I see where Friday is national French Fry Day. I’m not fooled for one minute by these fake days of observation, which are manufactured by the PR wings of trade groups to promote or another food. Last week was Fried Chicken Day. Next week will be something else. But National French Fry day, like National Fried Chicken Day, actually deserves to be a national observance. But, interestingly, it’s for the opposite reason.
Fried Chicken’s most magical qualities come from the fact that it isn’t really fried; as I decried in a recent OTV segment, immersing a chicken in hot oil is a kind of crime against gastronomy. But potatoes – they should hardly be made any other way! It’s not just potatoes; practically all vegetables benefit from its Midas-like qualities. As I wrote some years ago, in one of my more effusive moments, “A plate of limp, cadaverous scallops or a ball of mashed up chickpeas doesn’t excite anybody; on the contrary, they’re more likely to inspire repulsion or even a kind of universal dread. But pop them into some hot oil, and before you know it, these inert bodies have metamorphosed into miniature suns, radiating pure excitement in every direction. This is what hot grease can do. Its festive pop and spatter fills every kitchen with glee; and through some miracle of chemistry, the hotter it is, the less greasy are its products.”
Of all these products, surely none are more universally loved than fries. But how often do you make them at home? I rarely do, but the feeling sometimes comes over me, and I think that may happen on Friday. So my plan is to keep the oil from its characteristic paradox. Because, like so many of us in our clogged heart of hearts, I actually like my fries to be greasy. It was at one time believed that this was because of what Brillat- Savarin calls the “surprise” effect: the potato hits the oil and the outside is immediately cauterized by the hot fat. In fact, the action is far more complex than that. Deep-frying is actually a form of boiling; the water in the fries creates the barrier that keeps the fat out. As Chris Young, one of the co-authors of the authoritative Modernist Cuisine puts it so expressively, “Plunged into hot oil, countless steam-filled bubbles erupt and envelop the food in a cloud of swirling steam and churning oil. Seen in microscopic detail, the surface of the deep-frying food is continually rocked by violent explosions that release plumes of steam-a telltale sign that water just beneath the surface is boiling.”
So how do you avoid this? Well, one way is to make sure that the french fry doesn’t boil so much as simmer – cook in oil under 340 degrees farenheit, or better still something like lard or duck fat, that won’t take high heat anyway. And then, consider using a jaquard tenderizer, an evil-looking device that functions as a kind of Iron Maiden for steaks. It will make many tiny holes in the french fries where grease can get in. The other technique, much easier but resulting in a heavier fry, is to cut the potatoes up and then freeze them – the ice crystals will do the jaquarding work for you. (You can always boil up whole potatoes too, and then chill them down and slice them – anything that does violence to the potato will work.)
I hope that you will at least think about all this before you make french fries this Friday. But why stop with french fries? Once that oil is boiling away, think of all the wonderful things you can put in it. Like the alchemists of old, everything it touches turns to gold.