My new book of essays, as presented to the Chicago Literary Club by me over the past 15 years, has just been published. It contains two essays on the history of fries and several more that touch on this topic, among a kaleidoscope of other subjects from my travels and research. Available now on Amazon Books, Barner and Noble (bn.com) and from the publisher, Booklocker.com.
My first book will be published within the next month or so, and it is an anthology of my essays presented before the famed Chicago Literary Club in each of the 15 years I have been a member. Most of these were presented after club dinners at the aptly-named Cliff Dwellers Club, on the 22nd story, overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan.
The topics of the essays range widely: from fries, to Kenya, to Toyotas, to beacons, to Sam Johnson and James Boswell, to political colors, to spokesmanship, to changing office culture, to Belgium frikots to breakfast with Mr. McDonald, to name a few.
Below is my Introduction to APPLE PRESSINGS. Stay tuned for more, as publication approaches.
I came to think of these writings as the apple pressings of my mind.
In making apple cider, pressings are the remains of the crushed apples after the juice is squeezed out by a press. The essays herein were written at our Wisconsin retreat, Applewood Lodge, thus named because there are more than 200 apple trees of miscellaneous lineage spread across the property. They, or their antecedents, were likely planted by the owners of the fairly ancient house, now reduced to an overgrown foundation of large boulders, which once stood near the entrance,
Not long after Vicki and I acquired Applewood and built our weekend country house in 1989, I put together a traditional hand-operated wooden apple press, in hopes of teasing succulent fresh apple cider from the red, green and yellow apples adorning our trees every fall. Grinding the apples was sweat-busting work, thus the press has now been resting unused in our storage shed for some years.
Just as the pressings – also known as pomace or must – are what is left after the precious juice is squeezed from those hardy apples – these essays are the essence of what remains in the wake of travels, research and reflecting. The yield is these 15 essays, each completed annually between 2005 and 2019, under the auspices of the renowned and historic Chicago Literary Club, of which I’ve been a member over that time.
As for the back story of this compendium, I was invited to join the Literary Club by John Notz, a Lake Geneva friend who noted an article I’d written for a local newspaper about the winter mountain hut restaurants that Vicki and I ravenously visited in our ski trips to Arosa, Switzerland, from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s. Each of the subsequent Literary Club essays here is also preceded by a short back story on why or how I came to think it worth writing.
I retired from a full-time career in public relations at the stroke of the Millennium, at the tender age of 56. I felt like a 16-year-old on summer vacation, but with a somewhat larger allowance. Yes, I have since been guilty of filling my time with an abundance of leisure activity, but I’ve also become active with several not-for-profit organizations, founded two university award programs in cause-related community relations, and done some travel and writing, much of it here, with the Literary Club.
My sweet wife of more than 40 years, Vicki, has served as my more-than-willing editor and grammatist, and our aptly-named cat, Cider, has often trod the keys in attempts to add his random edits. Each essay indicates the date presented before the Literary Club, and is reproduced as it was presented.
I hope you enjoy these sometimes-tasty, and always tart apple pressings, dried and ready for you to read, inside the covers of this non-edible volume. You might even consider it “must” reading. A glass of crisp apple cider might help them go down all the more smoothly. So, cheers, and enjoy!
Of the many ways to describe Chicago, a french fry paradise probably doesn’t spring to mind first. A city stuffed with extra-thick pizza and political corruption? Sure. But a Shangri-La of freshly cut potatoes bubbling in hot oil? Not exactly.
Perhaps you should reconsider.
While you can find great fries all over the country, the sad fact is that even when you discount most fast food chains, the majority of restaurants purchase frozen fries. It’s cheaper and easier to do so. But for some stubborn reason, Chicago is a city dedicated to fresh-cut french fries, the kind that start with actual potatoes punched through a fry cutter and then cooked twice in oil (first at a lower temperature, and then at a higher temperature). The fries that emerge from the oil sport crispier crusts and creamier insides than their frozen counterparts. Instead of tasting like oil, they capture pure potato flavor.
Restaurants at every price point and in all areas of the city serve fresh-cut fries, from fancy new West Loop spots to old-school hot dog stands. It’s so common, most people here don’t even realize how good we have it. That has to explain why most hot dog stands automatically toss in a bag of fries for free with every order.
So when someone suggested we find Chicago’s best french fries (yes, the word “french” is lowercase in this usage, more on that later), we were initially dumbstruck by the impossibility of the task. There were too many options! Our whole department would have to stuff ourselves on nothing but fries for the whole year to find the city’s best.
That’s when someone suggested a $5 price limit. Sure, it would exclude places like Hopleaf Bar and Boeufhaus, but what better way to prove Chicago’s french fry supremacy than to set such a low limit.
We figured if we worked hard, we could find 40 or maybe 50 restaurants serving fresh-cut fries under the price limit, with no chain restaurants and only regular fries (no waffle, steak, curly, etc). Hours later, the list had swelled to over a 100. (Pause for a moment to admire how incredible that number is.) These included options in both the city and suburbs, though we excluded national chains.
Fact-based, indepth, local news reporting takes time, money and professional experience. We can’t do it without your support. Please consider one of the following.
We divvied up the 106 restaurants among Food & Dining reporters and editors (with help from other Tribune staffers) and got to eating. After the first round, in which participants decided thumbs up or down on each spot, we had narrowed the list to 28. For the second round, Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger revisited those semi-finalists, selecting 20 we thought were worth celebrating. To declare a winner, we embarked on round three, revisiting our top eight picks in one potato-packed day.
Along the way, we debated what makes a great french fry. Is a crispy exterior always better, or can a heavy crust cover up the flavor of the potato? Should the interior have a texture similar to baked potatoes or mashed potatoes? Do you really need condiments?
We also uncovered another reason why many of Chicago’s fries taste so good: animal fat. In a 2001 New Yorker piece titled “The Trouble with Fries,” Malcolm Gladwell writes that although the original McDonald’s was located in California, Ray Kroc developed the most popular fries in human history thanks to a hot dog stand in Chicago. “Ray Kroc, in the early days of McDonald’s, was a fan of a hot-dog stand on the North Side of Chicago called Sam’s, which used what was then called the Chicago method of cooking fries. Sam’s cooked its fries in animal fat, and Kroc followed suit.”
While McDonald’s eventually stopped using beef tallow, many places in Chicago still continue the practice, and our fries are tastier as a result.
Finally, are french fries actually French? According to the “Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, “the name does not come from the fact that their origin is French, because the potatoes are ‘frenched’ — cut into lengthwise strips.” That explains why the french in french fries has not been capitalized for the entirety of this article. However, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson, there’s a very real possibility that french fries may have first developed around Pont-Neuf in Paris in the late 18th century. But the book is quick to point out that many people disagree with this statement, and that the “Belgians are anxious to claim the honour of invention.” In other words, who knows? Still, even with an obnoxious dalliance with calling them freedom fries earlier in the century, the name has stuck.
While french fries definitely weren’t invented here, it’s our humble opinion that Chicago should finally get the attention as an epicenter of the french fry arts that it so rightly deserves. Here are 20 reasons why.
