French Fries

Homemade French fries

It’s been something of a personal crusade of mine to get more people deep-frying at home (see this post, and this class).  Even though I consider French fries the single most important fried food in western cooking, I rarely make them at home.  The main reason is that when working with a standard pot it takes several batches to fry enough potatoes to feed my family.  While I don’t mind frying half a chicken and putting it in the oven while the second half is fried, the six batches required for fries is a bit tedious. With that said, when I’m feeling ambitious this is how I make fries at home.

What potatoes to use.  While you can technically use anything from a starchy Russet potato to a waxy yellow-fleshed potato, for my money nothing beats Kennebec.  These potatoes have a pale golden skin and white flesh.  They are nowhere near as starchy as a russet but not as waxy as Yukon Gold.  They crisp up great and maintain the pale gold of classic fries.  They’re a bit tricky to find but it’s worth seeking them out.

Unless you’re serving the king of England keep the skins on the potatoes.

For the cut you can try narrower “frites” at 1/4″ square cross-section, more standard burger shack fries at 3/16″ square cross-section, or a chunkier steak fry-type cut at 1/2″.  Restaurants use a special punch to cut their fries.  At home I use a knife.  You could also use a mandolin to get longs rounds of even thickness, then slice them with a knife.

At this point it’s standard to put the cut potatoes in cold water to prevent browning and wash excess starch from the surface.  One nifty trick that I’ve stolen from Fox Burger is to salt this water and leave the potatoes in it overnight.  The salt penetrates the potato for more even seasoning throughout.

The key to good fries is a two stage frying process.[1]  First the potatoes are fried at a relatively low temperature (say 235°F) until they are cooked but not coloured.  This first fry is sometimes called blanching.  Shortly before serving, the potatoes are fried a second time at a higher temperature (say 350°F) until crispy and golden brown.  The two-stage fry creates are more distinct crispy exterior than a single fry ever could.  Instead of fumbling my way through an explanation of why that is I’ll just quote Harold McGee:  “A crisp crust requires an initial period of gentle frying, so that starch in the surface cells has time to dissolve from the granules and reinforce and glue together the outer cell walls into a thicker, more robust layer.”  I don’t fully understand that, but there it is.

Besides giving us robust crispiness, the two-stage process is great because the first fry can be done well in advance.  The blanched fries can be refrigerated for a few days, or frozen for a few weeks.  Actually the balanced potatoes fry beautifully right from frozen.  From a restaurant’s perspective the process is ideal because the essentially pre-cooked fries can be heat and crisped to order in a matter of minutes.

Part of my aforementioned crusade for deep-frying at home was that you don’t need any special equipment to do it: just a pot, some oil, and a thermometer.  I will say though that for French fries it is also extremely useful to have a wire basket.  Not only does it make dropping and retrieving the fries easier, it also keeps them from sticking to the bottom of the pot, which they a very keen to do during the blanching process.

French Fries

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs Kennebec potatoes (Russets will also work in a pinch)
  • 2 L cold water
  • 40 g salt (this is 4 tbsp kosher salt… and little less than 4 tbsp regular table salt)
  • 3 L canola oil

Procedure

  1. Whisk the salt into the cold water until fully dissolved.
  2. Cut the potatoes to your desired shape.  I shoot for a cross-section of 3/16″ x 3/16″.
  3. Put the cut potatoes into the brine and refrigerate overnight.[2]
  4. The next day, strain the potatoes and pat dry.
  5. Heat the canola oil in a heavy pot to 235°F.  Carefully add the potatoes and cook until tender, 5-7 minutes.
  6. Optional:  At this point the blanched potatoes can be refrigerated for a couple days, or frozen for a couple weeks.
  7. To finish, heat canola oil to 350°F and fry potatoes until crisp and golden brown, roughly 5 minutes.

Notes

  1.  Triple-cooking also became popular in the early ’00s.  The process was developed by Heston Blumenthal.  Restaurants everywhere started putting “triple-cooked fries” on their menu, which I thought was super weird.  They were insinuating that their fries were 50% better than mere double-cooked fries, but most operations bungled the execution and disappointed.
  2. If you started making this recipe before realizing it takes more than a day and were hoping to eat fries tonight, there are two things you can do.  First you could just omit the overnight brine soak.  Your fries will still be adequate.  Or, accelerate this stage by cooking the fries in salted water.  Add 1 cup kosher salt to 4 L cold water.  Bring to a simmer.  Add cut potatoes and cook until soft, roughly 5 minutes at a gentle simmer.  Strain potatoes and pat dry with a clean towel.  Proceed to Step 5 of the above recipe.

Addendum

Of all the future difficult conversations I will have with my daughter, the one I am looking forward to the least is explaining the term freedom fries.

You see, Cora, George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq.  He had a number of reasons.  First off, Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator.  A decade earlier Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate George’s dad, George H. W. Bush.  America was dependent on foreign oil.  And maybe something to do with the military contractor Halliburton.  Anyways, Bush tried to get the support of his country and the rest of the world by lying, saying that Iraq was somehow responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and that they had weapons of mass destruction.  His secretary of defence Colin Powell gave a presentation at the UN, showing alleged photos the WMDs in Iraq.  The security council saw the fabrications for what they were, and refused to condone or support the invasion.  The right-wing media in the US was furious, and for some reason the French were singled out as the primary opponent, even though other security council members like Russia and China were also against invasion.  Anyways anti-French sentiment was so great that some people were re-naming French fries “Freedom fries”.  Thankfully it didn’t catch on.