My fondness for French fries is ruled by an idiosyncratic logic that, for a while, made them mostly off-limits. It goes something like this: perfectly-fried French fries are rare even in restaurants. At home they are daunting: hours of fry-o-lator air lingering in the apartment, and a quart or two of hot fat to discard. Because they are deep-fried and fattening, they must be really superb to be worth eating….
Those constraints sent me on a mission to find a way to achieve the divine effect and flavor of REAL French fries without either the mess, ‘fry’-ladened air, or the dietary wallop. Even if they weren’t more healthful, I’d take my fries, made in the oven, over most of the fries I find in restaurants any day.
It took me a while to figure out just how to push my oven fries beyond just-okay, half-too-crisp, half-limp ersatz fries that many recipes yield. The secret: Roast them in a hot oven for most of the time, then turn the oven down to dry the interiors out just enough to be truly fry-like. Use the right potato. And the right fat. That’ll give you a truly fry-like fry, perfect alongside a roast chicken or steak, or to dunk in a soft-cooked egg for breakfast.
Here’s the thinking behind, and a recipe for, crisp, deeply satisfying oven fries with lots of opportunities for improvising:
Idaho, the baking potato used for classic French fries has better flavor and texture than waxy potatoes like Red Bliss. Don’t rinse the slices; just blotting the moisture with paper towel leaves the right amount of surface starch that helps a crust to form. (In browning, a dry exterior is essential; if wet, the potatoes will steam). Starting them in a hot oven will “fry” the potato sticks, browning and caramelizing their surface. Leaving them in a low oven for 10 minutes dries out their flesh enough to keep them from turning soggy.
The choice of fat offers the best and simplest way to manipulate the flavor and texture of oven fries. Olive oil, arguably the healthiest fat, produces great results without assertive flavor. Double-smoked rendered bacon fat gives a delectable smoky flavor and, along with pancetta, some of the uniquely crispy texture of lard- fried potatoes. Melted butter is always good. A true French peanut oil, or a good quality cold-pressed one, will give a classic French fry flavor.
Embellish the potatoes with minced fresh herbs like rosemary and sage, sprinkled on half way through cooking to keep them from burning. Coarsely crushed spices like coriander, fennel seed or cumin offer other possibilities. For a clear, mellow garlic flavor, steep raw sliced garlic in the fat 15 minutes before using.
For more variations on the theme of oven fries, including Parsnip Fries and Pasta Fries, you’ll find notated recipe-ettes in The Improvisational Cook.
Note: if you really love fries and make them frequently at home, buy an inexpensive French fry cutter, a tool that forces a whole potato through a grid with one stroke and cuts it into uniform sticks.
Oven French Fries
4 large baking potatoes (about 2 pounds)
About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive
Salt, preferably fine sea salt
Peel and slice the potatoes. Adjust the rack to the top part of the oven; preheat the oven to 475′. Peel the potatoes and slice them lengthwise into 1/3- inch thick sticks (a French fry cutter makes quick work of this).
Blot dry and coat with fat. Place the potatoes in a large bowl; roughly blot them dry with bunched up paper toweling. Drizzle the olive oil over and toss to coat them completely. Scatter the potatoes on a large baking sheet, in one layer, making sure that they don’t stick together or overlap.
Bake, rearranging periodically. Bake the potatoes for 15 minutes on the top rack of the oven. With a thin metal spatula, toss and rearrange the potatoes; shake the pan back and forth a few times to spread them out in one layer. Reverse the pan and bake until the potatoes are golden brown and crisp, 10 minutes longer.
Let fries dry out in a cooler oven. Remove the pan from the oven; turn the temperature down to 325’ and leave the oven door open to cool down the oven while you toss and rearrange the potatoes again. Return the pan to the oven to let the potatoes dry out 10 minutes. Transfer the fries to a platter, sprinkle liberally with salt and serve at once.
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