Until this past year, my homemade French fries had never quite hit the mark. It seems so simple, and it is very simple, but somehow, my fries never approached the divine fries that I've gotten at some of my favorite restaurants (the fries at Schultzy's come to mind, for those in Seattle). They've been edible, and even if they haven't been great, I've probably eaten them all. But something's been lacking. That mysterious component, it turns out, is nothing revolutionary, but it was new to me. And so, if you're in the same boat as I was, here's the secret: 1) You have to first soak the potatoes in water, and 2) You have to fry them in two steps –- a low heat fry to cook the potatoes through, and a high fry step to crisp up the outside. That's it! (or almost anyway: a good mandolin to help you cut consistent shapes would be very helpful too)
If you haven't yet tried this method of making french fries, now's your time. You don't need two pots of oil either, just cook them all in batches in the low heat oil, put aside for a moment, heat up your oil, and then finish them in batches. A deep-fry or candy thermometer is almost a must, but once you get a feel for how the potatoes should sound and look as they fry in each step, you could probably learn to do without. I have also read, though have not tried, that rendered beef kidney fat is the most flavorful fat for making french fries. If you can find it near you, I'd love to hear a comparison.
No fries are complete without ketchup. Try making your own! Need some inspiration? Try the recipes at White on Rice Couple, Brooklyn Farmhouse, or Gourmet.
UPDATE: check out the comments for a discussion on the smoking point of olive oil.
French Fries Done Right
2 russet potatoes, peeled
2 quarts pure olive oil, vegetable oil, or rendered beef kidney fat
Cut the potatoes lengthwise into sticks ½ inch wide and thick. Soak the sticks in cold water to cover for 20 minutes.
Drain them in a colander and then spin them, in batches, in a salad spinner, or use kitchen towels to rid them of most of the liquid. Pat them dry with kitchen towels–not paper towels, which will stick and tear.
At this point you can fry the potatoes ahead of time, and then fry them in hot oil just before serving. Pour the oil into a deep, heavy pot large enough so that it comes no more than halfway up its sides, and heat to 320˚F, or until a potato stick dropped into the oil sinks to the bottom of the pot and then rises to the surface. Add a handful of the potatoes and fry for about 10 minutes, or until cooked through but not browned. If the potatoes start to brown, reduce the heat slightly. Using a spider or skimmer, remove the potatoes from the oil and put them on a sheet pan, Continue to fry the remaining potatoes, adding as many at once as you can without the oil boiling over.
Increase the temperature of the oil to 360˚F. Add a handful of the potatoes–they should stay on the surface rather than sink–and fry for 1 to 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Using a spider or skimmer, transfer the potatoes to paper towels to drain briefly. Continue to fry the remaining potatoes, adding as many at once as you can without the oil boiling over. Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.
VARIATION: For thin shoestring french fries, use a mandoline or a knife to cut the potatoes into julienne sticks ⅛ inch wide and the length of potato, and follow the recipe above. Instead of 10 minutes for the first frying, 5 minutes will probably suffice to cook the potatoes through, but do not let the potatoes brown.
Serves 2 to 3