Hot Potato

Hot, crispy, and quite irresistible, french fries, in their many guises, are simply too good to be bad.

By Connie McCabe

Published on March 14, 2002

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 frisee 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.

Today, there are about 3,500 frietkots (stands that sell nothing but frietjes) in Belgium—a country the size of Maryland. And it's safe to say that nearly everybody who knows fries knows that the Belgians make them better than anyone else. This may have had something to do with the fact that frietjes were traditionally fried in animal fat (usually rendered beef fat, but there are rumors about some Belgians using horsemeat fat, as well), which imparts a richer flavor to the potatoes. These days, for health reasons, many frietkots (not to mention more formal restaurants) have converted to vegetable oils, and the fries, on the whole, still taste awfully good. So maybe the quality of Belgian fries isn't related to the choice of cooking fat after all, but to the cooking method: Frietjes, which tend to be somewhat thicker than french fries, go into the oil twice, the second time at a higher temperature than the first, to produce an extra-crispy finish. That said, lots of chefs (and home cooks) outside of Belgium already know about the benefits of double-cooking their fries—so maybe Belgian fry superiority lies in the way that frietjes are served: in a cool paper cone, dusted with salt and topped with mayonnaise, big messy blobs of it.

Fries may not have been invented in France, but they grew up there. By the early 19th century, frietjes had been adopted by French chefs, who trimmed them into the skinny strips of potato we are most familiar with today. (Thomas Jefferson supposedly picked up a fry recipe on his travels in France in 1802.) Then, as the French are wont to do in the kitchen, they elaborated on the theme.

"France's different fries," explains Anne Willan, founder of the esteemed École de Cuisine La Varenne in Villecien, in Burgundy, "are not so much about different regions but about different dishes and levels of sophistication." Long, strawlike pommes pailles, she explains, are meant to go with game; neat, matchlike allumettes with lamb chops or chicken; and stumpy, squarish pont neufs (a "slightly snobby fry", says Willan) are typically stacked like Lincoln Logs and served with grilled meats. The French got really fancy with gaufrettes—superthin waffled potato slices—and most of all with pommes soufflees, which have one of those classic stories of culinary serendipity attached to them: According to legend, at a party to celebrate the opening of the rail link between Paris and suburban St-Germain-en-Laye in 1837, the chef prepared conventional pommes frites in anticipation of the first train's arrival. When the train was delayed, he set the fries aside; then, when it eventually came, he plunged the frites back into hot oil. Because of the cut of the frites, the type of potato, and probably just blind luck, they puffed up like balloons. Talk about a happy accident. Unfortunately, these fries are as frustrating to create as they are dramatic: Some of your pommes soufflees, Julia Child warns, will stubbornly refuse to souffler.

Thankfully, fries are simpler outside of France. In Great Britain, for example, where they're known as chips (and potato chips are known as crisps), they're simply thick-cut potatoes fried to a light golden color and moistened with malt vinegar. In Spain, the patatas fritas are fries like your mom makes (or used to make, in my case)—they're a little soft, and, because the slices are uneven, can be very done on the ends and not quite so done in the middle. They're typically made with olive oil, which lends them a nice, fruity flavor, but aren't as crispy as other fries. Nevertheless, these are comforting fries, especially when served in the proper Spanish tradition, at breakfast with fried eggs.

Then there's the U.S. According to a division of The NPD Group, the market research service, that tracks national eating trends, almost a fourth of all dishes served in American restaurants today come with fries on the side—usually straightforward French-style ones, but this being the land of plenty, America offers varieties ranging from Texas fries, which, like everything Texan, are extra-big, to disco fries, which are curly like pigs' tails and dusted with cheesy seasoning, to sweet potato fries, which are another tricky fry to make, due to all the sugar in the potato. Truth be told, most American fries, plain or fancy, are frozen. The J. R. Simplot Company figured out how to do this successfully—using a complex system of peeling, slicing, blanching, drying, and frying, before freezing—in the 1950s. These days, America's frozen fry industry is a $3-billion business—producing some nine billion pounds of fries in 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available. We often think that fresh is best, but some chefs, like Michael McCarty of Michael's in New York and Santa Monica, claim to like frozen better. "Believe it or not," McCarty wrote in his 1989 Michael's Cookbook _(Macmillan), "good-quality bulk frozen potatoes cut into 1/4-inch-thick fries are your best bet for dependable French-style _pommes frites." The Japanese obviously agree; they buy 50 percent of all American frozen fry exports.

There is, however, an unavoidable dark side to the fry story. "Potatoes [which are full of vitamins B and C] are a very good food," says Dr. Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, "but when you make fries, you've essentially cut the potatoes up and added fat without adding anything else." A large order of fries, she calculates, packs in 450 calories and about 22 grams of fat—enough to make the health-conscious feel positively queasy. That may be why I was the only one in the bar at Quatorze Bis enjoying a plate of fries for dinner.

If you were there that night—or if you've been somewhere similar recently, or just at home, and found yourself longing for fries but reluctant to have them, may I suggest that this might be a situation in which it's worth throwing caution to the wind—at least once in a while. Well-made fries, I assure you, are just as good as you remember them, and even if they are "bad", as I said before, that's part of what makes them so good.

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