Saturday Foodie: The secret to perfect French fries
French fries are as American as baseball. They are ubiquitous in our culture and a staple of the fast food industry. Like many great foods, the origins of French fries are not clearly known, but they can be a symbol of national pride or politics.
Although they are called French fries, both the French and Belgians claim them as their own. According to a National Geographic article on their history, some believe French fries came from tiny river villages in Belgium and were served with fried fish.
The French say that fries live up to their namesake, and were sold by vendors on the streets of Paris. Both countries fiercely maintain that they created fries. The Belgians have gone so far as to petition UNESCO to designate French fries as a national icon.
No matter where French fries come from, they have been a staple of American culture for nearly a century. As popular as they are here now, they were not always that way.
National Geographic explains that Thomas Jefferson likely introduced fries to America. He allegedly first encountered them in France (possibly from those Parisian street vendors) and liked them so much that he brought the recipe home. One of Jefferson’s slaves was trained as a chef, and his recipe described shaving raw potatoes and then deep frying them. These were called pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches. Although Jefferson loved these fried french potatoes, it took them a century or so to catch on with Americans. Since then, French fries have become a juggernaut in our consumer culture.
They are synonymous with the instant gratification of fast-food living. We can’t resist the question, “do you want fries with that?” They even have become politically polarizing in our recent history. At the beginning of the Iraq War, France opposed the invasion of Iraq. As a response, the cafeteria in the House of Representatives started serving “freedom fries” as an act of protest against France. The name did not catch on, and we still enjoy “French” fries today.
While potatoes alone are quite healthy with low-fat and quality carbohydrates and starches, French fries are deep fried in hot fat. They are not the best for your waistline nor overall health. Just like other unhealthy delights, they are best served in moderation. I have noticed that the French fries I make at home are never quite as good as the ones I have in restaurants. There are even Twitter wars between fast food restaurants over who serves the best fries.
I decided to do some research about why fast food fries always seem to taste better than those prepared at home. When I make fries at home, I simply slice up raw potatoes and fry them in olive oil. Then I add salt or any other seasonings and eat immediately. These potatoes seem to lack a deeper flavor and crispiness that I so enjoy while eating out. When I researched how to make the best potatoes, I discovered a more complex method.
Making professional French fries is quite a process, and some of the steps are surprising. I located several recipes that follow the same pattern. I have taken these steps and compiled them into my own recipe to share with you. I accidentally burned my first batch by using olive oil. I figured out my mistake, so you don’t have the same experience. Instead of oil, use tallow, lard or shortening fats for frying, since they have higher burn points.
If you want to make these potatoes at home, then it is necessary to follow the basic steps of this recipe. It is fine if you want to substitute seasonings or even the frying fat. While soaking them, you can optionally add corn syrup and dissolved bullion to the water which infuses the potato slices with a savory flavor. Many restaurants use a deep fryer, but if you don’t have one at home, then a wok or large frying pan works well.
Since I’m not a food scientist, I can’t fully explain why these are so good. I believe soaking them infuses them with flavor while removing excess starch. Lightly frying then freezing them makes them crispier, which is an essential quality of fries. For best results, use beef tallow as your frying fat, since that is closest to what fast food restaurants do. If you don’t eat animal products, then vegetable shortening is fine, too.
I was amazed at this process, and I can say that it definitely makes a difference for perfect fries.
Serves 4 to 6 people
4 russet potatoes, sliced
1 1/2 cups beef tallow, vegetable shortening or other fat
1 tablespoon bullion (optional)
1 tablespoon corn syrup (optional)
pinch of salt
1. Slice potatoes in wedges or julienne style. Make sure they are thicker than how you want them served, since they lose mass during this preparation.
2. Soak potatoes in a large mixing bowl of water for several hours. For extra flavor, add dissolved bullion and corn syrup. I used vegetable bullion for my preparation.
3. When slices are finished soaking, lay them out on a towel to absorb excess moisture.
4. Heat the tallow or shortening in a large wok or frying pan over high heat. Once the fats have melted and are clear, carefully add the slices. Fry for about two minutes, then immediately remove from frying pan. Save the fat for later.
5. Place slices on a baking pan and immediately freeze. Leave in freezer overnight or at least for a few hours, if you are pinched for time. If you are not going to cook the entire batch, then leave extra potatoes in freezer until later.
6. After the slices are thoroughly frozen, reheat the wok or pan and melt the fat again over high heat. Gently add the slices to the melted fat and fry until they are golden brown. Make sure the slices have enough room in the pan to be completely surrounded by the cooking fat. All sides need to cook thoroughly.
7. Remove the fries and place on a towel to soak up extra grease. Add desired seasonings and serve immediately.
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