Deep-fried anything is one of my most entrenched cooking fears. Well, not a fear, exactly, but I avoid it. Hot oil is dangerous, it’s smelly; you have to put food into it very carefully, and then watch it like a hawk until it’s time to fish it out even more carefully. Thus frying anything involves placing yourself at length in close proximity to both the danger and the smell, while in your concentration neglecting any small children who may be underfoot. Then, when you’re finally done, you have to figure out a way to dispose of gallons of greasy, smelly cooking oil. And that’s without even getting onto the health question.
So, I deep-fry things a few times a year; most consistently (and not coincidentally), things I watched my mother and grandmother deep-fry, like meatcakes and Christmas doughnuts, which don’t taste right made any other way and which I feel reasonably confident about managing. I have never, ever tried to fry French fries, the typical recipe for which sounds like everything I fear and loathe about deep-frying, except that you have to do it twice. When I make fries, we have oven fries.
Some time ago, however, I came across a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Cold Oil French Fries. Instead of the traditional method, which involves plunging the fries into (and extracting them from) hot oil twice in quick succession, this recipe has you put the fries into the pan with the cold oil, and then heat them all up together (translation: zero, rather than two, times plunging in hot oil!). Then you cook them over medium heat in the boiling oil until they are brown and crispy. Then you remove them, drain them on brown paper, salt them, and eat them.
Not only is this a much simpler method than the traditional one, it has only one nerve-wracking step, as opposed to four. And the fries are, as I discovered when I made them last night for the first time (and as the title above implies), kickass.
Cold Oil French Fries
adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
The Cook’s Illustrated recipe, as they are wont to do, has various precise specifications about types of potato and oil, peeling and cutting, temperature and so forth, all of which I ignored. The fries may have been more kickass had I paid attention, but their level of kickassedness was perfectly sufficient to make my day.
The salient points that I fixed on to ensure the success of the recipe are as follows:
1. Use a heavy, Dutch-oven-type cooking pot to keep the oil sufficiently hot. (I used my Le Creuset knockoff. Bonus cleanup points if you can use one that’s deep enough to minimize oil splattering everywhere.)
2. Make sure that your fries are completely submerged in the oil before starting.
6 small to medium potatoes (I don’t know what kind these are, as I bought them in a brown bag from the guy who grew them, and I forgot to ask. I generally prepare 2 potatoes per person I’m serving, unless they’re gigantic. (The potato, not the person.))
canola oil (or other neutrally-flavored oil, such as peanut; I emptied a 750-ml bottle (~3 cups) over the fries, and added a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat for flavor and good measure)
Scrub the potatoes, remove any sprouts, eyes, or other unsightly bits, and cut into batons about ½-inch (1 cm) thick. (Note that I did not peel my potatoes, but whether or not you do is up to you.)
Line a baking sheet with brown paper and set aside.
Place potatoes in cooking vessel of choice and cover with oil.
Put the pan over low-medium heat and cover pan with a splatter screen if you have one. Keep an eye on the pan as the oil heats, stirring the fries occasionally to make sure they’re not sticking.
When the oil starts to boil, stir the fries again and check the heat setting to make sure the boil is maintained consistently without a) dying off or b) overflowing and starting a fire. Continue stirring fries every few minutes as they cook; once they start boiling, they should take 15-20 minutes to fry. Once they are consistently a light-golden brown, they are done.
Turn off the heat. Once the oil settles down, use a slotted spoon or similar to scoop cooked fries out of the oil and onto the paper-lined baking tray.
Sprinkle with salt. Eat as soon as fries are cool enough to permit injury-free consumption.
Serves 2 adults and 1 child with what appear to be leftovers, until everyone goes back for seconds.
PS: Please report back on how much time elapses before you get a request to make these again. (I got asked at breakfast this morning.)