Potatoes fried in the French Manner
Consider the humble French Fry
Thomas Jefferson brought "Potatoes, fried in the French Manner," to America in the late 1700s. To be served at Monticello this had to be serious stuff and they have since spread across this continent and many others. Our current obsession with fries is owed to the fast food joints that dot our landscape from coast to coast and top to bottom. Where I grew up in northern New Hampshire, we didn’t even have a McDonalds, but that was a long time ago and that serious error has since been corrected. Now, unless you live in the distant hinterlands, a McDonalds or Burger King is within a short drive.
Start with a Russet Potato
Potatoes and fries are big business, 2.2 million metric tons of potatoes grown annually in the US become French Fries! Numbers (unsubstantiated) say that we eat 144 pounds of potatoes and that includes 29 pounds of French fries, per person per year. Someone out there must be doing double duty because I rarely eat potatoes in any form. Take a bow “someone” the potato industry and the fast food industry thanks you. Every day a quarter of us eat in a fast food outlet, that means a lot of fries and burgers get eaten daily. McDonalds is the largest buyer of potatoes on the planet and our expanding waistlines are also swelling their profits.
How do you dress your fries? During the tenure of our beloved President Reagan, the government tried to have ketchup declared a vegetable. Wow, what a concept, eat your fries with ketchup and the government thinks you have eaten your veggies. The schools could have saved a bundle serving ketchup instead of green beans. Alas, that was not to be and no one seems to be even looking at fried Twinkies being declared a vegetable, and they have wheat flour, sugar and oil in them, all of which came from plants. As President Obama might say, we all just have to eat our peas.
How do French fries get to your plate?
Start with a potato plant. For the past thousand years the potato has been one of the most important food staples on the planet. The Spanish Conquistador Pedro Cieza de Leon wrote the first recorded Western information about potatoes in 1553. By 1573, records of a Spanish hospital in Seville show that sacks of potatoes were ordered for provisions. People were reluctant to try potatoes because it is a member of the nightshade family, many of which are very poisonous. Eventually the use spread around the Old World and the New. Potatoes became a staple in many places because they are more reliable than wheat and grow under more adverse conditions. The potato crop is what is known as a monoculture, the vast majority of potatoes grown come from the very limited number of varieties initially introduced, leaving the crop vulnerable to disease. The genetic diversity of potatoes found in Peru has been largely ignored. This lack of genetic diversity means that when a disease threatens a crop, the entire crop is wiped out. Setting the politics aside this is behind the Irish potato famine. The country depended on a single plant for sustenance and when blight destroyed the crop there was no alternative to famine.
The potatoes used in the production of French Fries come either directly from the farms or from large warehouses, depending on the location of the processing plant and the time of year. Potatoes need cold storage in order to be held for any length of time.
The most commonly used potato varieties (in the US, anyway) are Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Norkota and Shepody. In Continental Europe, it's the Bintje and in the UK, the Pentland Dell or Russet Burbank. Newer varieties are grown in much smaller amounts like the Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, Peruvian Purple and Saginaw Gold but these don’t make it into frozen fries so you might have to make your own.
Peeling. The most common method in the French Fry industry is to steam a large quantity of potatoes under pressure to loosen the skin, when the pressure is released the skin is loose and slips off during the next step which is washing away the skin with a blast of pressurized water. The skins are sent off either as cattle feed or composted to create methane. Potato peels make great compost for growing plants, or do you send yours to a land fill for future archeologists to uncover?
At this point the potatoes undergo their first inspection, usually by machine, and rejects are sent away for other industrial uses like starches, glues and sizing.
The next step is cutting, where a pump shoots the potatoes at stationary knives that cut the potatoes into the strips we call fries. This is a little bit like the gun used by the Air Force to shoot dead chickens at airplanes to test wind screens and engines etc. No one eats those chickens tho’. You thought potato cannons were cool?
They get inspected again to remove all the little black bits, eyes and misshaped pieces so they don’t end up in your order. Machines do this step faster than the eye can see and they do it very well. How often have you seen a black fry?
The next step is all important to making crispy fries, Blanching. Commercially, blanching is done with the potatoes on a moving conveyor moving them through vats of hot water. The time and temperature of the blanching is critical and is adjusted continually. This removes sugars from the surface to give a consistent, uniform color and crispness. It also activates an enzyme called pectin methylesterase (PME) which helps the potatoes stay firmer and more intact when cooked to a higher temperature. If you’re trying this at home the critical temperature is 170F and fifteen minutes. Burger King admits and McDonalds has no comment but we suspect they also add sugar back to the surface of the fries by dipping or spraying the blanched fries with a sugar solution to ensure an even and light brown color after cooking. An alternative to this step at home is to blanch in acidulated water, 1 tablespoon of vinegar per quart of water, place the potatoes in cool water and bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes at a low simmer.
The next step is drying, the potatoes are driven through a sort of hair dryer that blows hot air over them to remove any surface moisture. This is another critical step even at home if you want your fries to come out crispy. Obviously we don’t want our fries to be completely dry but too much water put into hot fat is actually explosive. Think of the people who burn their homes down when trying to deep fry a frozen turkey. The moisture content is critical and it varies according to the end product desired. For potatoes to be deep fried the moisture content needs to be around 70% but for microwave fries the moisture content should be as low as 55%. I know of no way to manage this at home but do dry your fries, pat them with paper towels and leave them on a cake rack until they feel dry to the touch. Someone on line did an experiment where he left McDonalds fries out at room temperature for several weeks and he marveled at how they did not mold or spoil, the reason was the moisture had all evaporated, not some miracle preservative.
The next step is par frying, most recipes for home use will call for a low temperature fry for this step but if yyou follow the steps as listed you should fry for about 90 seconds at 365 degrees F.
Well, you’re finally ready to freeze your fries. Place them on a wire rack to cool for an hour or so then place the wire rack in the freezer. This allows them to freeze quickly and individually so the finished product will not be stuck in a big lump. When they are frozen hard it is time to bag them for later use. Of course the factory uses a conveyor belt and a blast freezer but not many of us have such contraptions in our homes, do we? If you want aa really quick freeze you could buy some dry ice and, well, maybe not.
Many variations of the humble French fry have been introduced from Tater Tots to Tornado fries which is a potato stuck on a skewer, spiral sliced and deep fried, this innovation came from S. Korea and is beginning to show up in the U.S.
French Fries are becoming Haute Cuisine. "In New York Hudson Common, in the Hudson Hotel, goes the duck fat route, serving fries thrice-cooked in duck fat, or, for the past three months, in the style of Peking Duck, with a side of black bean nuoc cham, sprouts and sriracha. Using duck fat is “more natural” and makes the fries taste “gamier and more crispy,” says vice president of food and beverage Alan Philips.
Duck fat fries are but one example in an industry where chefs are getting creative with an old comfort food staple. What can you create?