06 July 2008

About Belgians and French fried potatoes

The Beaver left a comment a few hours ago asking how we make our French fries, pommes frites. No, we don't use olive oil. For a while I was using canola oil, huile de colza, but recently it's been sunflower oil, huile de tournesol. Both work very well and are much less expensive than olive oil.

About a week ago I was listening to a radio program I have fun with, « Les Grosses Têtes » on RTL-France. It's a panel of comedians, actors, and writers with a special guest each day. They joke about everything, including French history, politics, food, culture, and current events. Sometimes it gets a little risqué. Lots of puns, including a lot of groaners. You get the drift.

That particular day, the guest of honor on the show was a Belgian comedian I hadn't heard of before. His name is François Perrette and he was doing a one-man-show in a big Paris theater at the time the radio show was recorded last winter (these are summer re-runs).

I had just started listening to the show when I heard the host, Philippe Bouvard, ask Perrette where exactly he lives in France. It seems he left Belgium years ago. Perrette's answer surprised me — he said he lived in a beautiful little village in Touraine just outside Saint-Aignan. And he actually named the village we live in, saying it was close to Chenonceaux and Cheverny, to locate it for people.

So he's a neighbor, though I obviously haven't met him. He's also Belgian, as I said, and you might know that Belgium is supposedly where the so-called French fry was invented. Fries are pretty much that national dish of Belgium, and times I've been up there they have always been very good. Belgians eat their pommes frites with mayonnaise or gravy, whereas in France people eat them with sauces, yes, but mostly with hot Dijon mustard and, more and more, with what they call "sweetened tomato sauce" on Cuisine TV. That would be ketchup.

Then the conversation came around to food and Bouvard asked his Belgian guest how he went about making pommes frites in his own kitchen. Perrette said he fries potatoes in a 50-50 blend of horse fat and vegetable oil! I was so suprised at the idea of using horse fat as a fying medium that I didn't hear what kind of vegetable oil he used. Maybe it was peanut oil, which a lot of people prefer.

Weren't the fries at McDonald's cooked in beef tallow — aka beef fat — for many years?

I've been thinking about using duck fat to make fries the next time I change the oil in the fryer, partly because I have saved so many liters of it from all the ducks I cook. Duck fat can cook at high temperatures without smoking, I believe. Maybe I should make a half-and-half blend of duck fat and sunflower oil. I might.

Perrette went on to explain that he can't really make good fries at his house in Touraine because the right potatoes aren't available here. You have to go up to northern France or, better, right to Belgium to get good frying potatoes. (You'd think he could drive up there and bring back a few kilos, but whatever.)

In his book, Rebuchon
calls potatoes
« le roi des légumes »


And that has been my experience with making French fries in Touraine. We've tried putting all different kinds of potatoes in our nice deep-fat fryer, including the ones labeled « Spécialies Frites » that they sell at the supermarket and at the farmers' market. I've tried the potatoes sold as the ones you use to make purée or soup (Agates), the ones that are all-purpose (Charlottes), the red ones (Franceline), and the ones that come in 10-kilo net bags labeled as just ordinary potatoes (pommes de terre de consommation).

For fries, the result is never really good. Walt and I fry the potatoes twice — a first frying at a slightly lower temperature (170ºC, which is 340ºF), a rest in the fying basket, and then a second frying at 190ºC (375ºF) — that's as hot as our fryer gets. We've even tried doing what the famous chef Joël Rebuchon recommends: first blanch the potatoes for a minute or two in simmering water, and then give them the two fryings. In my experience, that didn't make too much difference either.

The fries we make with fresh potatoes just don't come out crispy and good. I guess we are doing something wrong. But what is it? With some potato varieties, the fries come out downright limp and soggy, even when cooked as they should be. Maybe Perrette is right. Maybe we just can't get the right potatoes here. (I think the right potatoes are the BF15 and Bintje varieties sold up north.)

So we use frozen French fries to make our frites. The frozen potatoes are not any more expensive than fresh potatoes. We have a big freezer so we can buy them by the two-kilo bag (nearly 5 lbs.) and a bag costs between a euro and a euro fifty (if I remember right). You don't have to peel them. They keep for a long time. They have already been blanched — in oil, not in water. We still give them two fryings, and they seem to come out better that way than when you just put them and and cook them until they look done.

The only thing you can object to with frozen French fries is the oil the agribusiness companies use to do that blanching, or pre-cooking. As often as not, it's palm oil. It's not always hydrogenated palm oil, but sometimes it is. Sometimes it's just listed as « huile végétale » on the label, so you don't know what it is. They say palm oil is not good for us.

Our favorite brand of potatoes is the one sold at Intermarché under the name Bouton d'Or. The ones from SuperU are acceptable too. We've tried others, from the Netto or Ed hard-discount grocery stores, but they haven't been as good. We have not tried the McCain brand, which you see in all the stores, but I think they are a little too pricey. Maybe I should try them anyway.

And I will continue to experiment with different varieties of fresh potatoes from time to time. I have a theory though. I think the big agribusiness companies have a corner on the market for potatoes that make good pommes frites. It would of course serve their commercial interests to contract with big farms to have the appropriate potato varieties produced for them at bulk prices. That way their products are as good as they can be.

