14 February 2011

Sauteed potatoes — hold the salt

A couple of years ago, my friend CHM and I went to see some old friends of his who live about halfway between Saint-Aignan and Paris. They are a couple, P. and M., and the woman, M., made an informal lunch for us.

The main thing M. cooked that day was some potatoes. They were thin-sliced, yellow-fleshed potatoes. She said they were charlottes, and she said she uses that variety for nearly every potato dish she makes. Charlottes are firm, semi-waxy potatoes, and they are especially good fried or sauteed, but also boiled or steamed and cut up into a salad.

Raw slices of potato go into a hot pan with
melted butter, oil, or a combination of the two.

M. put the thin rounds of potato in a hot frying pan with melted butter in it. She let them cook until the bottom layer was golden brown, and then she started tossing them around. The slices ended up browning on both sides — not all of them, but enough so that, overall, the potatoes were both crispy — croustillantes — and tender — moelleuses — at the same time.

After a few minutes of cooking and tossing...

We feasted on them. They were not only delicious, but they were beautifully golden in color. M. had succeeded in making potatoes by a method that I had tried before but never really to my satisfaction. Her sauteed sliced potatoes were much better and prettier than mine had ever been.

...I added a cut-up slice of jambon de Paris (boiled ham)
that I happened to have left over.

Now I know the secret. I learned it by reading French master chef and restaurateur Joël Robuchon's book called Le Meilleur et le plus simple de la pomme de terre (1994). The book contains 100 recipes, and the one that clued me in was for pommes sautées à cru — sauteed potatoes using raw potatoes (as opposed to sauteed potatoes made with pre-cooked, blanched, or parboiled potatoes).

Here's the recipe, translated:

Pommes sautées à cru
Serves 4 or 5
  • 1 kg (2¼ lbs.) medium potatoes (charlottes)
  • 3 oz. of butter or goose fat
  • sea salt
Use nice, unblemished potatoes. Peel them and cut
them into slices 1/8" (3 mm) thick. Rinse the
and dry them in a kitchen towel.

In a frying pan, melt the butter or goose fat and sauté
the potato slices for 15 minutes.
They should be
golden brown on all sides.
Salt them, and
pour off any excess fat.

Put them on a platter and serve them.

Now that sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But just try it. You obviously have to toss the potatoes around (les faire sauter, or "make them jump") to get the slices to brown on both sides. when you toss them or turn them with a spatula, however, they start to break up, and they don't look as nice as you want them to look. These are not supposed to be hash browns.

The potato slices break up if, that is, you salt them too early. In the notes accompanying Robuchon's recipe, which take up half the page the recipe is on, he gives this crucial piece of advice, buried deep in a long paragraph: « Ne salez pas avant la fin de la cuisson, cela fait ramollir les pommes de terre. » — Don't add any salt until the end of the cooking time; otherwise, the potatoes will get soft.

I think that's the mistake I had been making for years. I would just automatically salt the potatoes when I put them in the pan, and then they would go soft and start to break apart. Now I sauté them without salt, and they come out much better.

Good breakfast yesterday, with a couple of poached eggs

This time, I didn't even have any charlotte potatoes. I had some bintje potatoes, however, so that's what I used. They are a mealier (more floury) variety that make, according to Robuchon, good French fries and good mashed potatoes. Now I can tell you that they also make good sauteed potatoes using this method.

Here's a very detailed recipe in French with a lot of photos. It's interesting that salt is never mentioned.

For the potatoes I made, I used a combination of butter and canola oil. Next time, I'll use duck fat (but I'm afraid it may be too salty). By the way, goose or duck fat is much easier to come by in France than in the U.S. You can buy it in jars or tins a the supermarket.

I don't find any evidence on Amazon.com that Robuchon's book of potato recipes has been translated into English. Here's what he says about sauteeing raw potatoes, in my translation:
“Potatoes can be sauteed in oil, in a mixture of oil and butter, or — the height of refinement — in clarified butter. I myself prefer them sauteed in goose or duck fat. Whether you use oil, butter, or fat, put it in a cold pan and set it on the heat. When the pan is good and hot, put in the sliced potatoes and sear them on one side without shaking the pan or stirring them. Don't turn them over before they are well browned on one side. Turn the heat down once the potatoes are seared. Don't add any salt before the end of the cooking; otherwise the potatoes will go soft. You can add a little chopped garlic at the end of the cooking, but don't let the garlic burn. Just let it brown lightly. You can also toss the potatoes in a little fresh melted butter at the end of the cooking to add extra flavor and give them a nice sheen. Also, serve them with a little chopped Italian flat parsley, added at the very last minute.

“Be aware that sauteed raw potatoes won't wait for you. You must put them on to cook at just the right time so that they can be served when the have attained the ideal degree of doneness. If they wait, they turn soft immediately.”