Don’t be tempted by the curly fries on the menu. Those come from the freezer. Instead, make sure to order the fresh-cut fries, which have a delicate crunch and a soft interior. They are the ideal partner with the restaurant’s thinly sliced Italian beef, which is also made in-house.
Shoestring fries with delightful dipping sauces. From the owners of Mott Street restaurant comes the cutest french fry experience I had in our quest. Don’t let the pink tray fool you. The fries themselves were tiny but mightily tasty, crisp yet retaining a soft potato nature. Help yourself to ketchup, hot sauce and chipotle aioli. The “naked” fries are also available dressed with oil poached garlic, which they offered kindly as a convincing taste on the side.
Dave’s Red Hots
Old-school neighborhood fries. This is the oldest hot dog restaurant in Chicago, with a history dating back to 1938. The building may be boarded up upstairs but that doesn’t deter the steady stream of customers in Homan Square. I don’t remember if owner Gina Fountain actually called me sweetheart, but it was understood. As is her family’s thoughtful care with the fries. Fat and satisfying, they bear a burnish comparable to the original wooden booths, and a soul as true.
3422 Roosevelt Road, 773-722-9935
The Region specializes in an ultra-smashed burger style that you’ll encounter most often around Northwest Indiana at places like Schoop’s. But unlike that south suburban chain, The Region makes its own fries, instead of using frozen spuds. These are cooked until nearly brown, picking up a distinct roasted aroma along the way.
It’s not exactly a rule, but you can usually expect delicious things if an establishment hangs a neon sign in the front window advertising its fresh-cut fries. Talk about good priorities. It’s also nice to see some large boxes of potatoes stacked in the kitchen, just waiting to be cut and fried. Sure enough, these fries are incredibly satisfying, with a crust that stays crisp even after cooling down.
5313 Lincoln Ave., Skokie, 847-674-4067
The Burger Moovment burger joint is all about keeping its food thin. The burgers feature beef patties that have been smashed on a hot griddle, and its fries are skinny, hovering in between the thickness of the kind you’d find at McDonald’s and super thin shoestring fries. Even though they are crispy on the outside, they somehow stay soft within.
The Burger Social
This trendy burger joint in Wheaton spends a lot of time on its website discussing its burger. As it should. It’s a great big juicy offering, which uses beef from local producers. But Burger Social should also highlight the fries, which come out of the kitchen with a gorgeous blond hue. Each one also has a remarkably crisp crust, with a pleasing baked potatolike interior.
Super crunchy fries ready to rock. If you’re worried about the loud music played with Brgrbelly’s rock and roll theme, rest assured the baby at the next table slept in his carrier at this family friendly restaurant. Husband and wife co-owners Steve and Nicole O’Brien opened in Portage Park six years ago, weathering the neighborhood’s changes. Through it all the burgers starred but the fries deserve a solo too. A nearly crazy potato chip crunch breaks through to a soft and tender finish. Get mayo as a dip like you’re back from a European tour.
Susie’s is probably best known for its creatively topped loaded fries. Cheese, chili, chicken, gyros, Polish sausages, bacon— you can get it all and then some on top of your fries. But it turns out that the fries underneath deserve attention, too. They have a remarkably thin crust, which gives way to a supremely soft interior. Instead of salt, they are given a shake of seasoning salt, which adds an unexpected flavor profile — a little spicy and weirdly savory — to each bite.
Lucky Burger And Grill
This Vegas-themed shop in Mundelein serves textbook fresh-cut french fries, with a crunchy exterior and a fluffy interior. The restaurant cooks the fries in vegetable oil, but the owner let me know he changes that oil often, because old oil can lead to off flavors. Sometimes it’s the simplest things, like making sure you’re using fresh oil, which distinguish good fries from the truly memorable ones.
Bob-O’s Hot Dogs
Clean-edged classic Northwest Side-style fast food fries. A ’50s diner vibe includes memorabilia showing namesake founder Bob-O and the converted bus that the shop once called home. Phyllis Bartell and her family took over in the ’70s. Now fryer baskets filled with fries always stand ready in Irving Woods. Crisp and fluffy, these are textbook fresh-cut fries. You can help yourself to ketchup and celery salt if you like. Like all Chicago-style hot dog stands, paradoxically there are no condiment rules with fries.
Edzo’s Burger Shop
When I asked Eddie Lakin, owner of Edzo’s, what made the fries at his Evanston burger shop so good, he exhaustively walked me through every step of the process. This was an excellent sign, because it proved how much he’d considered every step. Like most places, he fries the potatoes twice, once at a lower temperature to evenly cook the middle, and finally at a higher temperature to crisp the outside. But in between, he cools the fries down, which helps make the crust that much crisper when cooked the second time.
These are listed on the menu as golden fries, and there’s really no better way to describe them. Each pale yellow fry looks seriously ready for its Instragram close-up. Fortunately, each one also has a delicate crunch, with a fluffy, baked potatolike interior. Needless to say, they also pair exceptionally well with a big, juicy burger — the only other item on the restaurant’s hilariously brief menu.
Top Notch Beefburgers
Top Notch has been doing things the old fashioned way since 1942. That means that all the beef for the burgers is ground at the restaurant, and, most relevant for this discussion, that the fries are cooked in oil laced with beef tallow. So even though the fries might appear like standard blonde-hued diner fries, they have a meaty backbone that makes them far more satisfying.
2116 W. 95th St., 773-445-7218
Gene & Jude’s
This iconic River Grove stand is a finely oiled fast-food machine that kicks out hot dogs and fresh-cut french fries at an astonishing rate. It’s mesmerizing to simply watch them dress the hot dogs with speed, before tossing on a mess of fries and wrapping up everything in paper. In fact, if you order fries separately, you throw a wrench in the machine, slowing down the process by a good minute or two. But regardless of whether you order just fries or get them piled on a hot dog, they’ll be creamy in the middle, with a delicately crisp crust. While great on their own, they do reach their maximum potential when combined with one of the stand’s hot dogs.
Rand Red Hots
On my first visit to this retro hot dog stand in suburban Des Plaines, I watched a cook shovel a huge portion of white beef tallow into the fryer. That’s the exact moment I knew the fries would be good. The tallow infuses the potato with a meaty profile, almost like the flavor of a baked potato when it mixes with juices from a steak. Of course, it helps that the potatoes are cut in house and fried twice. But it’s the flavor from the tallow that will linger after you’ve polished off the whole order.
Illinois Bar & Grill
Crunchy batons with the fry connoisseur’s coveted, crackling exploded ends. Illinois Bar & Grill is best known for the self-proclaimed best burger in Illinois, as well as one of Nick’s picks as best burger in Chicago. I say the fries alone are worth a trip across town unless you’re lucky enough to live or work in Archer Heights. Whether you’re going Friday after work or Monday morning, both actual times I visited, you’ll have to wait for your order. The reward is a gloriously bountiful basket presented with a cold squeeze bottle of ketchup. Not that you need any condiment with crunchy flavorful bits providing more than enough interest and complexity.
