French Fries, Done Right

Real French Fries

You have to admit that the average potato isn’t much to look at. But it’s not about a potato’s good looks or lack thereof; it’s all about the many ways we can prepare – and eat – the humble, yet eminently versatile potato.

There’s no doubt that one of the world’s favorite potato preparations is the French fry. The origin of this method of preparing potatoes is hotly contested with the Belgians in one corner and the French in the other. Each claims to have been the first to come up with the now-familiar crispy, golden batons of pure, earthy goodness. Whichever nation was the first to come up with the idea is unclear. What is more certain is that French fries were already widespread by the late 1700s. It’s documented that Thomas Jefferson, ever the innovator and lover of all things French, served “potatoes done in the French style” at a White House dinner in 1805.

What makes a really great French fry? Golden and crispy on the outside, tender, yet firm on the inside, with a certain flavor and mouth-feel that comes only from deep-frying in fat – and they must be eaten while they’re hot, hot, HOT!

Kennebec potatoes

Kennebec potatoes

So what are the requirements for making really great French fries? First of all, start with the right potato. Not just any old potato will do. Skip the slender, elegant waxy fingerlings; a large, starchy potato is just the ticket. While the ubiquitous Russet will make decent fries, we’ve recently discovered what is possibly the world’s best French frying potato – the Kennebec.

The Kennebec is a big, hefty potato with a rich, earthy flavor. The flesh of the Kennebec potato is firm and moist, yet starchy, making it a versatile potato in the kitchen. Its skin is thin, so peeling isn’t necessary (or even desirable) and its flesh is an attractive pale ivory color.

While Kennebecs are outstanding all-purpose potatoes, they are absolutely perfect for French fries and potato chips. With flesh that is firm and low in moisture, French fries made with Kennebec potatoes won’t become limp and soggy. Just the right amount of starchiness makes them brown up beautifully with an exceptional flavor that is both warm and nutty.

The second requirement for the best French fries is the 2-step cooking method described in the recipe that follows. You may be tempted to try a shortcut and do it in one step, but they just won’t be as good. This is the classic, old-school way that French fries were made at every greasy spoon and diner across the country before frozen fries were introduced, and this is the way they’re still made by die-hard French fry freaks.  The fries are first blanched in hot oil at about 300 degrees F, then given a second frying at a higher temperature to give them their classic, crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside consistency.

Yes, it takes a little more work and a little more time, but if you really want to try French fries the way they were meant to be, give this method a try. While probably not something you’ll make often, these “special occasion” French fries will definitely be the best in town.

PS – One more thing – if you want to make the absolutely best, most over-the-top French fries ever, try cooking them in pure rendered duck fat (as we did).  Your life will never be the same.

French Fries, Done Right

Ingredients:

Directions:

Soaking potatoesWash the potatoes under cool running water until they’re free from any dirt. Using a standard potato peeler, remove any blemishs or eyes, but otherwise leave the skin intact. Using a sharp knife, slice the potatoes into slabs about 1/3-inch thick, then stack and slice again so you end up with long, 1/3-inch thick sticks.

Fill a large bowl with cold water and add the potatoes, keeping them submerged, for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight. The soaking helps to rinse excess starch from the surface of the potatoes. Keeping them immersed in water will prevent them from browning too.

Add 4 cups of cooking oil or duck fat to a heavy-bottomed pot. We used our favorite heavyweight, flat-bottomed wok with excellent results.

Hint: We LOVE the flavor, texture and color you get from cooking French fries in duck fat, but if you don’t have any, just use a good quality cooking oil with a fairly high smoke point; canola will do or better yet, try peanut, grapeseed or rice bran oil.  Just don’t bring out the olive oil for this recipe.

Heat the oil to 300 – 325 degrees F. The temperature is important, so use a candy themometer or instant-read thermometer to get it right.

Bubbling oil with thermometer

A good thermometer makes it easy to get the temperature right

Drying the rinsed potatoes

Drying the rinsed potatoes

While the oil is heating, remove the potatoes from the water and lay them out on a sheet pan covered with a clean dish towel. Drain well and pat completely dry.

Once the oil is hot, add a couple of handfuls of the rinsed & dried potatoes to the pot. Don’t overcrowd. The potatoes should be completely covered by the oil and should have plenty of room to move around. Cook the potatoes, gently turning them from time to time, about 5 to 7 minutes.  Lift a few fries above the oil and test them for doneness by dragging your fingernail across the surface (careful!).  The texture should feel rather papery, dry and slightly rough, with just a little browning around the edges.  If the surface is still moist, return them to the oil and cook a little longer.

Using a slotted spoon or skimmer, lift the potatoes from the hot oil, gently shaking to drain off any excess. Place the blanched potatoes on a large pan lined with newspapers or paper towels to cool and drain further. Allow the oil to come back up to heat and repeat, continuing until all of the potatoes are blanched. Once they’re all done, remove the oil-filled pot from the heat and set aside.  Allow the blanched fries to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Perfectly blanched fries

Perfectly blanched French fries

When the blanched fries have cooled, return the pot to the burner, skim the oil and heat to 375 to 400 degrees F.

While the oil is coming up to cooking temperature, preheat the oven to about 250 degrees and line a large pan or baking sheet with newspaper (traditional) or paper towels. You’ll be cooking the french fries in batches, and you’ll want to keep them warm in the oven until they’re all done.

Once the oil has reached at least 375 degrees, add 2 – 3 handfuls of the blanched potatoes (no crowding, same as before) and cook them until they are crisp and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Lift them from the oil, drain well, and place on the paper lined pan. Keep them hot in the oven, repeating until all of the potatoes have had their final cooking. Sprinkle generously with salt and serve IMMEDIATELY with your favorite condiments – or just on their own. They really don’t need anything else.

Golden brown French fries

Golden brown French fries

 

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