In Search of the Perfect French Fry!
By Charles Oppman
In Search of the Perfect French Fry!
Who doesn’t a love a big pile of hot, crispy French fries? I’m not talking about the kind served at fast food joints — although some do serve up fabulous fries — or mom and pop restaurants where the chef either doesn’t know how to properly cook French fries or can’t be bothered to get it right. Great fries aren’t just a matter of slicing potatoes and drowning them in a bath of hot fat for a few minutes. Perfect fries begin with the perfect potato followed up by an essential two-step cooking process. Deep-fry French fries one time and you’ll wind up with a heap of limp, pallid potato sticks, but not proper French fries.
The potato is a member of the nightshade family (solanaceae) — which includes egg plant, tomatillos, tomatoes and chayote — and its leaves and flowers are poisonous if eaten in sufficient quantities. Some plants have great medicinal value, especially for arthritis, some are quite poisonous. These health hazards were at least marginally understood in Europe so when the tubers were brought to the Old World they would be used primarily to feed the underprivileged. Their nutritional value was not appreciated. Eventually Europeans embraced the potato and it became widespread as a food source.
There seems to be some dispute as to where fries originated. The Belgians lay claim to being the first while the French take credit for inventing these crispy batons of delight. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of gastronomy the French have taken credit where they oughtn’t to have. For example, take the croissant, but wait, I’m getting off track. That’s another story. Wherever the truth lies, we Americans are quite certain Thomas Jefferson introduced the French fry to the homeland.
As the story goes, Mr. Jefferson developed an affinity for les pomme frites during his stint as Minister to France from1785 to 1789. Mr. Jefferson high-tailed it out of Paris when the French revolution broke out in 1789 and took the French fry recipe with him. Safely back at Monticello, TJ wanted his private cook, James Hemmings, (brother to the famous Sally Hemmings, TJ’s purported concubine) who learned the art of French cookery while in Paris with TJ to continue to prepare the new-found potato delicacy. Legend has it that Mr. Jefferson continued his love affair with French fries at the White House where, purportedly, during a dinner in 1802 “potatoes served in the French manner” were listed on the menu.
There are approximately four thousand of potato varieties or cultivars (hybrids), but not just any old spud is suitable for that perfect French fry. Enter the Russet. Only the Russet cultivars provide a French fry, one that is light in color, crisp on the outside and fluffy and mealy on the inside and is not saturated with oil.
By the way, I asked Dr. Novy how to cook the perfect fry at home and he suggested that I buy a bag of frozen French fries because the manufacturer has already selected the perfect potato which I probably could not purchase at my local grocery store.
Now let’s get to how to cook the perfect potato.
Before frying, the potatoes should be peeled and rinsed in cold water to remove starch. Now this is where something of a debate arises. Some cooks advocate rinsing the raw fries in a salt water solution while others do not. Some cooks believe the raw product should be soaked in cold water for up to 8 hours before moving onto the cooking process. Still others are adamant that fries should not be rinsed at all before they hit the fat. Personally, (I owned a restaurant where we served house-made fries) I’ve had good luck with a quick rinse and dry before cooking so I’m advocating the quick rinse approach.
Where ever you land in this debate one thing is certain, the correct “French frying” method is a two-step process. Once the raw fries have been rinsed and dried they are partially cooked in oil without adding color. This is called “blanching”. This should be done in relatively cool oil, peanut oil being the preference because of it high smoke point and it imparts a delicious flavor (I prefer lard or duck fat).
The blanching oil should be 325F. The cooking time will depend upon the size of the fries. In any event, at this point the fries are not cooked thoroughly, they are pale and limp. Pull them out of the oil and let them drain and cool completely, and don’t allow them to stick to each other. During this time, steam escaping from the hot potatoes will force starch out of the potato and into a thin layer coating them. This is critical. This starch layer is what makes them crispy, and retain their crispiness when they receive their second frying.
At this point the blanched fries can either undergo a final cooking or frozen for later use. However, if they are to be frozen do not allow them to freeze in a mass. The industrial term is “IQF” — individually quick frozen. The fries may also be refrigerated until final cooking.
When you’re ready for that plate of crispy fries then crank up the oil to 375F. The starch layer that you generated earlier will now crisp up and form a protective barrier sealing any residual moisture while keeping them hot and crispy even minutes after you’ve removed them from the fryer.
Do not over fill the fryer basket as this may result in uneven cooking and the fryer will take longer to recover from the temperature drop. Give the basket a quick shake to ensure that fries are not stuck together. Cook until a golden brown color is achieved. Drain, salt and serve.
5 large Russet potatoes, peeled or well scrubbed, if leaving the skin on.
1 quart peanut oil
Kosher salt, if preferred.
1. Cut the potatoes lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices, and then cut each slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick fries. Rinse the fries in cold water and towel dry.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed medium stockpot over medium heat, or in a tabletop deep fryer, to 325F. Line a baking sheet with paper towels and set aside.
3. Drain the fries well and pat dry in batches with paper towels. Fry each batch, turning frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes or until the fries are a pale blond color and limp. Remove to the baking sheet lined with paper towels.
4. Crank up the heat of the oil to 375F.
5. Fry the potatoes again, in batches, turning frequently, until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and drain on clean paper towels. Season immediately with salt and serve hot.