4135 W. 47th St., 773-847-2525
Jimmy’s Red Hots
Soft, irregular and irreverent, stuffed with baked potato flavor. This is the oldest Chicago hot dog stand in the same location, claimed “Hot Dog” Faruggia recently behind the counter at Grand Avenue and Pulaski Road. Open since 1954, Jimmy’s Red Hots, named after Faruggia’s father, Jimmy, used to fry in beef tallow, but now uses a vegetable base. I grew up a block away in West Humboldt Park, and these were my first fries ever, imprinting Proustian memories of the tallow that leaves a telltale waxy feel in one’s mouth. If your ideal fry is crisp or crunchy, these aren’t that. They are, however, possibly the closest you can get molecularly to baked potato in fry form. No ketchup, but you can request hot dog condiments and make it a meal.
Redhot Ranch’s fresh-cut fries are dished out with a stunning lack of fanfare. As soon as they are pulled from the fryer, a cook salts them, wraps them up in paper, shoves them into a brown paper bag and slides them across the counter. So why are they so irresistible? The crust has an audible crunch, which breaks into an interior that’s like the creamiest mashed potatoes you can imagine. Instead of rinsing the potatoes after cutting, a practice that removes some of the starch on the exterior, these go straight in the oil. This explains the fantastic crunch, and the curious fact that the fries sometimes latch on to each other in the oil and never let go. So don’t be surprised if you reach down for one, yet come out with three or four. Of course, Redhot Ranch also slings out an incredible double cheeseburger and a flawless minimalist-style hot dog, but you’d be silly to ignore the potatoes.
2072 N. Western Ave., 773-772-6020
Mr. D’s Shish Kabobs
Long, languorous golden bars filled seemingly with silken whipped potatoes. Mike and Ann Antonopoulos opened their one-room fast food restaurant nearly 50 years ago as immigrants from Greece. Little has changed, except their son John joined the family business decades ago. He said his father is Mr. D, but doesn’t know why. A surprising mystery since it’s just the trio who work so closely together, unless you’ve witnessed the way they work. Imagine a silent ceremony for Japanese tea, instead transforming the same potatoes that steakhouses use into edible kinetic art. These biggest bakers, twice the size and price as those typically used for fries, are sliced then dropped twice in vegetable fat and beef tallow. Sheathed like taut tempura, the first fry you bite into will release a puff of pure potato essence. The warm glow inexplicably evokes for me such strong memories of lingering over fries and wine on the Mediterranean, that stepping out the door in Montclare I half expect to see the shimmering sea.
Here are the other 86 restaurants we visited in our french fry quest:
Tribune staffers Sade Carpenter, Jennifer Day, Joe Gray, Adam Lukach, Tony Puricelli, Josh Noel, Phil Vettel and Grace Wong helped taste and evaluate the fries.
Created by the Chicago Tribune Dataviz team. On Twitter @ChiTribGraphics
Copyright © 2019, Chicago Tribune
Is it too early to declare this the ‘The Year of the Fry?’
Think about it. McDonald’s just launched limited-time cheesy bacon fries, no doubt targeting Wendy’s Baconator Fries (which, to be fair, have been around for nearly four years). Wendy’s responded to the launch by putting its version in the promotional spotlight – free Baconator Fries to anyone who ordered through the brand’s mobile app – inciting a bacon fry battle of sorts to start the New Year.
French fries have long been a quick-service staple, as well as the subject of intense debate over which brand does them best. However, a case can be made that recent launches have been different. Sexier.
Consider Taco Bell’s Nacho Fries, for example. First introduced in January 2018, the Nacho Fries quickly became the brand’s most successful product launch ever – more than 53 million orders were sold in the product’s first three months alone. The fries made up more than 30% of all Taco Bell orders, yielding both check and transaction increases.
So successful was this product launch, Taco Bell has already brought it back twice as a limited-time offer. Nacho Fries were inarguably a major factor in the chain’s strong 2018 performance.
(I condone the thought behind this radical, impractical approach.)
Yes, I do want precisely 6 French fries with that
The New York Times discovers French fries aren’t healthy — and also proposes an unexpectedly brilliant solution.
What better way to celebrate a Friday than with French fries?
Today, July 13, is National French Fry Day and plenty of places are offering free or discounted deals on everyone’s favorite crispy potato treat. Not every location participates in all promotions, so be sure to check ahead.
Here’s a look at some of the best deals and discounts for National French Fry Day:
Place an order via McDonald’s mobile app for $1 or more and receive a free medium order of fries.
Selected locations are offering free order of regular hand-cut fries with any purchase. Offer good July 13 only from open to close.
Get two small orders of fries and two Original Chicken Sandwiches for $4.99 with a coupon in the restaurant’s app.
Sign up for the chain’s emails and receive a free small fries and beverage with purchase of any One-Third Pound Thickburger.
The chain has brought back Nacho Fries.
FRENCH FRIED: FROM MONTICELLO TO THE MOON
A Social, Political and Cultural Appreciation of the French Fry
By Charles Ebeling
Presented on October 31, 2005
© 2005 Charles Ebeling
This Halloween night’s essay is, perhaps disappointingly, not one about skulls and bones and things that moan in the night. And I hope it’s not received that way either! My topic is about one of those little things that we so often take for granted, yet one of those many small presences that make the world go ‘round, and that add some of the color, flavor and zest, if not romance, to our everyday world.
What follows is a social, political and cultural appreciation of that humble, crisp, vilified, salty, glorious and slivered bit of teased and fried tuber that is called – at least on occasion when Congress is not in a snit of geopolitical retaliation – the french fry.
As the old saying goes, it’s not wise to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. So now that our appetites are in check, let’s enter the big wide world of that very tiny, yet surprisingly powerful influence on human life.
This story is both part personal journey and part research, with a dash of whimsy thrown in for good measure. It is a personal journey in that, for years, my curriculum vitae began with this sentence: “Chuck has loved McDonald’s french fries since he was a teenager, and has been talking about them ever since.” And yes, my McDonald’s corporate bio really opened that way.
Indeed my first memory of french fries was from the time when I was 15, hanging out with some of my buddies on a bench at the new McDonald’s in LaGrange – one of the early ones in the chain – munching bag after bag of 15 cent french fries and quaffing paper cups of orange drink, watching the girls drive through the lot, long before there was any such as thing as a drive-thru.
As my disclaimer, McDonald’s – yes THAT McDonald’s of Dow Jones industrial strength and french fry fame – later paid my salary, directly or indirectly, for nearly a quarter of a century, first as a Michigan Avenue public relations consultant, and later as a member of the corporate staff at, what one author calls Hamburger Central, in suburban Oak Brook, Illinois.
I retired on the cusp of the Millennium, partly because I’d decided that working in just one century was more than enough for me. Until then, I’d been serving as the corporate communications officer and chief global spokesperson for the Golden Arches. And just for the record, as a McRetiree, I no longer speak for McDonald’s in any official capacity, other than as a McFan of the McBrand.
