Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Cook French Fries, According to So Many Tests

September 17, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Alya Hameedi. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

In Absolute Best Tests, our writer Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's mashed dozens of potatoes, seared more porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall, and tasted enough types of bacon to concern a cardiologist. Today, she tackles French fries.


I have a friend who jokes that the sinister underbelly of this column is that each month, I am forced to identify the exact point at which a delicious food becomes revolting. After I hard-boiled hundreds of eggs, I couldn’t look at one for a year. And I still haven’t recovered from 2019’s porterhouse sear-off.

So it is with much delight that I report that there is simply no volume at which French fries become disgusting. They are an unimpeachably delicious food. Even in mediocre configurations—looking at you, wedge—French fries are tender, starchy vehicles for salt and sauce. (The single exception to this otherwise objective fact is shoestring fries, which are bullshit, and which are also chips.)

There is, of course, much variation when it comes to the finer points of a French fry. Some are better for scooping up mayonnaise. Others have crispy crags ideal for catching crystals of kosher salt. Others have tender, creamy interiors perfect for mopping up the sauce from steak au poivre.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“The best fat to cook french fries includes beef tallow. The fame of the quality of McDonald's fries was based on the use of tallow as part of the frying fats - which stopped in the USA in 1990. Interestingly, the caloric load of their fries went up significantly with the switch to all-vegetable oil, though the saturated fat profile of course declined. ”
— Karl
Comment

Below, I have tested six different shapes of French fry and seven different cooking methods in an effort to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each. There were definite winners, and there were soggy losers.

Let’s dive in.


Controls

For all tests, I used russet potatoes and Diamond Crystal kosher salt. I used vegetable oil in every trial except for the steamed + bake test, as the recipe I adapted called for olive oil, and I was worried about cutting down on flavor in a method that had already axed deep-frying.

I tasted all batches plain, as well as dipped into mayonnaise alone, ketchup alone, and a mixture of Huy Fong Chili Garlic Sauce and mayonnaise. (No one asked me to do that last bit, with the sauces, but they can’t fire me for it either.)


Round One: Shape

All shapes were tested with the fried method.

Straight-Cut

Adapted from The Lazy Cook and Food Network.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until the oil registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, carefully add the potato strips and cook for about 5 minutes, until pale and floppy, flipping every minute or so. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 5 more minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on the lined sheet pan. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

Straight-cut French fries are a classic shape that are neither overrated nor underrated. When properly fried to a golden crisp, each fry could be used as a sort of flat-head shovel for condiments. The main difference between a straight-cut fry and its thicker cousins (the frite, the wedge) is the ratio of creamy inside to crunchy outside. I like the ratio of a straight-cut fry when I’m eating them as an entrée, or alongside something that doesn’t offer any opportunities for sopping.

Crinkle

Adapted from My Recipes.

  1. Use a crinkle cutter to slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ½ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, carefully add the potato strips and cook for about 5 minutes, until pale and floppy, flipping every minute or so. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 5 more minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on the lined sheet pan. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

Crinkle-cut fries have roughly 4,000 times as much to offer as straight-cut fries if, like me, you value texture. The pucker and furrow of each fry’s shell provided a great deal more crunch than straight sides ever could, and also meant that more salt stuck to the freshly fried specimens. The staircased sides also made for little pockets of sauce each time the fries were dipped, and if “little pockets of sauce” doesn’t release a material amount of serotonin in your brain, this may be the wrong column for you.

Waffle

Adapted from Food.com.

  1. Use a crinkle cutter to slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into chip-shaped slices about ¼ inch thick, rotating the potato 90 degrees after each slice to achieve a waffle texture (you can also cut the rounded edges for more squared shingles).
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, carefully add the potato slices and cook, flipping every minute or so, for 2 to 3 minutes, until pale and floppy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, 3 to 4 more minutes. Drain on the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Waffle fries are a one-way ticket to muttering, “Crispy, lacy edges? Oh hell yes,” to yourself in your kitchen in the middle of the day. There’s much less soft interior to a waffle fry than there is to, say, a cottage fry, which is great for anyone who is all about the crunch and less interested in the baked potato of it all. These fries also turned out to be quite evenly cooked, thanks to all the holes in the center.

