Deep fried potatoes, which in the US usually go by the misnomer “French fries“, have suffered from association with fast food and the modern aversion to deep fried foods in general, but a well-made batch of pommes frites is one of the tastiest ways to prepare potatoes. And while they will never qualify as health food, if made properly and eaten in moderation, they fit perfectly well in a well-balanced diet.
Fried potatoes are, quite simply, just that: potatoes deep fried in fat. But as simple as the recipe is, there are a few ‘tricks’ to ensure that pommes frites come out at their best. Most important is how you fry your potatoes. You see, potatoes are both hard and starchy, two qualities that you will need to account for as you fry them. Since they are hard, they need to cook for some time to soften, but because they are starchy, they brown rapidly in hot oil. What’s the solution? Frying the potato in two goes, first in moderately hot oil to soften them, then in really hot oil to brown them. If done right, this technique results in fries that are nice and soft on the inside and brown and crispy on the outside.
- 6 starchy potatoes (see Notes)
- Peanut or other vegetable oil with a high smoking point
Begin by peeling and cutting your potatoes into sticks. At home, it is easier to cut them fairly thick (as pictured) but if you have the patience, pencil-thin fries are quite delicious. As you go, immerse the pieces in bowl of cold water so they won’t discolor.
Fry your potato sticks first in moderately hot oil (350°F or 180°C), for 3-5 minutes (depending on their thickness) until just tender, then remove them from the oil while you raise the oil temperature to 190C/375°F. Fry the potato sticks again in the hot oil for another 3-5 minutes or so to brown them up nicely.
Make sure to fry your potato pieces in small batches, with plenty of room for the oil to encase each piece and seal it. After each round of frying, pat the potato pieces dry of any excess oil, gingerly so you don’t crush them—or burn your fingers on the hot oil—and keep them on a grate in a warm oven while you continue frying the other batches. (The grate lets air circulate around the top and bottom, which helps keep them crisp.)
Once all your potato pieces are nicely fried to a golden brown, sprinkle them generously with salt and serve immediately. If you need to, you can hold them on a grate in a warm oven for a few minutes—but not too long—but if you do, only salt them just before serving or they may go soggy.
Even though they are very much in vogue these days, for pommes frites it’s better not to use those young yellow-fleshed, thin-skinned potatoes that you would use for a sauté, potato salad or gratin. Instead, use the larger, starchy kind that you would use for mashed potatoes. The starch helps the fries to brown as they should while getting soft and creamy inside. In North America, Idaho or Russet potatoes work well, as do so called ‘all purpose’ potatoes. I read that Yukon Golds also have a following, although I have not tried them made this way.
You can cut potatoes either thinly or thickly. In France, thick-cut fries are called “pommes Pont-Neuf”[or simply "pommes frites", about 10 millimeters (3/8 inch), while "pommes allumettes" (matchstick potatoes) are cut about 7 millimeters (1/4 inch) thick and "pommes pailles" (potato straws) only about 3–4 millimeters (⅛ inch). The very thinnest French fries do not need the double fry technique, but cutting them that finely can be very fussy for home cooks.
The other crucial choice for this dish is the fat in which you fry the potato. Most people will use a light vegetable oil. Peanut oil works well, given its high smoking point. Lard is wonderful for deep frying—it ensures crispiness and adds flavor—and personally I like to use a combination of canola or peanut oil mixed with a bit of lard. But just make sure to use good-quality, true lard made from rendered fat back. Supermarket lard is generally hydrogenated and contains those harmful trans fats. One oil you should not use is olive oil, as it has a low smoking point, as well as rather strong flavor that is not characteristic of this dish.
As many readers will know, "French fries" are not actually French but Belgian. It seems that this misnomer began with American soldiers fighting in Belgium in the First World War. They tasted Belgian pommes frites and called them "French" since that was the official language of their Belgian army colleagues. Or perhaps they didn't realize that they weren't in France… In any event, today fried potatoes are, of course, popular all over the Western world. Made in slices rather than sticks, they become 'chips' in Britain and many other English speaking countries. In French speaking Canada they are doused with gravy and cheese curds to make the Québecois classic called poutine. And, of course, in the US they are ubiquitous, accounting for fully a quarter of the total vegetable consumption in the country, most of them, unfortunately, consumed in fast food outlets, although there has recently been a movement by fast food chains to make them healthier by using fats like canola oil that are free of trans fat. But no matter what, making and eating pommes frites at home has to be better for you and your loved ones.