Created for Restaurant Technologies’ blog in support of national ad campaign, “You Make the Best Fries”
Are you a fan of french fries? That’s a rhetorical question because everybody loves fries. When it comes to these delectable, deep-fried spuds, we humans can’t help but indulge. In fact, the average American eats a whopping 30 pounds of fries a year.
But how much do you really know about french fries? For instance, why do we love them so much? Where do they come from? Who invented them? Most importantly, which kind of fry is the best? (Spoiler alert: There’s no right answer to that last question.)
Read on to get the lowdown on this iconic food.
Eyes on the Fries
Turns out the french fry craving is in our genes: We are hard wired to gravitate towards crispy, salty, fatty carbs. These flavors and sensations speak to the part of our brains that is all about pleasure seeking, pain avoidance, and self-preservation. Plus, we create dopamine, a feel-good chemical, when we consume the fried foods we love. It’s a savory bomb of a recipe our brains simply can’t resist.
It would be nice to know who to thank for creating this perfect food. The name implies a French origin, so should we say a big “merci” to France? Well, maybe. But maybe not.
The term “french” can refer to a culinary technique of cutting vegetables into strips, known as “frenching.” In one sense, “french” may simply mean that the potatoes for the fries have been cut in this way. So, the question now becomes, although they’re frenched, are they actually French?
Not if you ask your average Belgian gourmand, they aren’t. One version of the fry origin story holds that the delicacy was born in Namu, a town in francophone Belgium. The locals loved fried fish, but when the River Meuse froze in 1680, they couldn’t indulge in their favorite protein. They got creative and cut potatoes into the shape of fish and fried them instead, et voila, an iconic food was born.
Mai non, say the French. They maintain that the food we know and love first appeared as “pomme Pont-Neuf,” a deep-fried potato sold by vendors on Paris’ eponymous Pont Neuf bridge, in the late eighteenth century.
Research by the Belgian culinary historian Pierre Leclercq, however, indicates that fries may have a more multi-national origin. He believes that the true father of the modern fry is a German by the name of Herr Krieger-Fritz, who learned to cook in Paris and sold his popular fried potato sticks – cut to evoke the shape of Crimean War soldiers – in Belgium in the mid 1800s.
The truth is, we may never know the definitive origins of this gastronomic delicacy. But wherever they come from, we say a fry by any other name would taste as savory.
A Greater Tater
A whole lot goes into creating the perfect french fry, but let’s talk potatoes. Choose wisely and you’ll be rewarded with the crispy outside and fluffy inside of your dreams; choose poorly and you’ll have a soggy spud that no country on earth would want to claim as their own.
Karen Schaich, a professor of Food Chemistry at Rutgers University, explained the importance of using a dense, starchy potato to Popular Mechanics, “You have to have a high-density potato, like a Russet Burbank,” she says. “It’s kind of like apples: Some are hard and dense and crisp. Soft, mealy apples brown a lot faster, and the same thing is true with potatoes. If you’ve got a soft potato, make mashed potatoes.”
In other words, save your Yukon Golds for soups, roasts, and gratins, and rustle up some Russets when it’s time to deep fry.
Every Day is Fryday
We all have our own personal favorite type of french fry; it’s the shape we imagine when we get an irresistible craving. There are dozens of types of fries, but let’s have a look at the most common (and popular) shapes in the U.S.
Along with cheese fries (which, while delicious, is a way to serve fries rather than a type of fry) these fries are the number-one most popular in the US. They’re the fry of choice in no fewer than 12 states, including most of the upper Midwest. We can’t argue with this waffly wisdom. The relatively large amount of surface area makes this magical disc a sauce soaking superstar. They’re great dipped in ketchup, but sturdy enough to withstand delicious toppings like chili, cheese, and bacon.
Thanks to their ubiquity in many popular restaurant chains, shoestring fries are arguably the most iconic cut. These thin, crispy beauties cook fast, but get cold even faster. For that reason, they’re best enjoyed straight out of the fryer – by the handful, naturally. This is the most popular cut in the Mid Atlantic.
The crinkle is a divisive cut. It’s beloved by many yet spurned as an imposter fry by others. We don’t understand the debate. It’s nothing short of a crispy dream thanks to the wavy texture, which supplies plenty of peaks and valleys for picking up your condiment of choice. Fluffy on the inside, sturdy on the outside, it’s a natural for poutine. It only ranks as a favorite in Kentucky and Michigan, but we say it’s time to show this fry the love it deserves.
In Bon Appetit, editor Alex Delaney once called steak fries “sad, imposter fried potatoes,” but don’t tell Oregon, Illinois, or Indiana, where they’re the state favorite. The main reason he’s so down on this shape is because he believes they’re usually underdone. It’s true that their larger size calls for a longer cooking time, but when they’re done right, they’re a worthy co-star on your bistro plate of steak frites.
As far as climate is concerned, Hawaii, Arizona, and Minnesota couldn’t be more different. But when it comes to fried spuds, citizens of these states see eye to eye. They agree that curly fries are tops, and who are we to argue? Not only is a spiral spud fun to look at, it’s extra fun to eat thanks to its soft-on-the-inside and golden-brown-on-the-outside texture. Add to that the fact that curly fries are usually seasoned with some blend of paprika, cayenne, salt, and pepper, and they’re downright dangerously addictive.
To many of us, tater tots are a nostalgic and comforting treat. But are they fries? That’s the million-dollar question. According to Deadspin, they are not: “If they were, they’d be called tater fries, but they’re not.” Sure, their name might not contain the word “fries,” but what if we told you that tater tots are made up entirely of french fries? Yep. This fried Franken-tot was invented at the Ore-Ida potato processing plant in the 1950s to use up the scraps left over from making french fries, and the rest is school lunch history. Seven states favor the tot over all others, including – where else? – Idaho.
Whatever your favorite fry, there’s one thing that’s generally true across the board: French fries taste better when restaurants make them. That’s because many kitchens begin with frozen fries that have already been flash fried. This pre-cooking results in the perfect fry that’s soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. Some restaurants even go the extra mile and add starch to the outside of the fry to take the crispiness to the next level. And yes, many establishments use fresh potatoes, but you can bet they’re frying them twice to achieve the golden crispy goodness you crave.
As for sweet potatoes, the starch content is much lower than that of white potatoes. If you’ve ever tried to make them at home, you likely ended up with something that was either flabby and sad or burnt to a crisp. Yet you’ve had wonderfully crispy ones at your favorite restaurant, so what gives? The restaurant secret is simple – add starch. By coating the sweet potato fries in cornstarch or potato starch before deep frying, restaurants can achieve the right texture.
There’s a whole wide world of fries out there, but we don’t pick favorites. There’s room in our hearts (and bellies) for every kind of fry there is. But we know that the secret to a consistently perfect result is about even more than choosing the right potato that’s been cut into a fun shape and fried twice.
Choosing the right oil, making sure your staff follows your standard operating procedures for regular filtration, keeping your investment fresh and your fryer calibrated are foundational for quality and consistency. Curious to learn about how to effortlessly serve the best fries to your guests every single time? There’s a wealth of actionable info in The Perfect Fry: The Insider’s Guide to Frying Smarter, Not Harder.