Cottage

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into chip-shaped slices about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, add the potato slices and cook, flipping every minute or so, for 4 to 5 minutes, until pale and floppy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 5 more minutes. Drain on the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Cottage fries are supposedly so named because each one looks like a shingle on the roof of a cottage. Like a roof shingle, a cottage fry is not a fry in the traditional sense—it’s more like a wide, flat tater tot, or a tiny disk of baked potato. That’s not a bad thing—it just means that the potatoey interior is front and center in the culinary experience. It makes for a creamy, plush bite with complementary crisp. It should be noted that cottage fries are excellent for scooping up piles of tartare or finely minced salads, and that their surface area makes for satisfying salt to potato. It should also be noted that if you invited me over to a New Year’s Eve party and served me cottage fries topped with crème fraîche and caviar, I would talk about it with great excitement every day for the rest of my life.

Wedge

Adapted from All Recipes and Williams Sonoma.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into wedges about ⅔ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, add the potato wedges and cook, flipping every minute or so, for 7 to 9 minutes, until pale and floppy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 7 to 8 more minutes. Drain on the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Wedge fries get a lot of hate. They are similar to the traditional steak fries (which I did not test because I somehow just forgot? Potato brain? Please don’t fire me, Emma!!!!), in that they are wider and plumper than a finger. This means that properly cooked wedge fries offer up a lot of starchy interior, which can be used to mop up a pan sauce, or chicken drippings. The batch I tested were delicious, with only moderate airport-steak-house vibes, though their interior to exterior ratio meant that they didn’t get enough salt per capita.

Curly

Adapted from Food52.

  1. Peel 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) and spiralize them on the largest noodle blade of your spiralizer machine.
  2. Break up any really long noodles into more of a fry length (or don't, live your life), then transfer to a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, add the potatoes and cook, flipping every minute or so, for about 4 minutes, until pale and floppy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 4 to 5 more minutes. Drain on the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt.

I love a good curly fry more than I love some humans I see regularly, but it’s tough to make a convincing version at home without a professional spiralizer. Using a generic vegetable spiralizer to approximate the curly shape turned out to be good, but not great—the resulting fries were thinner than a traditional curly boy, which unfortunately made them more like a curvy shoestring. They tasted more like a chip than a fry, with very little softness. The main strength of these at-home fries—beyond the obvious one, which is that they looked delightful—was that they were the crispiest of the bunch, and remained crispy for two days sitting out on my countertop. (Which, I feel compelled to mention, is probably not something you should do, for food safety reasons. But I’m not your mom!)


Round Two: Cook Method

All shapes were tested with straight-cut, except the steamed + baked.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Alya Hameedi. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

Fried

Adapted from The Lazy Cook and Food Network.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, add the potato strips and cook, flipping every minute or so, for about 5 minutes, until pale and floppy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 5 more minutes. Drain on the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt.

These probably should have been labeled “double fried,” since the technique calls for an initial jaunt into hot oil for a few minutes, then a draining and cool down period, and a second fry sesh in hotter oil. It’s a ubiquitous method among us potato heads, and it’s common for a reason: It produces classic fries with velvety insides and snappable exteriors that hold their shape long after their second oil bath. If you’re deep-frying French fries and considering skipping the second round of frying, don’t. You can’t get the 5 minutes of your life back, but would you even want to if you spent it eating mediocre fries when greatness was so achievable?

Boiled + Fried (aka McDonald’s Copycat Fries)

Adapted from Serious Eats.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Place the potatoes and 1 tablespoon of white vinegar in a saucepan. Add 1 quart of water and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 6 to 8 minutes, until the potatoes are fully tender but not falling apart. Drain and spread on a towel-lined sheet pan. Pat dry.
  3. Add about 4 inches of vegetable oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In batches to avoid overcrowding, add the potato strips and cook, flipping every minute or so, for about 5 minutes, until pale and floppy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on the lined sheet pan. Let cool to room temp, about 30 minutes.
  5. Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 5 more minutes. Drain on the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt.

This method, which was intended to replicate fast food French fries, demanded the most time and attention. It called for three distinct phases of cooking and an optional overnight freezing step (which I skipped, because I was tired). But the rest of the effort was well worth it. The resulting fries had the best texture, and the best flavor. If I could adopt them and enroll them in pageants, I would. They were perfectly soft and almost melty on the inside, with exteriors as crisp as shrimp chips. Even after just the boil stage, the potatoes were faintly delicious from the vinegar; I made a note to try this next time with twice as much vinegar in the same amount of water. The vinegar flavor was subtle but additive in the final fried product, a winner through and through.

