The Learn To Cook series encourages home cooks to learn the techniques needed for guaranteed success in the kitchen, sponsored by the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School. Start a free trial membership today.
Despite being a vegetarian, I’m a big fan of French fries and I’ve been known to recommend burger joints based solely on the merits of their fry selection. A perfect French fry is a thing of beauty: The outside should be crisp, golden-brown, and flavorful without being greasy. The inside should be tender and fluffy without being overcooked. In short, a perfect fry is the perfect food. Unfortunately, frying has always frightened me a little. So much can go wrong, like burnt fries and a smoky kitchen.
As always, the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School was right there, ready to step me through creating a home version of my favorite burger-joint food.
1. Use a Dutch oven and a candy thermometer
People love to waste money on fancy, one-use equipment like deep-fryers, but there’s just no need. When it comes to deep frying, all you need is a heavy-bottomed, 6.5-Qt. Dutch oven. The size has two advantages: You can fry more stuff in fewer batches, and you can keep a steady temperature more easily because of the large volume of oil. And steady temperature is key. When deep-frying, it’s essential to carefully monitor the temperature of the oil so that it’s at what the recipe requires. A clip-on candy thermometer is the best tool for the job. If the oil is too cold, it will leak into the food, leading to leaden, greasy fries that taste heavy and disgusting. If the oil is too hot, you’ll have burned exteriors and undercooked insides. One thing to note: When fastening the thermometer to the side of the Dutch oven, make sure that the tip is not touching the bottom of the pot; if it does, you’ll likely get a false reading.
2. Pick a high-smoke point, neutral-flavor oil
If you’re following a recipe, stick with the recommended fat—it can be tempting to substitute olive oil for peanut oil, but the lower smoke point of olive oil will create a nasty, smoky mess. If you’re not following a particular recipe, a refined oil with a neutral flavor or vegetable shortening will work every time. Here’s a lovely Cooking School factoid for you non-vegetarians out there: If you’re looking to inject some personality into your fried food, adding a few tablespoons of rendered bacon fat to the oil will lend the fries a subtle smokiness and richness (oh yeahhh).
3. Pick the perfect potato and treat it well
Be sure to use russet potatoes. Their perfect combination of high starch and low moisture content means they fry up with crisp exteriors and light, fluffy interiors. Yukon Golds, Red Bliss, and all-purpose potatoes are all lower in starch and higher in moisture than russets. Substituting one of these varieties can result in fries that are dense instead of fluffy or waxy and soft instead of crisp. Boo. While the starchy quality of russets is great, there’s such a thing as too much. Once you’ve finished cutting the potatoes, rinse them until the water runs clear and then soak them in cold water for at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours (keep them in the fridge when you do this). This rids the potatoes of excess starch that would otherwise cause them to form very thick, heavy crusts and cause them to clump together during frying.
4. Cut the fries evenly
Cutting french fries by hand will put your knife skills to test (have you met our Cooking Fundamentals course with its lovely knife skills section yet?). If you haven’t been doing this as a professional line cook, there’s no shame in taking your time and breaking out a ruler to make sure that the potatoes are cut to equal thicknesses. Cutting the potatoes to the correct size is the simplest thing you can do to ensure even cooking with no burnt bits and raw bits. If you’re like me and get stressed about your prepped potatoes discoloring as you slowly work your way through the pile, place the cut ones in a bowl of cold water.
5. Cornstarch is your friend
This is a Test Kitchen trick that I first learned to apply to steaks. Once you’ve drained off the water and dried the cut potatoes on a clean dish towel, add about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch per pound of potato and mix it in so it covers all surfaces. Let the potatoes sit on a wire rack while the cornstarch works its magic. It draws the moisture from the potatoes so that the surface is nice and dry. This allows a crisp, crusty exterior to form when potato hits hot oil, just what you want in a French fry.
Want to try it? Check out our Frying Without Fear and Classic French Fries lessons at the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School. Or, tell us what techniques you’d like to learn in the Cooking School in the comments below!