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Friday, September 26, 2008

French fries


a foray into deep-frying

You probably know already that I love garlic-roasted potatoes. They are delicious, and more to the point, really easy. But when I was at the farmers’ market on Wednesday, one of my favorite farmers, Mr. Stockwell, sidled up to me and said, “I know you’re into health food and all, but do you ever make French fries?” I told him that I hadn’t, but that I wouldn’t rule it out completely. He allowed as how I’d better try making them with his French Red potatoes—a slender, bright red beauty. He said they fried up crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The method? Just deep-fry them at 375 degrees—even light olive oil would work. I couldn’t resist, especially when he let me pick out all the biggest French Reds in the bin.

One of my favorite pastimes is reading cookbooks. So, for someone who has until now avoided deep-frying, I’ve read more than my fair share of recipes, treatises, and dissertations about “how to make the perfect French fry.” Three examples I can think of, right off the top of my head, are Jeffrey Steingarten’s French fry essay in The Man Who Ate Everything, a chapter in a book about food and cooking called How to Read a French Fry, and a detailed recipe and chemistry lesson in a recent Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I’ve learned from these sources that French-frying potatoes can be quite challenging. You need to have a certain kind of potato (the floury kind, not the waxy kind). You’re supposed to fry them twice, at different temperatures. You have to have just the right kind of oil, and it must be seasoned properly. You have to keep from overloading the pan so the oil stays hot and doesn’t make the potatoes greasy and soggy. 

I have to admit, this process has never appealed to me.  All that boiling hot oil, getting the temperature just right…  But in the past, Dan (my husband) has expressed interest in trying it. Maybe it’s a guy thing.

So I picked up Meredith from preschool, and we had our usual book-reading and snuggling time. Then we headed for the kitchen and the big heavy cast-iron pot. Dan manned the flame, and we all hovered expectantly over the furiously bubbling fries as they went into the pot. Wow! They fried up beautifully and caramelly-brown, and although they didn’t stay super-crispy, they were super-delicious! I think the olive oil was a big bonus in the flavor department.

Here’s Meredith’s reaction, as we munched on our appetizer of Alaskan French fries, made with Mr. Stockwell’s newly-dug potatoes.

Meredith: Hey Mommy! Let’s play our “I love you” game!
Me: OK! Let’s see…  I love you more than the moon!
Meredith: I love you more than…  pancakes!
Me: I love you more than French fries!
Meredith: I love French fries more than you! But I love you a LOT!”

Maybe next time we make French fries I’ll make homemade ketchup. Will she love the ketchup more than me? Maybe. But that’s OK, because the ketchup’s going to be REALLY good.




Vern Stockwell’s Easy French Fries

Vern’s suggestion was basically to take everything I’d learned from my reading on the topic and throw it out the window. Use French Reds instead of floury Idaho potatoes, and don’t worry about frying them twice. And use light olive oil, which gives the fries a really great flavor!! It was really fun, and a lot less stressful than trying to get “the perfect French fry” written about in all my books. Not something I’d want to do every day, but a fun little adventure!


large, heavy soup pot
candy thermometer (measures to 400 degrees) that clips onto the side of your pot
slotted spoon
paper towels or brown paper bags


potatoes (French Reds or other variety—what the heck, try whatever you have!)
large jug of light olive oil (NOT extra-virgin! The smoke point is too low.)
sea salt or kosher salt

1. Cut the potatoes into approximately 3/8-inch batons. Don’t bother peeling them.
2. Fill your pot halfway with oil. Don’t fill it much fuller than that, because the oil bubbles SO fiercely when you first put the potatoes in (cooking off the water) that it would overflow if you got it much fuller than that.
3. Attach your thermometer to the pot and heat the oil over high heat, watching the oil temperature carefully, until it comes up to 375 degrees. Carefully slide a smallish handful of potato batons into the oil. Don’t drop them in, because the oil will splash out and could burn you! The fries will bubble up like crazy for a while until most of the outside moisture has cooked off. They might initially stick to the bottom of the pan, but just leave them alone—they will unstick in a minute when they cook a little bit.
4. Watch the oil temperature carefully. It will drop a bit when you put the potatoes in, and then will slowly come back up to temperature, at which point you need to turn the heat way down (or off) until it stabilizes. Cook the potatoes until they are beautiful and golden-brown, and cooked all the way through. This will take a few minutes. Take one out when you think it might be done, drain it on paper towels or bags, sprinkle with salt, and give it a taste.
5. Fry the rest of your potatoes this way, in batches, not too many at a time (because the oil will cool off too much if you overload the pan). Just hang out in the kitchen with your family and enjoy them, hot out of the oil, dunked in your choice of ketchup, or just enjoy them naked! 


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