Notwithstanding all these disclaimers, I never had the time to become a true expert on much of the lore of the french fry, at least until now, as my professional interest in fries was primarily from an economic perspective, mingled with frequent and fully voluntary samplings in the corporate test kitchens and frequent research trips to the “field.” Hence, my comment that this story is also the product of new research, primarily on the trusty internet, but including at least one field trip, this time to the legendary and quite remarkable site of the humble fried tuber’s earliest introduction to America.
It was there, at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in historic Virginia, last June, that the tour docent confirmed to me that the adventurous farmer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and former ambassador to France, Jefferson, had indeed brought the french fry to America in 1802. In fact the recipe for french fries was noted in a manuscript in Jefferson’s own hand, and almost certainly came from his French chef, Honore Julien.
So tonight, I’ve brought together my professional and personal perspectives, my own culinary propensities, and new research for your after-dining pleasure, in this global appreciation of a tiny, tasty thing, called a French fry.
When I say french fry, do you envision the word ‘french” as capitalized? If you do, you no doubt consider the french fry to be of French origin. But they don’t call them French fries in France, do they, except maybe at McDonald’s. But at your typical bistro on the left bank, they are called what? Pommes frites, the fried version of pommes de terre, literally means “fried apples.” Piled high on a sizzling platter next to a grilled steak topped with seasoned butter, we’re talking Steak Frites, right?
Ponder this, when a potato is “cut into thin lengthwise strips before cooking,” according to Webster, it is considered to have been “frenched.” The English verb “fry,” is ambiguous, and can refer both to sautéing and to deep-fat frying. The French verb it derives from refers unambiguously to deep-fat frying. Indeed, when Francophile Thomas Jefferson had his staff over at the White House serve his guests from large silver bowls of fried potatoes, prepared using a recipe he’d picked up in Paris, they became known as – riddle solved — french fries – in lower cased ‘french’.
Of course, to complicate matters, and the entomology of the french fry is indeed a bit complex, the french fry may have actually been created in a french-speaking area of southern Belgium, which however was not to become part of France until 1830. More on this puzzle later.
With this argument about capitalization and origins of the fry itself under our belts, let’s consider the early origins of the potato. How the potato found its way from the South American highlands into those fry boxes at McDonald’s is one adventurous story, indeed, involving Conquistadors, Marie Antoinette, Thomas Jefferson, of course, and a pair of entrepreneurial brothers named Dick and Mac McDonald.
Down in Peru, the Inca Indians were the first people known to have cultivated potatoes, as early as 750 BC. They had many uses for potatoes, which ranged in size from a small nut to an apple, and in color from red and gold to blue and black. They didn’t fry them, but they did worship them, and even measured time with them, correlating units of time to how long it took to grow a potato crop. The Spanish conquistadores came across the knobby little tubers they called “truffles” in the high Andean village of Sorocota. In 1533, Pedro de Leon discovered they prevented “scurvy,” and finding they remained fresh longer at sea than did limes, the potato quickly became standard issue to the crews of Spanish and English ships. That’s how what the Spanish came to call the “edible stone,” arrived in Europe.
In 1596, Sir Francis Drake sailed for home after defeating some Spanish in the Caribbean, grabbed some potatoes for the trip, and welcomed aboard a human cargo of homesick colonials in Virginia. One of these passengers handed a potato to a horticulturist in England, who dubbed it a Virginia potato. In Germany, there is a monument to the potato with the inscription, “To God and Sir Francis Drake, who brought to Europe for the everlasting benefit of the poor – the potato.” But it was not until the next century that the potato would actually gain a footing in Virginia.
Being a member of the nightshade family, superstitions in Europe categorized the potato as evil and poisonous, and even as a dangerous aphrodisiac. But then entered King Frederick William of Germany, where the tuber was considered only suitable for livestock and prisoners. As a deterrent to famine, the king took up the cause and ordered peasants to grow and eat it – or have their noses cut off. Ouch!
France’s Antoine Parmentier helped King Louis XIV popularize the potato in France. Parmentier, in a burst of public relations genius, created a feast with only potato dishes, a concept he found possible while imprisoned in Germany and fed only potatoes.
This 1767 dinner – a potato-eating extravaganza — was attended by another American Francophile, Benjamin Franklin, and Marie Antoinette, wearing potato blossoms in her hair. The feast even included a potato liqueur. Master promoter Parmentier proceeded to plant an acre of potatoes in the countryside, with highly visible armed guards during day, as if the potato field were highly valuable. But, cleverly, he had it left unsupervised at night. Peasants soon concluded that the potatoes were highly prized, so they stole them, planted them in their own fields and soon the potato became a staple throughout France. Then it proceeded to gain acceptance throughout Scotland, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
Potatoes even led to a war. In 1778, Prussia and Austria fought a war by trying to starve each other’s army by consuming their food source, mostly potatoes. It became known as the Potato War.
It took none other than Sir Walter Raleigh to bring the potato to Ireland, when Queen Elizabeth I granted him 40,000 acres there to grow potatoes and tobacco. In 1733, an English seeds man summed up popular opinion of the potato this way: “it shall henceforth be reckon’d as a food fit only for Irishmen and clowns.” As a side note, do you know why the potato is sometimes called a “spud?” The name came from the type of spade the Irish used for digging potatoes.
It is odd to think that Sir Walter Raleigh’s contribution to the explosion of potato growing in Ireland was what led indirectly to the ultimate immigration of many Irish to America, when the potato blight hit in 1845, and a million Irish starved. The Irish had previously suffered from inadequate food supplies, so had readily adopted the tuber, which grew well in their climate until the potato famine set in. Only today is new DNA research on dried potato blossoms from that time, which had been preserved at Kew gardens, promising to identify the disease that caused the deadly potato blight.
The potato itself made the trip to America a bit earlier, when in 1762, the governor of Bermuda sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Frances Wyatt, governor of Virginia at Jamestown. Today, the potato is grown in every state and in about 125 countries worldwide.
But, from whence comes the french fry? Notwithstanding Jefferson’s introduction of the treat to America, the French and the Belgians still debate who created it first. Expert opinions are divided, but by the 1830’s deep fried potatoes were a taste sensation in both countries. Recipes for fried potatoes in French cookbooks go back at least to 1755. The first reference to french fries in English appeared in O. Henry’s book “Rolling Stones” in 1894. He wrote: “Our countries are great friends. We have given you Lafayette and French fried potatoes.” Yet, when the controversy over Freedom Fries began, in 2003, as part of a Republican protest against France’s opposition to the war on Iraq, the French embassy claimed that the food was actually Belgian in origin.
Belgium itself lays claim as the originator of french fries, partly based on reference to poor inhabitants of an area of the Meuse valley near Liege, Belgium. They often accompanied their meals with small fried fish, but when the river froze and they couldn’t fish, they cut potatoes lengthwise the same size as their favorite little fish and fried them in oil. Even more proof arises to foster their claim in that a Belgian named Frits opened a stand selling fries in 1871, giving his own name to the product, which is the French name for the dish in Belgium to this day. Some four thousand such friekot or friture stands appear everywhere in Belgium. There, Belgium fries, made with Belgium Bintje potatoes, cooked twice and served in paper cones, are traditionally enjoyed with tangy mayonnaise rather than catsup. Today, a growing number of Belgium fry shacks or frietkots are to be found in the U.S., mostly in New York and the northeast.
