French fries -- like roast chicken, macarons and about half a dozen different ways to cook eggs -- fall into the category of foods I like to call, "Things anyone can make and a handful of borderline-crazy people will spend their lives trying to perfect." I'll have to work on a shorter version of that; it looks terrible in a spreadsheet.
Anyway, I am that borderline-crazy person when it comes to omelets and scrambled eggs, but with French fries, I take a saner, middle-ground approach. I use the old-school technique, one that is a tiny bit more work than just tossing potatoes into hot oil and a lot less work than the fabulous nutjobs who shoot their ducks to render fat for the grease and triple-cook the potatoes after freeze-drying them or whatever. And I'm perfectly happy -- thrilled, really -- with the results I get: hot, crisp and salty, giving away to tender, fluffy insides and a mild, earthy sweetness.
The key to this technique is frying the potatoes twice. The first is a dip into kinda-hot oil to cook them through, start to form a crust, and evaporate much of the water, because water is the enemy of crispness. Now ready, the potatoes take a second trip into hotter oil, and the fatty inferno crisps them up and turns them that color of brown that people like to liken to precious metals. Drain, a little salt, and, Boom! French fries!
Now, the obsessive -- because I understand him, because he is me -- can crow here about how these fries do not test the physical boundaries of how crisp fries can be, nor do they keep their texture in perpetuity. That's fine. But some of us have lives to get on with, and don't have an hour to make fries in cold oil, or, despite compelling arguments for it, a day to prep and freeze them in advance.
And besides, technique is just a part of it. The kind of oil and potato you use can produce wildly different results, which, I confess, I have not studied at length. I can tell you, though, that duck fat fries have long been the object of fetishists, and that beef fat fries were the tip of the spear in McDonald's global domination. I can also tell you that perhaps the greatest fries I've ever had in my entire life were at a restaurant in Chicago called The Publican, where the server told me, mysteriously, that the potatoes were tormented in a mix of "80 percent animal and 20 percent vegetable." I would have inquired further, but when someone says "80 percent animal and 20 percent vegetable," it just seems like going too far to ask for more clarity. But, all that said, I love my fries fried in regular-old peanut or corn oil. Or olive oil, if you're related to a Greek shipping magnate. I find canola oil to smell weirdly like fish at high temperatures, and I rarely find that appealing, but far be it from me to dissuade you from making your fries taste like low tide if that turns you on. To each their own grease!
As for the potatoes themselves, the orthodox choice is to use russets, or "Idahos." They're high in starch, which makes them fluffy; low in sugar, which has a tendency to burn; and low in moisture, which makes them crisp -- these are the choice for textbook fries. But that's not to say you can't make delicious fries with "all-purpose" or "chef" potatoes, medium-starch potatoes like Yukon Golds, or even waxy potatoes like new reds. As you move down the spectrum from starchy to waxy potatoes, you will lose crispness but gain in tenderness and sweetness. It's a matter of preference. (I would never make fries from waxy potatoes myself, but I know a chef who swears by their flavor, and while they only keep their crispness for a few minutes, they did keep very good company with my burger.) To each their own spud!
Serves, well, only you know how many fries you can eat. But this is good for 4-6 reasonably demure people
- 2 pounds of russet potatoes (or other varieties, if you insist)
- Fat or oil of your choice, and plenty of it (see Step 1)
- Salt, to taste. If there is no salt on your fries, and you don't have a doctor's excuse, I don't want to hear about how your fries don't taste good
- Fresh herbs, minced, to taste, optional (if you want to be fancy, nothing beats chopped thyme, rosemary, parsley or even basil or tarragon tossed on hot fries)
Special equipment: A big, deep pan, Dutch oven, or pot (a wok is great) for frying. A slotted spoon or long-handled strainer. A frying/candy thermometer is real handy, too, and you can find them in your supermarket for a couple of bucks.
- Some people insist on using a certain quantity of oil to how much food you're going to fry (1 quart to 1 pound) -- the more oil, the more it will hold its temperature when you drop the food in. But it's important to not overfill your frying pot, lest it bubble over, so I'd rather give a visual guide. Fill your pot with at least 3 inches of oil, but make sure you don't come up much past half the volume of the pot (2/3, if the pot is really big). Bring it to 350º over medium or medium-high heat while you prep the potatoes.
- Peel and cut the potatoes into ¼-inch to ½-inch sticks. I don't care which size you prefer, but the fries have to all be roughly the same size. If it's slow going, feel free to keep the potatoes in a bowl of cold water as you keep working so they don't discolor.
- When the potatoes are cut, rinse them in cold water, drain them, and dry them thoroughly with paper towels.
- When oil is at 350º, carefully lower in the potatoes, as many as you can while still giving them room to swim around. (Do this in batches if you need to.) The potatoes will lower your oil temperature significantly; adjust the heat to keep it around 300º to 320º and cook, stirring so they don't stick together, until the potatoes are tender and just barely beginning to turn golden. Fish potatoes out with the strainer and let them drain on a tray lined with paper towels; try to get them spread out in one layer. Let cool. (If you'd like, you can do this up to a day before, or longer if you freeze them in this partially cooked state.)
- When it's time to serve, heat oil to 400º. Add the potatoes, being extra careful not to crowd them. Keeping the oil hot here (375º) is vital for good crispness and color, so you really want to baby the fries in terms of giving them plenty of room. But don't let them get the wrong idea -- you're not coddling them, you're going to fry them mercilessly, stirring for about 2 or 3 minutes, until they're your preferred color of French fries and are crisp and wonderful. (If you can't fit all the potatoes in the fryer at once, cook them in batches and keep the finished ones warm in a 200° oven.)
- Lift the fries from the pot with the slotted spoon or strainer and place them in a large bowl triple-lined with paper towels. Toss immediately with salt (and herbs, if using), and to let the paper wick away any surface grease. Eat one immediately to convince yourself how much better this is than just going out for fast food.