Air Fried

Adapted from The Washington Post.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Heat an air fryer, with the rack or basket inserted, to 425°F.
  4. In a large bowl, toss the dried potato sticks with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until well coated.
  5. Depending on the size of your air fryer, you will need to air fry the potatoes in two or three batches. For each batch, spread the potato sticks in an even layer in the air fryer basket. Avoid stacking the fries for best results; it’s okay if they touch. Air fry until browned and crisp, 12 to 16 minutes. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

These potatoes never got quite crispy enough, despite sporting custardy interiors—the overall effect was more of diner potato skins than of French fries. Also, I found myself missing the layer of grease that settles into a fried fry like a well-worn jacket—they didn’t feel nearly as rich without it. In the future, I would use my air fryer for frozen tater tots or something breaded, like croquettes, sooner than using it to try to make French fries from scratch.

Boiled + Air Fried

Adapted from The Washington Post.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Combine potatoes, 2½ cups of water, 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice, ½ teaspoon fine salt, and a big pinch of baking soda. Cover and bring to a rolling boil. Uncover and cook until tender but still firm, about 3 minutes. Drain and spread on a towel-lined sheet pan. Allow to dry for 5 minutes.
  3. Heat an air fryer, with the rack or basket inserted, to 425°F.
  4. In a large bowl, toss the dried potato sticks with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until well coated.
  5. Depending on the size of your air fryer, you will need to air fry the potatoes in two or three batches. For each batch, spread the potato sticks in an even layer in the air fryer basket. Avoid stacking the fries for best results; it’s okay if they touch. Air fry until browned and crisp, 12 to 16 minutes. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

This batch was a bit crispier than the other air fryer batch, but still didn’t compare to the deep-fried versions. The lemon juice didn’t contribute nearly as much flavor in the boil phase as the vinegar did in the boil phase of the McDonald’s copycat batch. They were a little greasier—in a satisfying way—than the other air fryer batch, but they still tasted like an imitation of the real thing.

Shallow-Fried (I Sodi)

Adapted from I Sodi via Alta Editions.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Heat about 2½ cups or about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a medium skillet over high heat until hot but not smoking. Check the temperature by adding 1 sage leaf; it should sizzle immediately as it contacts the oil. If it doesn’t, heat the oil a bit longer. If the oil starts to smoke, remove the pot from the flame for a minute or so. Careful! If the oil is too hot, the oil will fly out of the pan when you add the potatoes.
  4. When the oil is hot, all at once, carefully add the potatoes. The oil should be at the same level as the top of the potato sticks; it should not cover them completely (as in deep-frying).
  5. Keep the flame on high or medium-high; it might take a moment or two for the oil to start bubbling, but it will if it is at the right temperature. Once the oil bubbles, check the heat—it should be medium to high. Cook, turning the potatoes once or twice with a large spoon or tongs, until a nice golden brown, 22 to 30 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a towel-lined sheet pan, then sprinkle with kosher salt.

I added this method to the list because I’ve never had fries quite like the ones at New York’s I Sodi, where they are on the menu as patate fritte. The patate fritte come heaped in a bowl with fried garlic and sage, and I’ve always queried whether they would be quite as good without all the artifice. I’ll skip ahead: Good god, these were delicious. The process was a bit nerve-racking. Within 5 splattery minutes of being added to the oil, the potato pieces began sticking to the bottom of the pan and breaking up a bit. Things settled down as the fries began to form their shells, and somehow, they began to smell like funnel cake. The result was crispy, deeply flavored fries—they were second only to the McDonald copycat boiled and fried batch. Despite only a single round of frying, their insides were extremely tender.

Steamed + Baked

Adapted from Food52.

  1. Peel and cut 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into thick fries, about 3 inches in length and ¾ inch in width. Heat the oven to 500°F.
  2. Bring 1 quart of water to a simmer in the bottom of a steamer. Place the potatoes on the steaming rack, place the rack in the steamer, cover, and steam just until a knife inserted in a potato comes away clean, 10 to 12 minutes. (The potatoes should not be cooked through, or they will tend to fall apart.)
  3. Transfer the steamed potatoes to a bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Carefully toss to coat evenly with oil. (The potatoes can be prepared to this point several hours in advance. Set aside at room temperature.)
  4. With a large slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes in a single layer to a baking sheet. Discard any excess oil or liquid. Bake until the potatoes are crisp and deep golden brown, 10 to 20 minutes, flipping the potatoes halfway through. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with kosher salt.

I had very high hopes for these, both because my editor Emma texted me “I fondly remember eating these one night,” and because I was excited to see what flavor olive oil could add. My overwhelming impression was that they required quite a few pots, pans, and bowls between the steaming and the tossing and the baking, and the result was essentially just a good, crispy baked potato. Because there was so much interior, but the crust was unfried, they lacked the flavor of some of the other batches—I would love to try this with tallow, to see if it adds anything. Either way, these would also be great layered with sour cream and covered in chives.