Then there are the Spanish. They once controlled the area that is now Belgium and claim that the recipe for french fries first appeared in Galicia, where it was served as an accompaniment to fish dishes. From there they say it traveled aboard Spanish galleons to Belgium.
Well, to bring it back home to the USA, how did the contemporary ubiquitous french fry ever become so popular among the masses over here, given its early and elite domestic launch by Thomas Jefferson?
At the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, a potter from Athens, Texas named Fletcher Davis, who wasn’t selling enough pottery back home, opened a lunch counter. He served potato strips there, an idea from a friend back in Paris, Texas. But a reporter thought he’d said “Paris, France,” and thus another legend took root regarding the origin of the name.
French fries really took off in America after World War I, when thousands of hungry soldiers returning from stations in Northern France and Belgium, demanded them. It was “over there” that the “Doughboys” were introduced to the tasty fries.
Today, less than one hundred years later, more than 7 Billion pounds of french fries are served in America alone each year. Some 140 pounds of potatoes are consumed per person, including 50 pounds of french fries, and that’s just half of what the typical European consumes. Potatoes have become the world’s fourth largest food staple, after wheat, corn and rice. And just as Steak Frites is a dish synonymous with French cuisine, today’s “hamburger and fries” is shorthand for all things American.
May I make a brief diversion to the history of the ubiquitous hamburger? As you might guess, the hamburger traces its roots back to the great port city of Hamburg, Germany, where it was thought to have arrived from the eastern ports of the Baltic Provinces, as a spiced dish of raw shredded beef, “Steak Tartare.” Before that, it’s believed that nomads on the Russian Steppes developed a taste for a dish of such raw spiced chopped meat, wrapped and tenderized beneath their saddles as they rode.
It was from Hamburg, that German sailors carried their favorite meat loaf-like patty, now grilled, over to the states in the 1800’s. In 1974, shortly after I became a public relations consultant to McDonald’s, I received an international phone call from the advertising agency for McDonald’s in Germany, which was about to open up the large Hamburg market, and was looking for PR ideas. I thought a bit, and reflected on that hamburger history, and suggested their theme be “the hamburger returns to Hamburg.” When McDonald’s opened in Hamburg, the idea became an enormous hit with the local folks – those original Hamburghers.
That same Fletcher Davis, who was selling french fries at the 1904 World’s Fair, also brought along to the fair his recipe for a ground-beef patty served between slices of home-made bread. The ground beef sandwich was named the hamburger, as recognized by some visitors of German descent, and the rest, as they say, became history. Of course, there are other legends of the hamburger’s origin, one dating to 1885 in Seymour, Wisconsin, which is also home the Hamburger Hall of Fame, and another to 1895 in a Yale off-campus eatery called Louie’s Lunch.
Hamburgers have come a long way since then. Are any of you familiar with the Economist magazine’s Big Mac Index to explain international exchange rates? The Economist’s website explains it this way, “Burgernomics is based on the theory of purchasing price parity, the notion that a dollar should buy the same amount in all currencies.” In their shopping basket lies a single McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger, a fast food staple available in 120 countries. The Big Mac purchasing-power parity is the exchange rate that would mean hamburgers cost the same in America as abroad.
When I first heard of the Economist’s desire to create the index, I and my associates at McDonald’s thought they were crazy, because the index would be vulnerable to criticism for ignoring price variables such as taxes, profit margins, and the cost of non-tradable goods and services. Economist editor, Pam Woodall, commented that, “If you were to look at this from a purely economic point of view, there are reasons why the Big Mac Index is a flawed measure of purchasing price parity. But what is curious is that it is actually a good predictor over time. If more investors believed in our index, they’d be a lot richer today,” Woodall concluded.
More recently, a major wire service published results of research in the form of a question: “What is America’s biggest selling food: hamburgers, french fries or pizza?” The answer: french fries are served with 22% of all restaurant meals, and hamburgers with 17% of all meals in restaurants.
French fries have been a secret of economic success all right, evidence McDonald’s. Here’s a quote on how important french fries were to his building of McDonald’s into the world’s largest food service organization, from Ray Kroc’s autobiography, “Grinding it Out.” “Now, to most people, a french-fried potato is a pretty uninspiring object…just something to kill time chewing between bites of hamburger and swallows of milk shake. That’s your ordinary fry. The McDonald’s brother’s french fry was in an entirely different league. They lavished attention on it. I didn’t know it then, but one day I would, too. The french fry would become almost sacrosanct to me, its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously.”
McDonald’s recipe for fries, like the finest gourmet french fry recipes, call for the classic Russet Burbank Idaho potato to be twice fried. Julia Child once called McDonald’s french fries the finest in the world. McDonald’s fries are the product of continuous research. According to former Business Week Chicago Bureau Chief, Jack Love, who wrote the definitive McDonald’s history, “Behind the Arches,” “The fabled McDonald’s french fries were no accident.” He concludes that fries “gave McDonald’s its most definitive product differentiation…and some say fries were even more important in building McDonald’s than the hamburger itself.”
Today’s french fry is something of a wonder. Luther Burbank, the father of the Idaho french fry potato, lived from 1849 to 1926, and became, with just an elementary education, one of history’s most inventive and productive breeders of plants. He conducted as many as three thousand experiments at once, painstakingly crossbreeding foreign and native species of plants, cultivating the resulting seedlings, and using grafting to arrive at new and better breeds. A hundred years after their invention his breeds of peach, plum and nectarine, to name a few, are still on the market.
But his greatest success was the Russet Burbank potato of 1871, better known as the Idaho potato. This was soon exported to help Ireland recover from the devastating potato blight of 1840-60. Even today, despite all the horticulturists who followed, Burbank’s large, hardy, fine-grained potato is unsurpassed and a staple of agriculture.
Speaking of the popularity of hamburgers and fries, the topic of nomenclature is unavoidable. I previously mentioned the 2003 flare-up that led the House of Representatives cafeteria to rename french fries as Freedom Fries, and French Toast as Freedom Toast. In fact, this silliness has come up before. As part of the anti-German sentiment during world War I, sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage and hamburgers became liberty steaks. Even German measles fell to this “sick” game, becoming liberty measles. In World War II the frankfurter bowed out to the hot dog, and although frankfurter is still recognized, it is not in common use.
Other similar examples include filete imperial (or “imperial beef”) in Spain, replacing filete russo (or “Russian beef”), after the triumph of the anti-communist General Franco, and kafe elliniko (or “Greek coffee”) replacing kafe turiko (or “Turkish coffee”) on Greek menus after the Turkish-Greek collisions of the 1920’s. So beware, Spaghetti Bolognese could become noodles with hamburger — the next time we cross with the Italians.
More on french fry nomenclature: In a quick trip around the world, the ever-present fry is called many things. In Brazil, it’s batata frita; in French Canada, it’s patatas fritas; in Chinese Mandarin, it’s Shu Tiao (Shu for potato and Tiao for stripe or stick); in Denmark, it’s pomfritter, in Israel it’s tuganim; in Ireland – it’s chips, not be confused with crisps, which are really potato chips; in Mexico, it’s papas a la Francesca; in Poland, it’s frytki; in Swedish slang, it’s strips; and in Thailand, it’s man fa rang tod, meaning potato fries, and in Japan, a familiar-sounding furaido poteeto.
