Perfect Fries, Without the Takeout Price
French fries might just be one of the most kid-friendly foods you can serve: The pickiest of eaters typically love them, and they're just as appealing to the kid inside most grownups. You don't even need to go out to get them, because making your own homemade french fries is a relatively simple two-step process. Your best bet is to prepare a large batch in advance, and keep them ready in the freezer for quick meals.
The Secret to Perfectly Crisp Fries
If you were to tour a restaurant kitchen while the day's hand-cut fries were being prepared, you'd see sheet after sheet of pale potatoes sitting out to cool. That's because they're actually cooked twice: First at low temperature to precook the potatoes, a step called "blanching," and then again at a high temperate to crisp and brown the exterior. In between, the potatoes need time to cool, which allows their starches to set and become firm again.
Start With the Right Potatoes
There are two basic types of potatoes, usually described as waxy and starchy. Starchy potatoes, such as the ever-popular russet Burbank, are what you want for fries. Big baking potatoes are ideal, because they'll give you lots of long, beautiful fries. Peel or wash the potatoes, and then cut them lengthwise into 1/4-inch strips. Drop the cut potatoes into a bowl of very cold water as you work, so they don't brown. Once you've cut all your potatoes, rinse them repeatedly until the water is clear rather than cloudy. This removes surface starch, which can make the fries darken too quickly when they're cooked. Drain the potatoes thoroughly in a colander, and blot them dry with a pad of paper towels. Now you're ready to cook.
Two Ways to Blanch Fries
Frying: The traditional way to blanch fries is in the deep fryer. At home, you can use any deep, straight-sided pot if you don't have an actual fryer. The temperature can be anywhere between 275 degrees Fahrenheit and 350F, depending how much of a hurry you're in. At 350F, they'll take just about 2 to 3 minutes per batch, but you'll have to keep a close eye on them. At 275F, they might take up to 10 minutes, but you'll be able to do other things while they cook. They're done when the fries are limp and soft, but have no color.
Oven-blanching: If you want to prepare fries in bulk, oven-blanching can be more convenient. Heat your oven to 450F, and line one or more large sheet pans with parchment paper. Toss the cut fries in a small amount of oil and spread them on the sheet, or spread them on the sheet and then spray them with oil. Cover with foil, to trap steam and help cook the fries, and bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
They're Just Chillin'
If you blanch in oil, transfer the fries to a sheet of brown paper, and let them drain as they cool. Oven-blanched fries can be left to cool on their sheet pans. Once the fries reach room temperature, you can either put them in the fridge for later the same day or freeze them for future meals. If you opt for freezing, the best way is to spread the fries in a single layer on your sheet pan, so they don't clump together as a solid block of potato. Once they're frozen, you can divide them into meal-sized portions and pack them airtight in freezer bags. They'll keep for up to six months, though they're best within the first month or two.
Fry Your Potatoes Again
When your fries meet the hot oil again, it will be meal time. A good cooking temperature for fries is 350F to 360F, but you'll want to start about 10 or 15 degrees higher, because the fries will lower the temperature of the oil dramatically, especially if you're cooking from frozen. A commercial fryer takes 2 to 4 minutes to finish the fries, but your home fryer or pot on the stove will likely take 5 or 6, because your smaller volume of oil will take longer to return to its cooking temperature. Once the fries are cooked to the shade of golden-brown you prefer, scoop them from the oil and drain them on brown paper. Let the oil come back up to its original temperature before you repeat the process with the next batch of fries.
The Moment of Truth
Choose a "tester" fry straight from the oil, with just a light sprinkle of salt, as soon as it's cool enough to handle. The outside should be perfectly crisp, and the interior should be as light and fluffy as a good baked potato. If it's not crisp, or if it seems oily, that means you tried to fry too many potatoes at one time. Do a smaller handful in the second batch, and taste one again to make sure it has the right flavor and texture. Once you've got it right, go on and do the rest the same way.
Keeping Them Warm, if Necessary
Fries are at their best when served immediately, but if you have a small fryer you might need to make several batches before you have enough for a meal. In that case, heat your oven to 200F and transfer each batch to a sheet pan lined with brown paper as it comes out of the oil. If you keep them in a single layer as much as possible, rather than stacking them up, they won't soften in their own steam before you can bring them to the table.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.