Cold-Fried

Adapted from The Washington Post.

  1. Slice 1 pound of russet potatoes (roughly 3 medium potatoes) into strips about ⅓ inch thick.
  2. Place in a large bowl of ice water and soak the potatoes for about 1 hour. Drain, then thoroughly pat dry or spin in a salad spinner until dry.
  3. Place them in a large pot over high heat. Add enough vegetable oil to cover by 1 inch.
  4. Cook the potatoes, undisturbed, until the oil starts to sizzle and reaches 225°F, 8 to 10 minutes,
  5. Using a spider or tongs, stir the potatoes gently, to ensure they aren’t sticking together. Continue cooking until the oil reaches 325°F and the potatoes turn golden brown and appear crisp, another 10 to 15 minutes. If the potatoes appear to be cooking too quickly or become dark brown, lower the heat slightly. The total cooking time will depend on the width of your potatoes. Fry until they’re brown and crisp.
  6. Drain on a towel-lined sheet pan and sprinkle with kosher salt.

This method was quite similar to the shallow-fried batch, except that I didn’t have to let the oil heat before adding the potatoes. It was certainly the most straightforward of all the methods, and produced very solid specimens with a lot of flavor. They weren’t quite as shattery-crisp as the shallow-fried batch, but they were better than the steamed + baked batch, as well as the air fryer batches. Alas, their insides had the tiniest bit of snap, as if they hadn’t cooked through as completely as some of the other trials.


In Conclusion

I should probably see a doctor, because I could still eat more fries!

Best Shapes

  • Crinkle Cut: The Cranny-Lovers Fry
  • Straight: Classic for a Reason
  • Waffle: A Fry But Also a Shovel

Best Methods

  • Shallow Fried: I’m Tearing Up Just Thinking About It
  • Boiled + Fried: Vinegar and Elbow Grease Went a Long, Long Way

What's your favorite method for making french fries? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • MarcoDu37
    MarcoDu37
  • Hannah
    Hannah
  • Rossi163
    Rossi163
  • Thrrepeeco
    Thrrepeeco
  • Karl
    Karl
Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

5 Comments

MarcoDu37 November 9, 2021
What an effort, although i am not convinced that your cooking options are best appropriate.

what i am convinced of however, is that your frying high temperature is much too high, and damageable fo the health.

if you read correctly the bottle of the oil you are using, you will notice that they say if the product is suitable for cooking or only seasoning salads, and in case of cooking, what is the appropriate temperature limit that you should observe.

As far as i remember, it used to be 190°C and recently when i checked they all reduced it to 185°C probably a matter of european legislation.

We are very far of the 205°C (400°F) that you recommend all over in this article, and i bet hat you won't find any brand going so high, but we don't have the same legislation in Europe and in USA.

When the temperature is too high, the oil starts to be cancerigen. Nobody plays with that, and you should update your recommandations.

Regards
 
Hannah October 1, 2021
I’ve always cut, then soaked the fries in salt water before attempting any of these methods. I particularly like air fried classic or waffle cut fries, or straight oven “McDonalds” cut fries. (Classic cut, but a little thinner-any one notice else that?) Soaking for 30-35 minutes seems to help me with the fluffy on the inside, crunchy on the outside texture, plus I don’t have to watch a pot boil water on the stove. And I love, love, love peanut oil for French fries, because I’ve always loved how my moms latkes taste after pan-fried in that oil. It only seems right to me that potatoes and peanut oil belong together like…Peanut Butter & Chocolate.
 
Rossi163 September 20, 2021
Amateur hour.
-You need to rinse the cut potatoes until the water runs clear to remove as much of the excess starch as possible. Soaking accomplishes only a fraction of what is needed. -Kosher salt crystals are too large to stick to the cooked fries. You need finer grained salt
-"vegetable oil"? There are many varieties that fall under that broad category and to not address this crucial part of the equation is further proof of the amateur status of this article

Let us know when you have a better representation of "The Absolute Best Way..."
 
Thrrepeeco September 17, 2021
Disagree. Shoestrings are easily the best, just like the Belgian originals. Ever been to Belgium?
 
Karl September 17, 2021
The best fat to cook french fries includes beef tallow. The fame of the quality of McDonald's fries was based on the use of tallow as part of the frying fats - which stopped in the USA in 1990. Interestingly, the caloric load of their fries went up significantly with the switch to all-vegetable oil, though the saturated fat profile of course declined.