Back in the U.S., we have many names for fry variations, most descriptive and some of which you’ll recognize from your own background: there are slim shoestring or matchstick fries, crinkle or waffle cuts, hearty cottage fries or thick steak house fries (often with the skin on) , and concertina or curly fries. Then there are seasoned fries made with breading and spices, and even Burger king’s new turnabout on fried chicken called Chicken Fries, which are pseudo fries: thin strips of fried chicken served in a french fry-type box.
Then there are tasty nationalistic variations: in Quebec and New Brunswick, fries are the main component of a dish called poutine, a mixture of french fries with fresh cheddar cheese curds, covered with hot gravy. In the Netherlands, they like satay peanut sauce with their fries. Speaking of fries going global, a book, by Canadian George Cohon, on opening up the Russian market to McDonald’s is titled: “To Russia With Fries,” and includes a forward by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Back in the U.S., in Utah and surrounding areas, french fries are often served with fry sauce that is a mixture of spices, mayonnaise and ketchup, and in many areas of our country, good old messy cheese fries are popular with the younger generation.
Speaking of messes, we’ve already looked at some of the international debates that have ranged around issues about the nationality of fries, so let’s dive a little further into some of the other issues that have been associated with the friendly French fry.
One of my favorite political photos hangs in the office of my successor at McDonald’s, Walt Riker. It’s a picture of Bill Clinton receiving the traditional welcome of new President’s by the Senate leadership. There, in the Senate dining room, sits Democrat Clinton holding out a box of McDonald’s fries, surrounded by arch Republican, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and fellow senators. Walt was then Dole’s press secretary, and came up with the idea of warming up that first meeting with Clinton by serving him the kind of egalitarian fast food lunch he’d often enjoyed as a governor.
Moving slightly away from politics, to energy, have you heard of the Green Grease Machine? It was cobbled together a few years ago, and is a van that runs on clean-burning biodiesel fuel made from cheap, readily available used restaurant vegetable cooking oil. That’s right, French fry oil. Builders claimed the van “got 1300 miles per acre.” While there’s been plenty of controversy about the health issues around french fries, now there’s also an upside to french fry oil – it could help solve the growing energy shortage. And, the exhaust smells like fries!
Today, after years of careful observation and experimentation, research is beginning to show that maybe we can sometimes have our fries and eat them too. Using basic principles of chemistry and engineering, scientists are finding new ways to make better fries that strike a balance among flavor, texture and nutrition. Their work could, eventually, propel french fries into a more modern version of perfection.
Some scientists have tried chemically engineered, low-fat oils such as Olestra to make healthier fries. Other researchers have been working to make edible coatings that will keep oil from penetrating the potatoes. Another idea on the table is to pack potatoes full of vitamins, through bio-engineering. And there is a promising new technique for making fries that are good and healthy which involves infrared energy – a sort of heat lamp. By controlling the intensity to mimic the heat transfer involved in frying, it might be possible to produce more perfect fries. Meanwhile, research continues to reduce trans-fats, while expanding nutritional disclosures and extending healthy lifestyles education programs.
On a less pedantic note, maybe you saw the McDonald’s commercials from last year’s Super-Bowl about a supposed Lincolnfry, a French fry that seemed to contain the profile of Abraham Lincoln. The fry was marketed on Ebay, and may have become the most expensive French fry of all time – it sold for $21,600. By the way, the Lincolnfry proceeds were donated to Ronald McDonald House Charities.
On another note, this time of judicial irony, some of you may have seen that a legal case about a single French fry recently became a factor in the Congressional hearings relating to Judge John Roberts candidacy for the Supreme Court, and ultimately as Chief Justice. It was the case of Ansche Hedgepath, a 12-year old girl. She was sitting in a Washington, D.C. metro station and opened and ate a single French fry from a bag in her lap. She did this in plain view of an undercover officer, who arrested and handcuffed her, removed her shoelaces, then fingerprinted and incarcerated her for 3 hours at a police station. Her offense was eating in a metro station, for which zero tolerance applied. An adult would have received a zero tolerance citation, and paid a fine. Ansche however, as a minor, was not eligible for such a citation, so was arrested.
On appeal, Judge Roberts ruled that the arrest was legitimate. She ate that fry in obvious violation of a legitimate city ordinance, and in the clear view of a police officer. No leniency for Ansche. To Judge Robert’s credit, he did sympathize that the subway policies were “foolish,” but he upheld the lower court. That single fry did her in.
By now, you’re probably about done in, as well. So, I’ll bring this “appreciation of the french fry” to a close. But, I realize I’ve left out, until now, one final dimension from the title of this essay, which again is — French Fried: From Monticello to the Moon. What’s this about french fries and outer space, you ask? Well, in 1995, NASA and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, created a new technology with the goal of feeding astronauts on long space voyages, with a view to eventually feeding future space colonies. In October of that year, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in outer space.
It’s a funny thing, because one of my first assignments shortly after becoming a McDonald’s consultant, some 30 years ago, was to help associate McDonald’s image, as it approached its 30th anniversary, with the space age.
One of the fun facts we worked up in support of the premise that McDonald’s menu might literally reach space one day, was to compute the number of McDonald’s french fries, strung end to end that it would take to reach the moon. To figure it out we sent for a box of fries and measured each one, then divided and determined the average length, and multiplied by the average mileage to the moon – a quarter million miles. If you’re curious, pick up a box of fries at McDonald’s, do the math, and see how close you get to 4.5 billion fries to the moon.
I’d like to take that long ladder of moon-bound french fries just one last step farther into the future, as I wrap up this voyage through history. Albert Einstein thought that perhaps the greatest challenge facing mankind is to “widen our circle of compassion” across both time and space. Our ethnic and geopolitical squabbling might pale into insignificance if our compassionate circles were wide enough, he reasoned.
So let’s no longer worry whether the little fry is French, Belgian, American or Russian, but take it with us into the future, even into space, as a tasty treat for our frail band of wandering humanity, and continue to enjoy the good little things in life.
John Calvi, in a 1982 poem called “French Fries,” perhaps said it best, in his final stanza, when he wrote:
“Some think the army, the bombs and the guns
Will one day save all of our lives,
I don’t believe it – heat up your pans
Make peace, and lots of French fries.”
So, thanks very much for coming along on tonights french fried journey, “From Monticello to the Moon.”
I wish I could have brought in some sample fries, but you know they only stay crisp for a few minutes. However, as a consolation prize, I do have a small McDonald’s gift certificate for each of you. Have a safe journey home, and no one could blame you if you stopped for some fries on the way! Happy Halloween, and goodnight.
