Every once in a while, I just have to do it: order fries for dinner—a big, indulgent batch. Sometimes I eat them with a steak, sometimes with a salad, sometimes all by themselves. That's why I recently went to Quatorze Bis, one of my favorite Manhattan bistros. The bar was nearly full, but I managed to grab a stool and place my order. The bartender poured me a beer, then flicked a thick white napkin into the air and smoothed it out in front of me. He laid another napkin to my right, moved a salt shaker to within my reach, and shifted his attention to another customer. The crowd was typical of New York—preoccupied—and I felt anonymous…until the waiter came back with my fries. Then a hush rippled through the room and all eyes turned to me. Well, actually to my fries. They were slender, long, and that luminous shade of perfect golden brown doneness. Heaped high on a plain white plate, they were beautiful, shimmering in the bar light just so. This didn't keep me from eating them, though, and they were perfect: crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, salty, and hot—plus they left no greasy residue on my fingertips. It would be an exaggeration to say that the entire room watched as I ate one exquisite fry after another, yet I couldn't help but suspect that, at least for a moment, everybody else—even though they may have had a nice frisée salad or a little grilled fish coming for dinner—coveted my fries.
Fries are as good as potatoes get. In no other form are spuds so purely satisfying, so seductive—even, dare I say, charismatic. Sure, I've seen potato salads elicit rave reviews, and I've heard the occasional moan of ecstasy following a forkful of mashed potatoes, but fries are unique. And it's not just about the way they taste; if it were, I could be discussing hash browns. Besides being delicious (which, of course, they are), fries are fun—with the potential to be funny, depending on what you do with them. This is because fries, even the most refined fries, are simply finger food; they are easy to eat and congenial—meant to be shared. Add to this the fact that everybody believes fries are bad—as in bad for you—and we all know how good it feels to be bad.
Fries, however, are not really that complicated. There's nothing more to them than potatoes, oil, a little salt, plus maybe some sort of condiment, a dab of ketchup, say, or a dribble of vinegar. The secret of incredible fries is the way they're cooked—in other words, the (deep-) frying. Its bad press notwithstanding, deep-frying is a terrific way to cook certain kinds of food. As with foods that are boiled, fried foods are cooked on all sides simultaneously. Fat, though, reaches a higher temperature than water, so it magically draws out the moisture in whatever is being cooked and caramelizes the surface sugars to yield a browned, crisp finished product. Deep-frying, however, is a relatively violent process, and most foods require some sort of protective coating—a breading or a batter—so that they don't dry out on the inside and burn in the roiling oil. But not potatoes, which are about 20 percent starch. When pieces of potato are submerged in hot oil, the starch molecules expand, so that the inside of the potato, rendered instantly less dense, cooks at the same rate as the outside. This is why particularly starchy potatoes, like Idahos—also called russets—or Yukon golds or bintjes (a type of potato common in Europe), work best.
Deep-frying can be tricky, though. If the fat is too hot, the fries will burn before they're cooked through; if it's not hot enough, the fries, like sponges, will absorb lots of oil and end up limp and greasy; or if you cook too many fries at once, the temperature of the oil will drop dramatically, producing the same disappointing soggy result. And don't even think about using the vat of fat over again: Old oil develops fatty acids, which will ruin the flavor of your fries. Finally, remember that working with fats at high temperatures is a highly flammable business, as Julia Child taught us years ago during the "French Fry" episode of her French Chef TV show with a serious lesson on the home fire extinguisher.
The French call fries pommes frites—fried potatoes—while in America, of course, we say french fries. This is probably because fries first gained real popularity in the United States after soldiers returned from World War I with pleasant memories of the fries they'd had in France. Most food historians agree, however, that the french fry was born in Belgium—or at least in a region that later became Belgium. According to Romain Cools, secretary general of EuroPatat, a European potato trade organization, a 1781 manuscript credits peasants in the Maas Valley, near the present-day Dutch and German borders, with having created the frietje—or fry—in the 17th century. The story, according to Cools, is that poor families in the area cooked the small freshwater fish from the Meuse River in hot grease, and one especially cold winter, when the river froze over, resourceful (as well as artistic) locals carved their potatoes into little faux fish as a surprisingly tasty substitute.