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Today: A trick for the best french fries you can make at home -- in the oven, using less oil than you'd put on a salad. Game on.
Even the most diehard DIYers among us stop short at french fries. We think our fries can never be as good as the hot, salty, fatty ones lifted from a restaurant-grade fryer basket, so we focus our energies anywhere else. We're vying against McDonald's, and that's not a race we want to lose, or enter, or even admit to thinking about.
Twice-fried, thrice-fried; none of it sounds all that enticing to home cooks, save for scattered obsessives, especially when home-cooked potatoes in so many other forms are rewarding and well within our reach (see: roasted, rostied, dominoed, hash-browned).
So it took a technique this easy and preposterous-seeming to make me want to even bother. Then I tried a couple other ways, and -- yep -- this was still the best.
Patricia Wells cuts baking potatoes into fat strips, steams them till they're tender, and then -- either right away or even hours later -- roasts them in the hottest possible oven with surprisingly little olive oil. Then she adds salt, just at the end.
None of this seems like it could possibly be good. I use more oil and salt when roasting anything than you'll use in this recipe -- you even deliberately leave any excess oil behind in the bowl. And yet the fries come out excellently, like chubby, golden-brown steak fries with crisp edges and creamy middles. How?
"The steaming allows a fine, moist coating of starch to form on the surface of the potato, providing a very crisp texture when baked," Wells explains. You can actually see this pale sheen on the cut faces of each frite after you lift the lid and tumble them from their steamer basket.
Under a faint coat of oil, those starches will stiffen and brown and crisp, and help keep the potatoes from sticking to the baking sheet too. And because the frites are already steamed tender, they won't burn before they're cooked through, as would inevitably be the case if you were to just throw raw chunks of potato into the oven at 500° F.
While the method isn't an exact recreation of the crustiest, deep-fried, oil-crisped french fry (that's why they're called "Fake Frites"), it feels nothing like a lackluster impersonation either. These frites have everything that the best roasted potatoes do -- the crackly edges, the smooth, sweet centers -- plus the messy, hands-on appeal of steak fries. And that unapologetic discrepancy is also what's so good about them -- you can put away half a tray and it won't make you lethargic and unsettled the way eating too much deep-fried food can.
So on game day, you don't have to fill your house and your hair and your underclothes with the heavy air of deep frying. You don't need to buy bottles of oil and then dispose of them. You don't need to wash an oil-spattered pot and stove and thermometer and whatever else you spilled on. And you don't have to just throw bags of Fritos and a six-pack on the coffee table either. All you need is this tidy steam-and-roast routine, and ketchup.
From At Home in Provence (Scribner, 1999)
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds baking potatoes, such as Idaho russets or Bintje, peeled and cut into thick fries, 3/4 inch by 3 inches
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt to taste
Photos by James Ransom