The Burger Lab: How to Make Perfect Thin and Crisp French Fries
J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT PROFILE TWITTER FACEBOOK EMAIL
Golden and delicious. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
Perfect Thin and Crispy French Fries
N.B. I apologize in advance for the length of this post. French fries are a pretty epic subject for me…
I’m gonna come right out and say something that I’m sure you won’t all openly agree with: McDonald’s french fries are great. At their best, they are everything a french fry should be: salty, crisp, light, and not greasy. Granted, you get the occasional odd franchise that lets’em sit under the heat lamp for a couple hours too long, but on the whole, I find it remarkable that the bigwigs have discovered a way to create a frozen fry that even a one armed eyeless chimp has trouble screwing up. And I know, because they’ve got one working the fry station at the franchise on my corner.
To be absolutely honest, I’ve never been able to make fries as good as theirs (shhhhh!). Sure, my thick-cut pub-style fries are super-potatoey and fantastic, and when I’m in the mood for them, my seasoned steak fries can’t be beat, but for thin, super-crisp fries (I’m talking the kind that only appear in fast food restaurants and French bistros under the name frites)? I’m always better off running down to the take-out window than bothering to fry them myself at home.
I’ve been literally giddy with the quality of the fries that have been coming out of my kitchen for the last two days. My wife won’t hear the end of it. Even my puppy is wondering why his owner keeps exclaiming “Holy s**t that’s good!” every half hour from the kitchen. I’ve cooked over 43 batches of fries in the last three days, and I’m happy to report that I’ve finally found a way to consistently reach crisp, golden Nirvana.
THE ANATOMY OF A PERFECT FRY
There are a few factors that go into making a perfect fry:
Perfect Fry Factor #1: The exterior must be very crisp, but not tough.
In order to achieve this crispness, the surface structure of a fry must be riddled with micro-bubbles. It’s these tiny crisp bubbles that increase the surface area of the fry, making it extra crunchy. Ideally, this layer should only be as thick as it needs to be to add crispness. Any thicker, and you start running into leathery territory.
Perfect Fry Factor #2: The interior must be intact, fluffy, and have a strong potato flavor.
Fries with a pasty, mealy, or gummy interior or even worse, the dreaded state known as “hollow-fry” (when the interior is missing entirely) are an automatic fail in my fry book.
Perfect Fry Factor #3: The fry must be an even, light golden blond
Fries that are too dark or are spotty have an offputting burnt flavor that distracts from the potato. Light golden but perfectly crisp is how I want my fries to be.
Perfect Fry Factor #4: The fry must stay crisp and tasty for at least as long as it takes to eat a full serving.
Fries that comes straight out of the fryer are almost always perfectly crisp. The true test of a great fry is whether or not it remains crisp and edible a few minutes later after its been sitting on your plate. The bendy fry pictured above fails that test.
I decided to go with the next best alternative: steal their recipe
So how does one going about achieving these goals? The traditional double fry method (once at low temp, then again at high temp) works, but it’s far from foolproof, and fails to meet all of the requirements I’ve set for a perfect fry. For one thing, the fries inevitably come out too brown—some times massively so. For another, they lose their crunch within a few minutes after coming out of the fryer. Clearly the method needs an overhaul. I suppose I could do what the McDonald’s Corporation did and spend millions of dollars researching exactly how to accomplish fry perfection time after time anywhere around the world, but unfortunately Serious Eats doesn’t pay me well enough to do that. I’m also understaffed, to say the least. So I decided to go with the next best alternative: steal their recipe.
That’s much easier said than done.
Anyone with a buck can get a batch of fully cooked McDonald’s fries, but I was after something more. I wanted to get fries from the store in their fully frozen state so that I could examine their surface for clues on how they were parcooked, as well as attempt to fry them myself at home to discover if there is any secret in the fry oil in the shops.
I figured I’d be just be able to walk into the store and order them straight from the cashier.
“Welcome to McDonald’s, may I take your order?”
“Yes Ma’am. I’d like a large fries please, hold the cooking.”
I know she’s already said no in her head, but I press on just the same: “Um… I’d just like the frozen fries please.”
“I’m sorry sir, we just don’t do that.”
Time for some intimidation tactics: “Ok. Could I speak to the manager please?”
“I am the manager.”
Sh*t. I bring out the really big guns: “Listen, the thing is, my wife is pregnant—like really pregnant—and she sent me on a quest for McDonald’s french fries. But she only likes them really fresh, like straight out of the fryer fresh, so I figured I’d just get some frozen, and fry them for her at home. You know how it is. Women—no accounting for’em, right?”
She remains unimpressed, and needless to say, I go home fry-less, contemplating whether attempting to leverage an unborn, un-conceived son in exchange for a couple dozen frozen potato sticks is grounds for eternal damnation. Thank God I’m an atheist.
In a last ditch effort, I appeal to my Facebook fans for some assistance, promising cold hard cash and full credit in this story to anyone who could get me a stash of frozen McDonald’s fries. Within 24 hours, I had received this email from a Grant Held:
Kenji, you put forth an excellent challenge; I enjoy both challenges and your food writing immensely, so I came up with an excellent plan that worked the first try.
Getting your frozen fries was simply a matter of finding the right fraternity man; One who had the ability to make up extemporaneous bullsh*t and the all important “charm factor.” Some would say possessing these attributes can help you get laid in college, but I plead The Fifth….
The plan involved me printing out a fake list of items needed for a Scavenger Hunt sponsored by “The Simplot Foundation.” A “Mr. Simplot” had endowed an annual prize for the winning team of the scavenger hunt, which would be used to fund the “research projects of the members of the winning team each year.” (Members also had to belong to the Harold McGee Society and Order of Brillat-Savarin).
I walked into the McD’s on xxxxxxx. (The exact location has been removed because we don’t want to get the manager fired)
I had pre-printed a list of items for said made up “Scavenger Hunt” (I basically Googled “Scavenger Hunt Lists” and added “Frozen McDonald’s french fries”.)
I walked in, asked for the manager and explained the scavenger hunt. I said I needed 25 fries, which I was willing to pay for, but they had to be frozen. Her English was not ideal, so I spoke Spanish, and a young associate took kindly upon me and explained what I needed. The manager agreed, but thought I was asking for 25 FREE packages of cooked fries!!! And she was willing to give them to me!!! (She said my accent was great but my grammar was terrible… oh well…)
I said I needed FROZEN fries, which really perplexed her, but my young McD’s associate friend explained the concept of a scavenger hunt and soon enough I was invited into the kitchen and she grabbed a handful of fries and placed them in the zip lock bag I brought with me.
Grant, you are a genius amongst men, and I am forever in your debt.
The handoff was made the next day, and I finally had a batch of frozen McDonald’s fries on which to operate.
DECONSTRUCTING THE ARCHES
The first thing I noticed was the surface texture of the fries. They seemed smooth, but on closer inspection, I noticed that they were dotted with tiny tiny bubbles, indicating that they had definitely been fried at least once prior to arriving at the store. I measured them with calipers and found that they were precisely 1/4 of an inch thick. A good size for optimizing crust to interior ratio.
McDonald’s used to fry their potatoes in beef tallow, giving them extra flavor and making them extra crisp, but they stopped doing that years ago. But perhaps there’s still something magic about their oil? To test this, I fried up a batch of the frozen fries in 375°F peanut oil, letting them cook for about 3 minutes before draining, seasoning, and tasting.
