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The Origin of French Fries and How to Make Them Fresh and Fabulous

French fries are a great American tradition, right?

Nope, my friends, not so fast. French fries came to America via GIs during WWI when they were introduced to this fried treat in Belgium, their home of origin. What? French fries are not from France? That’s right, and it is a bit of a mystery how that name stuck. French is one of the official languages in Belgium, so maybe the Doughboys were just confused. Whatever the reason, the Belgians had been eating fried potatoes for centuries before the GIs took the idea home, so we are, in fact, newcomers to this treat.

The Europeans still treat the French fry with a little more respect than we do. Sure, they have the fast-food variety too, but to really enjoy good fries, a little more care must be given to their preparation.

It isn’t just a matter of throwing sliced potatoes into hot oil. Idaho or russet potatoes are the best potatoes to use. There are several recipes for making really good fries, but I prefer the Anthony Bourdain recipe he used at Les Halles in New York City. Sliced potatoes are given a 20-minute ice water bath, then dried on a bed of paper towels. Oil is heated to 280 F, and the potatoes are fried in small batches, for six to eight minutes. They are removed, shaken off, and just before serving, they go back into oil heated to 375 F for two to three minutes. Then moved to a bed of paper towels, salted, and served immediately.

Cooking in small batches is absolutely essential unless you have a large commercial fryer. Dropping a large handful of cold potatoes into hot oil dramatically reduces the temperature, causing the fries to soak up oil. Yuck. A constant temperature is essential.

It is also important to serve fries immediately after coming out of the fryer. The moment they come out of the hot oil they are at their best, and every minute you wait after that, they degrade in crispness and flavor.

So, what do you serve with good French fries? Please do not cover them in ketchup. Dipping is just fine but covering them up makes them soggy. Again, yuck. The Belgians are fond of serving fries with a fried egg on top, and the Brits like salt and vinegar or mayo. I am fond of dipping crispy fries in good mayo and am especially fond of the Japanese variety (made only with egg yolks, never the white part), but if you really want a treat, make your own mayo along with a pinch of saffron or roasted garlic. 

Homemade mayo is so easy to make. You will need an immersion circulator, and a cup just slightly bigger around the head of the circulator. Add a cup of good oil (olive oil if you like) and one whole egg. Pulse the circulator a few times and in just moments, you will have a great mayo. Add a pinch of salt. 

Good French fries really can be a thing of wonder, take your time and get them right!


Written by Julian Brunt

Julian Brunt is a food and travel writer that has been writing about the food culture of the Deep South for over a decade. He is the eleventh generation of his family to live in the South, grew up in Europe, traveled extensively for the first fifteen years after graduating from the University of Maryland, University College, Heidelberg, Germany. Today, he's a contributor for multiple publications, including Our Mississippi Home. He's also appeared on Gordon Ramsay's television show, "To Hell and Back in 24 Hours."


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