~ Do You Want (Perfect "French") Fries with That? ~
I never met a potato I didn't like, but, I've met a few French fries I didn't like. You know the ones: limp, soggy, and/or greasy. There is almost nothing worse than a badly prepared French fry. What's so sad about this scenario is: French fries are really, REALLY, REALLY easy to make!
I have eaten some very good French fries in swanky restaurants, casual sports bars and all-night diners that pride themselves in fresh-cut fries, but, if I even see those infrared warming lamps, I just know that my French fries, or someone elses, are probably destined for some sort of compromise. Are you listening McDonalds? I like your fries, but, even 1-2 minutes under the dreaded lamps kicks them down a notch.
French fries are meant to be deep-fried and eaten immediately. Period!
(Note: I am not bashing infrared heat lamps. I like them a lot for certain culinary applications.)
The absolute best French fries I have ever eaten are at places like church festivals, county fares and carnivals. They're not too thick, not too thin, twice-fried, and, never frozen. When you stand in line and wait for these fries to to come seething hot out of the deep-fryer, get a quick drain, a sprinkling of salt and handed-off to you in a paper cone, you just know the French fries are going to be awesome. In my opinion, they are the ideal American French fry! Why?
The best French fries in the USA are in fact Belgian fries!
A bit about French fries: It may come as a surprise to you to find out that "pommes frites", meaning "fried potatoes" in French, were not invented by the French, even though, like many other foodie pleasures, the French played a part in making them famous here in the United States. In 1802, my favorite founding foodie, Thomas Jefferson, after a trip to France, served "potatoes in the style of the French", at a White House dinner party. All hell broke loose after that, and, as the story goes, before long, these golden strips of glorious goodness were nicknamed: French fries!
Interesting side note: Culinarily, the words "to French" mean "to cut food into long thin strips". In French, the word "frite" indicates "to deep-fry", and, my research shows they were serving fried potato strips in the White House, but no one can confirm they were deep-fried. Click on the photo at the left to read a Historical Note from the book Dining at Monticello!
The story behind "The French Connection" to fries in the USA:
In 1756, war broke out between France and Great Britain. During The Seven Years War, as it is called, a medical officer by the name of Antoine-Augustine Parmentier was given nothing but potatoes to eat in a prisoner-of-war camp. In 1748, potatoes were banned by the French government because it was believed they caused leprosy and death (the birth of government regulation, which is fine by me). Because he did not die, after the war, Parmentier spent the better part of his life changing the minds of government officials regarding potatoes, and, in 1772, potatoes were declared edible for humans and it was made legal to cultivate them. Parmentier began hosting dinner parties and serving potatoes to dignitaries like King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and, our very own Benjamin Franklin, BUT, there is no documentation to confirm they were deep-fried either. Potatoes soon became very trendy in French social circles, which is where Thomas Jefferson tasted them and the rest is American history! Long live the potato!!!
If they're really Belgian, how did the French find out about them?
In 1742, The Franco-Austrian War, known as The War of Austrian Succession was going on, and, much of it took place in and around modern day Belgium. It is believed that the French soldiers were introduced to "les frites" (Belgian fries) by French speaking Belgians and Belgian soldiers. A couple of decades later, when potatoes were declared edible in France, this was the cooking method the French imitated. This is the explanation that I believe gives Belgians the right to claim the title of: Inventors of French fries! Why?
The French were not a frying culture prior to this period in history, the Belgians were!
Moreover, a Belgian journalist named Jo Gerard claims that potatoes were fried as early as 1690 in the Meuse valley of the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium), and, it was the Spanish who introduced the potato to Europe. Gerard writes, "the inhabitants, especially the poor people, of Dinant and Liege had the custom of fishing in the Meuse river for small fish to fry. When the river was frozen, they would cut potatoes in the form of strips and fried them." That being said, experts concur that those fries were most likely not deep-fried, because the quantity of fat necessary for deep-frying would have been almost impossible for the peasants to get.
Who REALLY invented twice-fried strips of potatoes?
Did the Belgians invent real-deal, deep-fried, twice-fried fries, or, did the French invent the twice-fried technique and teach it to them? No one knows for sure, but, when it comes to food, the French are known for perfecting everything, so I'm not ruling this theory out. That being said, nowadays, Belgians consume more fries than any country in Europe... with mayonnaise or flavored mayonnaise being their topping of choice (I'll have mine with garlicky, rich, smooth, classic aioli)!