If we had sandy soil up here at La Renaudière, it would be good to grow our own potatoes. But our soil is too heavy in clay to make that feasible.


  1. Down in the Perigord, potatoes are fried in duck or goose fat. Both make for crispy, flavorful potatoes. I’ve found that you have to eat them right after they are fried, otherwise they start getting soggy—I assume from moisture in the potatoes. Also, I don't have a deep-fryer so I just do them in a deep frying pan over my highest heat.

  2. This is a case where I hope the new stove with a hot gas burner might make a difference. I'm optimistic.

  3. When I was a little girl (roughly half a century ago) my grandmother and mother used to fry the patatoes in 'Ossewit', that's Flemish for 'Blanc de Boeuf', (white beef fat). Some 35 years ago people started mixing this beef fat with vegetable fat. Both were sold in hard 250 gr. cubes, packed by four in rectangluar red (beef) of yellow (vegetable) boxes. Nowadays most people use liquid vegatable oils (like sunflower or 'arachide' (that's peanut). But beef fat still gives the best, authentical flavour to your fries!
    If you are not using forzen pre-fried frites, you have to make sure that you raw patatoes are very, very, very dry (wipe of all the excess water before putting them in the frying pan) otherwise you'll get soggy frites.
    Prefry them for 4 to 5 min. at 160°C. Take them out of the fat and toss them sveral times into the air so that they don't stick together. Let them cool down for a bit (very important). Turn up the heat till the fat reaches 190°C and put in the frites a second time for about 2 tot 4 min. If you're frying a large quantity it is better to put them in in two small batches. Take them out and toss them in the air again (several times) till all the excess fat has dried. Serve them hot with a big blob of mayonnaise or tartare sauce.
    Bon appetit !
    P.S. I'll put a box of 'Ossewit' on next year's shopping list :-)! Martine

  4. Forgot to mention that's important not to fry too many frites in the same batch (even when you're prefrying). If the quantity is too large, the temperature of the fat will drop instandly which will slow down the frying process ... and the frites will loose the 'crispiness'. Martine

  5. Martine, I'd love to taste your fries sometime- it sounds like they would be perfect.

    There's a program on the history channel here about McDonald's frozen fries. They do a good job with them and Idaho does grow some fine potatoes. I wonder what sort of potato grows up toward Belgium?

    Ken, I bet your new stove is going to do a better job with fries, but I bet your current fries would taste good to me.

    Using horse fat is disgusting to me, but I've heard that lard (was that stuff pork or cow?) was really good.

    My dad often fried potatoes and onions in our cast iron skillet and they still are my favorite potato dish although I don't make them often. We'd have them with eggs for breakfast and in the summer we'd have sliced tomatoes. This was a farmer's breakfast- oh, biscuits were also served, or maybe just toast.

  6. Evelyn,
    They are far from being perfect, but at least they are made in the traditional Belgian way. I really don't know where François Perrette (being Belgian) got the gruesome idea that real frites should be fried in horse fat. Yuk ! Martine

  7. Thank you Ken for the detailed info about the frites. BTW we listened to "les Grosses tetes" every afternoon when we were in France - most of the time when we were heading back to the gite after a day trip. I have never laughed so much- this reminded me of my childhood when I was listening to Bedos on the radio.

  8. Martine, thanks for the information about cooking pommes frites in Belgium. I think you are right about frying smaller batches of potatoes so that the oil or fat doesn't cool down too much. The ideal is to have a very large quantity of fat for just a few frites, as restaurants can have. At home, that's more difficult.

    Evelyn, lard is rendered pork fat. Tallow is rendered beef fat. I'm not sure what horse fat, graisse de cheval, is called, except that. Eating horse meat is fairly common in France and other European countries. Every town in France seems to have a boucherie chevaline -- a horse-meat butcher's shop. Even so, from what I read on the Internet it seems it is really hard to find graisse de cheval available commercially nowadays. I'm going to have to try duck fat for French-frying.

  9. Ken ... don't forget about the tossing !!!
    As far as the duck fat goes, Okay why not, but it's a shame ... you'll never again get the authentic taste of real Belgian frites... After all, you've said it yourself .. we've invented them ! :-) Martine

  10. Palm oil is bad for us because it contains trans fat--very bad for cholesterol. Most foods now in the States are switching away from all trans fats. In New York they are banned. Trans fats are in anything that is partially or fully hydrogenated, like margarine.

  11. Hello Gabby, sometimes you see just "palm oil" on the ingredient list, and not "hydogenated palm oil." I wonder if that is still bad for cholesterol. And what about hearts of palm in salads?

    Yesterday I was watching a show about the Crete diet on Cuisine TV. A doctor said that oils from sunflower, corn, and soybeans seem to have no health benefits for animals, so probably not for human beings either. The oils that do have health benefits are olive and colza (Canola).

  12. There is a hot-dog place in Chicago called Hot Doug's that offers french fries fried in duck fat on weekends. They're pretty good. This is the same place (I think the only place) that got a fine for serving foie gras after our city council banned it. (Luckily that hypocritical law got overturned.)


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