Wednesday, November 1
Despite the best efforts of our thoughtful congress to change it's name, the French Fry continues to show up on plates at diners and bistros all over this great land. But fries by any other name would have to be frites--a shortening of the French pommes frites (fried potatoes). In French, potatos are called pommes de terre (literally apples of the earth), so the pomme in pomme frites is itself a shortening for potato.
In Belgium, frites don't typically come on plates. Instead, they're served in simple paper cones, usually sauced with flavored mayonnaise. The experience of getting frites in Brussels reminded me a bit of the Atlantic City boardwalk--minus the bitter aroma of despair. Frites are mainly street food made fresh in stands, and they're not accompaniments. They're often eaten as a meal.
The Secret (or two)
Frites are made using fresh potatoes, fried twice. Once at around 325-350 degrees Fahrenheit to thoroughly cook the potato (4-8 minutes). Then, after cooling, they're fried again at 375 (1-2 minutes) to burnish them with a golden brown finish and snappy texture.
Why twice? The first frying cooks and dehydrates the fresh potato: by cooking at a medium temperature, the surface of the potato remains permeable to steam escaping from inside, drying out the flesh. According to some experts, the rushing bubbles of steam off the surface of the potato helps to block the cooking oil from saturating into the fry.
The idea during the first frying is to just cook the potato until it's edible, but no more. The fries are then cooled in a single layer to quickly stop the cooking. When plunged into the oil again, this time at a higher temperature, the surface of the fry seals and browns while the inside simply reheats. If done right, the result is light, fluffy, somewhat dry potato insides and a crisp golden-brown outside.
Unfortunately, it isn't as easy to get right as it might seem. In Brussels, as much as I hate to say it, most of the stands had pretty lame fries. Like anything, attention to detail from vendor to vendor was pretty uneven. On top of that, equipment can vary greatly when it comes to temperature control, as can the types of potato and fat being used. If these variables don't get due attention, the result can be disappointing. Not everybody was totally on top of those issues.
Rightly or wrongly, a good, rich mayo-based sauce can cover up a lot, and there was rarely a lack of customers even at the most uninspired fritures. Mayonnaise is a traditional topping for frites--there's no vinegar or ketchup cluttering up the counter tops of the fritures--but there are plenty of variants on the basic garlic aioli you'll almost always find. One of my friend's favorites, pili pili (an African term for hot peppers and sauces) is a mildly hot, chili-spiced one. Sauce andalouse is flavored with tomato, sweet peppers and onion. The list goes on--way on.
A couple of tips
In large commercial fryers, the amount of oil pretty well ensures a reasonably consistent frying temperature. At home, small batches are required to compensate for the lack of oil volume. Russets are a good choice. They're drier and have a bit less starch than other types of potatoes, resulting in a better finished texture. If you're not using them, experiment to find the right cooking time before you start. I made a batch using a different variety without taking care to test the timing. Waxy is the word that springs to mind. One other tip, experts recommend one centimeter-square pieces.
What to watch for
Poorly executed frites are flabby and saturated with cooking oil. They're not crispy, and they lack both a strong potato flavor inside and the rich brown, caramelized outer layer. Worst case, if poorly stored or inferior potatoes are used, they may even taste vegetal, grassy or bitter on top of being oily. Doesn't that sound good?
The big fat controversy
I've read several threads about Alton Brown's comment that frites were made with horse fat in days gone by. Other's say it was ox fat. Others say regular cow lard. I've even heard of duck fat being used. In today's Belgium, most frites are made with some sort of vegetable or nut oil (or combination). As a side note, Atlantic Fries from Thrasher's (the big name in boardwalk fries) are made using peanut oil exclusively.
How we do it here
Most American-style fries, including Thrasher's, are cooked just once at a high temperature. This can result in a crispy outside when first pulled from the fryer, but the higher residual moisture content in the fry (since steam has not been able to escape as efficiently) quickly re-hydrates the crispy layer, resulting in a soggy fry before too long under the heat lamp.
Atlantic City boardwalk fries are made by soaking the raw potato in salt water prior to cooking. This soaking is purported to remove the outer layer of starch, but I suspect that the salt also draws moisture out of the potato, resulting in a nicely salty, crisper result.