Modern-day Belgians will be quick tell you that after WWI, American soldiers were served fries by Belgians who, once again, coincidentally, all spoke French. It was these American veterans who named the potatoes French fries. This is probably true, but, because of the "fry" history preceding WWI (mentioned above), it's not how we Americans came to name them French fries. It does, however, explain the post war boom in the marketing of French fries in the USA!
In my foodie world, if you're in search of the best French fries available, remember:
"Real deal" fries are not fried potatoes, they're deep-fried twice!
I promised you that making French fries is really easy, and it is, BUT, French fries are not just fried potatoes. There really isn't a recipe. There is, however, a bit of technique involved, plus, a few steps that require some waiting time. Start by buying some:
russet potatoes, no substitutions (Note: I'm frying six of them today.)
Their low-moisture, high-starch content is going to result in the crunchy outside and fluffy inside that every French fry deserves!
A bit about the russet potato: Known also as the Idaho or russet Burbank potato (named for their developer, horticulturist Luther Burbank), these common potatoes are specifically lableled "baking". They are long, slightly rounded, with thick, rough skins. When cooked, they have a pearly white, dry flesh. Their low moisture, high starch content give them superior baking qualities, plus makes them excellent for making French fries!
Always choose (preferably hand-pick), medium-large (10-12-ounce), even-sized, very firm potatoes. Stay away from ones that are spongy, have dark spots and/or a lot of eyes. Store them singularly (not in a plastic bag), in a cool, dry, dark place, and, never, ever, refrigerate.
Trimming, slicing & soaking the potatoes:
Note: Some folks like to the leave the skin on the potatoes. I do not. Why? It takes away from the rush I get when golden, crispy-on-the outside, fluffy-on-the-inside fries emerge from the deep-fryer.
~ Step 2. If you aren't lucky enough to have a European-style, wire French-fry cutter (I bought mine in Germany about 25 years ago), just use a sharp knife and trim your potatoes into 1/2"-thick sticks. It isn't hard, just a little time consuming.
Note: After slicing, I also discard any particularly skinny pieces of potato. Call the food police if you must, but they burn too. I want my French fries to cook evenly!
~ Step 3. Place your freshly-cut fries in a bowl with enough very cold water to cover them. I like to add a handful of ice cubes to keep the water cold. Set them aside for at least one hour or in the refrigerator as long as overnight.
Note: The water is not just going to prevent the potatoes from discoloring. It is also going to remove surface starch from them, which is going to prevent your French fries from getting gummy.
Towel-drying, pre-frying, and twice-frying the potatoes:
~ Step 1. Line a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan with 3-4 layers of paper towels. Using a large slotted spoon, transfer potatoes from bowl to pan. Cover with 3-4 more layers of paper towels and place in refrigerator for 1-3 hours, to dry and thoroughly chill.
Don't have a deep-fryer? Fill an 8-quart stockpot half-way with oil and insert a frying/ "candy" thermometer.
Note: If you're doing this on the stovetop, you MUST use a thermometer to control the temperature. Heat your oil slowly, over medium-low, and proceed, as follows, with caution.
~ Step 3. Depending upon the size of the basket of your deep-fryer, in 4-6 batches, pre-fry the potatoes, for 3 1/2-4 minutes. The fries will be blonde in color and limp. Transfer to the paper towels, and repeat until all potatoes are pre-fried. I did this in four batches.
When the potatoes have reached room temperature, increase the heat of the deep-fryer to 375 degrees.
~ Step 6. Deep-fry the potatoes, in the same number of batches as before, until they are golden brown, about 6-7 minutes. Transfer them to the cooling rack and season them immediatley with sea salt. Serve:
Do You Want (Perfect "French") Fries with That?: Recipe yields 4 servings.
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; hand-held wire French fry cutter (optional); 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans; paper towels; large slotted spoon; deep-fryer; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" cooling rack
Cook's Note: For another one of my classic russet potato recipes, click into Categories 4, 10, 15 or 20 and read ~ Dear Perfectly Baked Potato: Your Crispy Skin and Fluffy Center, Make My Steaks Taste Even Better ~!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)