Robuchon says to leave the potatoes unpeeled if they are very fresh. The peel gives the potatoes « un goût particulièrement intéressant », he writes.


  1. I was brought up on the idea that potato skin contains a lot of goodness (?vitamins - where the rest is just starch?) so you should cook potatoes in their skins as much as possible. I don't know how scientifically based that is.

  2. In the past, I blamed overcrowding the pan for unsuccessful,broken and unevenly cooked sauteed potatoes.I have only been pleased with the result when using one or two potatoes for one serving.

  3. Now I know how... thanks Ken!!
    Also, if you treat Charlotte as a late potato you can produce some wonderful bakers! We did so by accident one year... usually potatoes tell you that they are ready for harvest by slowly dieing back as the tubers underground absorb what nutrients they can still gain from the leaves and stems... that year, due to a very nice continuous mix of rain, sun, rain, sun, etc.... they didn't start to yellow!
    Charlotte are wonderful spuds... I'm sure that someone inserted a 'butter' gene into the mix somewhere... they are so great boiled and eaten cold!

  4. You always come up with just the right thing "left over", "in the freezer", or "in the cupboard" to round out a tasty meal.

  5. Your breakfast looks yummy! It's interesting that what seems like the simplest things to cook are really the hardest. Thank for the tips.

    I know I've said this before, but my Dad made the best homefries for breakfast- he cubed the potatoes and cooked them in bacon grease with his garden onions, which he called "potato onions". I think he salted them early because they were soft. They were really good with eggs, bacon and fresh tomatoes.

  6. Charlottes seem very similar
    to the yukon golds we have
    in the US.

  7. I was looking at bags of seed potatoes this morning and wondered whether to get charlottes this year. I now think I will, for a change.

    We have oft been served delicious and perfect sauteed potatoes in restaurants and wondered how they did it. Ours never come out as good (although perfectly edible). I wonder if they keep them partly cooked and just finish them off in butter to serve as required.

  8. Two of my favorite foods, potatoes and poached eggs. Thanks!


  9. I can’t tell you how greedy I am as a person and how I am craving right now for these beautiful potatoes. I mean the recipe is the most simple ones I ever read but the result is outstanding. They are great. Thanks for the recipe.

  10. I can't remember the last time I had potatoes that weren't either mashed or baked.

  11. Je viens de découvrir votre blog . J' adore votre façon de décrire les choses et je sens que je vais vous lire régulièrement dorénavant .
    Merci de nous faire partager vos pensées et recettes de cuisine .


  12. I made potatoes for lunch; it worked! I used ordinary red potatoes from the grocery store.

  13. I got the not-so-smooth idea last week to cook a thinly sliced potato in the microwave... don't ever try it. :)) Dry rubber was the result :)


  14. Hi Judy, I won't try that then. I do sometimes steam or boil potatoes in the microwave though.

    Chris, hope the potatoes looked and tasted good. Salt (or lack of salt) seems to be the key.

    Starman, you mean you don't have frites when you go to restaurants in Paris? They can be hard to avoid.

    Bonjour NL et Cursuri Franceza, :^)

    Sheila, I think you are right about charlottes and yukon golds being similar varieties. But as Chris said, red potatoes or any boiling potato works for sauteeing, and I think baking potatoes would work too this way.

    Evelyn, I'm sure those potatoes were good too. It's nice to have different methods of cooking them — pour varier les plaisirs, as the expression goes.

    Bill, the ham was good in the potatoes, and that was a slice that didn't get thrown out.

    Tim, I noticed that there were dozens of varieties of seed potatoes for sale at the Gamm'Vert store behind Leclerc in Perrusson.

    Karen, I think it's the timing of the salting.

    Autolycus, I wonder about that, but I like to cook potatoes in their skins too. In French there's that joke about them being cooked en robe de chambre... meaning en robe des champs.

  15. Yes Ken... there were weren't there!
    I managed to get out buying only one bag... Linzer Delikatesse. Got told off by the boss... she's the one planting them. Excellent spud though... on our sandy loam in the UK... don't know how they will perform here on the argile/silex/chaux soil... a bit stickier than the norm... but that may help... the Stemster we grew here last year performed wonders [despite a long period of neglect 'twixt planting and our permanant arrival!]

  16. I learned this method from Julia Childs. Peel and cube an ordinary potatoe, (I used Russets last night), dry them before starting to cook. Oil and butter, heat until butter stops bubbling. The key as you say is not to salt until the end, also a single layer works best (prevents steaming). I also discovered last night that if you don't serve them immediately they get soft :( but they still taste good :)

  17. dining room table15 February, 2011 13:35

    The potatoes are so pretty! I love it. This is going to be a nice meal!

  18. I'm getting behind reading my favorite blogs. This is a great recipe and great tips about salting last and eating immediately.


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