minutes of brining is up, drain the calamari and pat dry with paper towels or with clean kitchen towels.

Two hands are patting raw calamari dry between two pieces of paper towels.

Add the calamari to the whisked egg whites and toss well.

Adding the calamari to a bowl filled with whisked egg whites

In small batches, shake off any excess egg whites and dredge the calamari in the flour mixture. Make sure the insides of the calamari rings and all the tentacles are well coated with the flour mixture.

Two hands are dredging a calamari ring in a shallow dish filled with grain-free flour.

Shake off any excess flour and set the coated calamari on the prepared wire rack in the rimmed baking sheet.

A hand is adding dredged calamari rings to a rack on a rimmed baking sheet.

Now you’re ready to deep fry the calamari or pop them in the air fryer!

How to fry the calamari on the stovetop

Pour the avocado oil into a large Dutch oven or high-sided pot. The oil should reach about 2 inches up the sides. Heat the oil on medium high until it reaches 350°F.

The key to perfectly deep fried food is making sure the oil temperature is correct. I use my ChefAlarm or Thermapen One thermometer to monitor my oil temperature. No one wants soggy, greasy calamari!

A smiling Asian woman is pouring avocado oil into a pot on an induction cooktop.

Add half of the calamari to the hot oil and deep fry for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown, stirring occasionally so the calamari don’t stick together.

A spider strainer is adding paleo calamari to a large pot of hot oil

Use a slotted spoon or spider strainer to transfer the fried calamari to a paper towel-lined plate.

Transferring golden brown paleo fried calamari with a strainer to a paper-towel lined plate.

Season the fried calamari with a sprinkle of salt. Repeat the steps above with the remaining half of the calamari. Eat the calamari while it’s still hot!

A smiling Asian woman is sprinkling salt to a plate of fried calamari.

How to cook Whole30 fried calamari in the air fryer

Preheat your air fryer to 400°F. When it reaches temperature, spray the bottom of the basket with avocado oil and add enough calamari to make a single layer on the bottom of the basket. Spray the calamari generously with avocado oil—too little oil and the coating will remain powdery!

Spraying avocado oil on calamari in an air fryer basket

Air fry for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden brown and crunchy on the outside, shaking the contents of the basket at the halfway point. Every air fryer is slightly different so start checking on your calamari at 6 minute mark to make sure you don’t overcook them.

A hand is closing an air fryer filled with calamari.

Transfer the calamari to a plate and immediately season with a sprinkle of salt. Repeat the steps above with the remaining calamari.

What to serve with fried calamari

Fried calamari tastes best with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and served with a dipping sauce. Some of my favorite dipping sauces include marinara sauce, ketchup, sriracha, sriracha mayonnaise, and ranch dressing.

An overhead shot of three plates with paleo and gluten-free fried calamari. There is a small bowl with marinara sauce in it and lemon wedges on the side

More fried paleo recipes

Got a hankering for fried paleo recipes or crispy stuff to cook in an air fryer? Here are some tasty ones:


Looking for more recipe ideas? Head on over to my Recipe Index. You’ll also find exclusive recipes on my iPhone and iPad app, and in my cookbooks, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2013), Ready or Not! (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2017), and Nom Nom Paleo: Let’s Go! (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2022).


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An overhead shot of three plates with paleo and gluten-free fried calamari. There is a small bowl with marinara sauce in it and lemon wedges on the side
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Fried Calamari (Air Fryer, Paleo, Gluten free)

These crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside fried calamari are simple to make on the stovetop or in the air fryer! If you’re gluten-free, nut-free, paleo, or doing a Whole30, you can still eat this Italian-American-inspired crunchy appetizer with gusto!
Course Appetizer
Cuisine Italian
Keyword Air Fryer, Dairy-free, nom nom paleo, nomnompaleo, nut-free, paleo, seafood, Whole30
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Brining time 15 minutes
Servings 4
Calories 280kcal
Author Michelle Tam

Ingredients

  • 1 pound calamari cleaned and skins removed
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • cups cold water
  • 1 cup cassava flour
  • ½ cup tapioca flour
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 6 cups avocado oil or avocado oil spray for air fryer
  • 1 lemon cut into wedges
  • ½ cup marinara sauce optional dipping sauce

Instructions

  • Pat the calamari dry and cut the body into rings that are ¾-inch thick. Got tentacles? Trim any super long ones.
  • Mix baking soda, 1½ teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt, and water in a large bowl. Submerge the calamari and brine in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
  • While the calamari is brining, whisk the cassava flour, tapioca flour, black pepper in a shallow bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy. Lastly, place a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.
  • When the 15 minutes is up, take the calamari out of the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Add the calamari in the whisked egg whites and toss well.
  • In batches, shake off excess egg whites and dredge the calamari in the flour mixture.  Make sure the insides of the calamari rings and all the tentacles are well coated with the flour mixture.
  • Shake off any excess flour and set the coated calamari on the prepared wire rack in the rimmed baking sheet. Now follow either the deep fryer or air fryer instructions below.

Deep Fryer Instructions

  • Pour the avocado oil into a large Dutch oven or high-sided pot. The oil should reach about 2 inches up the sides. Heat the oil on medium high until it reaches 350°F.
  • Add half of the calamari to the hot oil and deep fry for 2 to 3 minutes or until golden brown, stirring occasionally so the calamari don’t stick together.
  • Use a slotted spoon or spider strainer to transfer the fried calamari to a paper towel-lined plate.
  • Season the fried calamari with a sprinkle of salt. Repeat the steps above with the remaining half of the calamari. Eat the calamari immediately with some lemon wedges and marinara sauce (if desired).

Air Fryer Instructions

  • Preheat your air fryer to 400°F.
  • When it reaches temperature, spray the bottom of the basket with avocado oil and add enough calamari to make a single layer on the bottom of the basket. Spray the calamari generously with avocado oil—too little oil and the coating will remain powdery!
  • Air fry for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden brown and crunchy on the outside, shaking the contents of the basket at the halfway point.
  • Transfer the calamari to a plate and immediately season with a sprinkle of salt. Repeat the steps above with the remaining calamari. Eat the calamari immediately with some lemon wedges and marinara sauce (if desired).

Notes

  • If you’re using table salt or Morton’s brand kosher salt for the brine, use about half the amount of salt specified.
  • The key to perfectly deep fried food is making sure the oil temperature is correct. I use my ChefAlarm or Thermapen One thermometer to monitor my oil temperature. No one wants soggy, greasy calamari!
  • The trick to getting perfect fried calamari from the air fryer is to make sure you spray on a nice coat of avocado oil onto the squid before cooking and to shake the basket midway through the cooking process. Because every air fryer is slightly different, you should start checking on it at the 6-minute mark to make sure you don’t overcook the calamari.

Nutrition

Calories: 280kcal | Carbohydrates: 16g | Protein: 20g | Fat: 15g | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g

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