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French fries: Holy Grail of cooking

Meltingly squishy on the inside and wonderfully crisp on the outside, the golden and perfect French fry is the Holy Grail of cooking. Vir Sanghvi tells more.

india Updated: Jun 18, 2011 18:06 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Sometimes, the meals that turn out the best happen when you expect the least. I was in Calcutta for less than a day. I finished my work, returned to my hotel (the Oberoi Grand) and decided that I would have a quick room service lunch before leaving for the airport and taking my flight back. The Grand has an extensive room service menu but I wanted something simple so I ordered steak and chips.

When the meal arrived, it was a revelation. The steak was tender, juicy and perfectly cooked to medium doneness. It came with a freshly-made Bearnaise sauce – rare because most kitchens don’t know how to make the great sauces of classic cuisine any longer. And the chips – ah, the chips! – were golden and perfect; meltingly squishy on the inside and wonderfully crisp on the outside.

I called down and asked to speak to the chef. His name, I discovered, is Mithun Saha and he is clearly a man who knows his stuff. The Bearnaise had emerged from a top-quality kitchen and as for the steak, Mithun was categorical: it was local. At a time when most chefs depend on Australian or US steak, the Grand was buying fresh beef from the local market. (It helps that Bengal is one of the few states where local beef is legally available.) Mithun said that he thought the local produce was good enough for him not to waste money on imported steak.

But what about the chips? How had he got them so right? I suspected that I already knew the answer. And as it turned out, I was right. But more about that later.

The French fry is the Holy Grail of cooking. For years and years, the great French chefs looked down on the humble fry (called chip in England though chips refers to wafers or potato crisps in the US) and preferred to concoct fancy potato dishes with cream, butter and truffles. But it was Joel Robuchon – inventor of the celebrated dairy-rich mashed potato – who put the focus back on creating the perfect fry.

Since then, most chefs have had a go at cracking the secret of the perfect fry. Robuchon’s is the classic recipe but there are many claimants to the title. Chefs approach French fry making from three different angles. The first is the quality of the potato itself. Scientists tell us that for a potato to turn into the perfect French fry you need a very specific mixture of starch, sugar and something called dry matter content. In every country, chefs have their own favourites for chip-making. The Americans use Yukon Gold or Idaho Russets. The Brits like Maris Piper. The French have their own preferences.

Then, there is the question of oil. The secret of a perfect French fry is – though chefs keep very quiet about this – animal fat. The general principle is that the more highly saturated the frying oil, the crisper the fry. So-called healthy oils (low in saturated fats) are useless when it comes to making chips. For decades, McDonald’s made its chips with beef fat. (Relax. They don’t do that in India or in America and Europe any longer though I am not so sure about the cooking mediums used in the Far East.) The Belgians, who claim to have invented the French fry, insist that the best chips are fried in horse fat.

And then, finally, there’s the business of process. A professional chef will never make a French fry by simply cutting the potatoes and frying them. Most will follow Robuchon’s lead and fry the chips twice. The first frying cooks the potato while the second frying makes the chip swell out and gives it an appealing golden crust.

These days, there is a new claimant to the title of world’s greatest chip maker. Heston Blumenthal has three Michelin stars at his The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray in England but his chips were invented at the Hind’s Head, a gastro-pub he also runs in Bray. Earlier this year, Blumenthal opened his new restaurant, Dinner, at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Though Dinner is currently London’s hottest reservation because of Heston’s success in re-interpreting traditional English recipes, it also serves his famous chips.

Blumenthal is a chef who takes science very seriously and his quest for the perfect chip has been the subject of a television show. I won’t go into too much detail but his basic conclusion is that Arran Victory potatoes make the best chips (though, when I had his chips at the Hind’s Head last year, he was using Maris Pipers). His recipe recommends the use of groundnut oil (which is relatively healthy) though I suspect he uses animal fat at his own restaurants. Last month, at Dinner, the waiter asked if I was a vegetarian when I ordered the chips – which would suggest that they are cooked in something like beef tallow.

In terms of technique, Blumenthal cooks the chips thrice, which is why he calls them triple-cooked chips. First, he cooks them in boiling water. Then, he cools them in the fridge (to remove excess moisture). Next, he cooks them in a deep-fat fryer at 130 degrees C. They go back in the fridge till they are cold. And then he fries them again for eight to ten minutes at 190 degrees C.

It is certainly a lot of trouble to take over a French fry and you may wonder whether it’s worth it. I’ve eaten the Hind’s Head version (so-so) and the Dinner chip (good) and while both are better than the Robuchon French fry, this kind of frippery is really only justified in a very expensive restaurant where the cooks can afford to take this much trouble.

For the rest of us, however, the Blumenthal-Robuchon approach is of little use. In any case, it is almost impossible to make a good French fry at home. Part of the problem (as I wrote a year ago) is that Indian potatoes are simply not suited to French fry cooking. The sugar content is usually too high. Moreover, there is also the difficulty of getting the right frying temperatures in a home kitchen. Frying requires very hot oil kept at a stable temperature. This is almost impossible to do at home. Even in restaurants, good French fries can only come out of commercial deep-fryers.

Which takes us back to the perfect chips that I had for lunch at the Grand. Talented as Mithun Saha undoubtedly is, I doubt if he has the time to spend hours triple-cooking his chips or even, has the kind of high-salaried kitchen help that Robuchon and Blumenthal can depend on.

How then did he send me those terrific fries? The answer is a little disappointing: not Michelin-starred inspiration but industrial production. The French fries at most Indian hotels come out of packets. It is not that the cooks are too lazy to peel and chop the potatoes themselves. It is that they do not have access to the right kinds of potatoes for chip-making. So, they depend on frozen fries made by one of a handful of global potato giants.

I have written before about McCain, the multinational potato company that now grows its own spuds in India and cuts them into fries at a factory in Gujarat. What people may not realise about the frozen fry is that the potatoes are not actually raw. When they go into the plant, the potatoes are first cut into chip-sized strips and are then blanched. The blanching process removes the sugars that cause discoloration in potatoes. Then, they are dried to remove excess moisture. Next, they are fried. Only after that are they frozen (for 20 minutes at a temperature of minus 39 degrees C).

So, when a chef pulls a frozen French fry out of a packet, he is not dealing with a raw potato. The French fry has already been blanched and fried once. When he puts it into the deep-fat fryer, it is actually the third time that the chip is being cooked. In that sense, the French fries you are served at most hotels these days are already triple-cooked chips.

But there is one other secret and it explains the crisp fries I was served at the Grand. McCain’s rival in the potato world is a multinational called LambWeston. While McCain has an impressive Indian operation, LambWeston’s Delhi’s presence seems to consist largely of the tireless Bharat Bhushan who has made many trips to my office singing the praises of his potatoes. Fortunately for Bhushan, the products are excellent, and deserving of the praise.

One of LambWeston’s most popular products are chips called Stealth Fries. The trick to Stealth Fries is that they are made using a patented process that thinly coats each chip with a transparent potato starch batter. When a Stealth Fry goes into the deep fryer, the batter ensures a layer of crispiness.

Because LambWeston’s fries have a stronger potato taste than much of the competition, Stealth Fries make for perfect chips, crispy golden on the outside and softly succulent on the inside. That was the secret of Chef Mithun’s fries. Sometimes it’s great to eat in a Michelin-starred kitchen and enjoy triple-cooked chips. But sometimes you can get a similar result by stealth.

- From HT Brunch, June 19

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First Published: Jun 17, 2011 18:58 IST