They were just as perfect as the fries at the store. That answers the first question: there is no magic in the oil. Something must be done to those potatoes during the pre-processing that makes them unique.
For the next phase, I started doing some research and caught a lucky break by finding this article online, which essentially runs through the whole process of what goes on in a McDonald’s potato processing plant as told by LeAron Plackett, a thirteen-year-long employee. The parts that interested me most were on the second page:
The fries are then flumed out of the A.D.R. room to the “blancher.” The blancher is a large vessel filled with one hundred and seventy degree water. The trip through the blancher takes about fifteen minutes… After the fries leave the blancher, they are dried and then it’s off to the “fryer,” which is filled with one hundred percent vegetable oil. The oil is heated to three hundred and sixty five degrees and the fries take a fifty second dip before being conveyed to the “de-oiler shaker,” where excess oil is “shook off.”
So McDonald’s does indeed use a double fry method, but it’s far from the traditional one. Rather than a slow low temperature fry for the first round, the fries get dunked into very hot oil for only 50 seconds (the second fry is then carried out at the actual location). In addition to this, the potatoes get a pre-fry blanching step in hot water. What could the purpose of this be?
To answer that question, it’s important to understand exactly what happens when a french fry is cooked.
THE BALANCE OF PECTIN, STARCH, AND SIMPLE SUGARS
in order to get the ideal crust, all three of these elements must be in the proper balance, and the proper state
Like all plants and animals, potatoes are composed of cells. These cells are held together by pectin, a form of sugar that acts as a type of glue. These cells also contain starch granules—tiny sacs that resemble water balloons, as well as simple sugars. When these starch granules are exposed to water and heat, they begin to swell, eventually bursting, and releasing a shower of swollen starch molecules. Now the problem is, in order to get the ideal crust, all three of these elements must be in the proper balance, and the proper state. Too many simple sugars, and your potato will brown long before it crisps. If pectin has broken down too much before the starch granules have had a chance to burst and release their sticky innards, your potatoes will either fail to form a crust, will fall apart before it gets a chance to, or in the worst case will cook up completely hollow, like this:
That’s not a good thing.
Pre-cooking the fries in a water bath the way McDonald’s does accomplishes two goals. First, it rinses off excess simple sugars, helping the fries attain a light gold color, instead of a deep dark brown. Secondly, it activates an enzyme called pectin methylesterase (PME). According to an article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, PME induces calcium and magnesium to act as a sort of buttress for pectin. They strengthen the pectin’s hold on the potato cell’s walls, which helps the potatoes stay firmer and more intact when cooked to a higher temperature. That’s why the surface of a McDonald’s fry looks the way it does: rather than blistering into large bubbles like a traditional double-fried french fry does, the reinforced walls form the super-tiny bubbles that give them their extra crunch.
Now, like most enzymes, PME is only active within a certain temperature range, acting faster and faster as the temperature gets higher until, like a switch, it shuts off completely once it reaches a certain level. 170°F is just under that cutoff point.
My objective just became much clearer: in order to get my fries ultra crisp, I’d need to find a way to strengthen their pectin before allowing their starch granules to burst.
BRINGING HOME THE GOLD
The most obvious way to do this is just to copy McDonald’s exactly: cook the potatoes in a precisely maintained 170°F water bath for 15 minutes. I tried it using my Sous-Vide Supreme, followed by a fry at 360°F for 50 seconds, and a second fry at 375°F for 3 1/2 minutes. It worked like a charm. The fries tasted nearly identical to those that come from McDonald’s. Of course, now two new questions entered my head: What about for those poor souls who don’t have a temperature-controlled water bath? And more importantly, now that I’ve got the fries down, could I make them even better? I mean, they taste fantastic now, but we all know that McDonald’s fries get soggy pretty darn fast. If these fries were really going to be perfect, I’d have to address that issue.
Was I gonna have to break out the beer cooler for this one?
To solve the first problem, my initial though was to start the potatoes in cold water, and slowly bring it up to a simmer. My hope was that by doing this, they’d spend enough time under the 170°F cutoff point to improve their structure adequately. No dice. The potatoes were certainly better than ones dunked straight into the fryer, but they didn’t come close to the originals. Next I tried adding a measured amount of boiling water to a pot containing the cut potatoes. I calculated exactly how much water I’d need in order for it to equilibrate to 170°F. It worked a little better, but the water temperature dropped off too quickly for it to be effective. Was I gonna have to break out the beer cooler for this one? There had to be another way.
That’s when I thought—perhaps there is another way to strengthen pectin without having to rely on some fickle enzyme (I’ve never liked enzymes anyway), and it struck me: apple pie.
What’s this got to do with french fries? Well everyone who’s ever baked an apple pie knows that different apples cook differently. Some retain their shape, while others turn to mush. The difference largely has to do with their acidity. Thus super tart apples like Granny Smith will stay fully intact, while sweeter apples like a Macoun will almost completely dissolve. Just like a potato, apple cells are held together by pectin. Moral of the story: acid slows the breakdown of pectin.
What if rather than trying to fiddle with temperature, I just relied on the use of acid to help the potatoes keep their structure?
I tried bringing two pots of cut potatoes to a boil side by side, the first with plain water, and the second with water spiked with vinegar at a ratio of one tablespoon per quart. Here’s what I saw:
The fries boiled in plain water disintegrated, making them nearly impossible to pick up. When I added them to the hot oil, they broke apart even further. On the other hand, those boiled in the vinegared water remained perfectly intact, even after boiling for a full ten minutes. When fried, they had fabulously crisp crusts with tiny, bubbly, blistered surfaces that stayed crisp even when they were completely cool. As for the flavor, if I tasted really hard, I could pick up a faint vinegary undertone, though I wouldn’t have if I didn’t know it was there. Even knowing it was there, it wasn’t unpleasant at all. After all, I’m used to putting my fries in ketchup or mayo, both of which contain plenty of acid.
This is a picture of one of the fries which I bent a full ten minutes after it had come out of the oil. See how crisp is stays?
GETTING INSIDE THE FLUFFY INTERIOR
my goal should be to make this evaporation as easy as possible
Now that I’d perfected the crust, the final issue to deal with was that of the interior. One last question remained: how to maximize the flavor of the interior. In order to stay fluffy and not gummy, a lot of the interior moisture needs to be expelled in the cooking process, so my goal should be to make this evaporation as easy as possible. I figure that so far, by cooking it all the way to boiling point, I’m doing pretty much the right thing—the more cooked the potatoes are, the more the cell structure breaks down, and the easier it is for water to be expelled. To confirm this, I cooked three batches of potatoes, starting each in a pot of cold, vinegared water, and bringing them up to various final temperature (170°F, 185°F, and 212°F) before draining and double-frying them. Not surprisingly, the boiled potatoes had the best internal structure. Luckily, they were the easiest to make as well.
But was there anything more I could do? I thought back to those McDonald’s fries and realized a vital step that I had neglected to test: freezing. Every batch of McDonald’s fries is frozen before being shipped out to the stores. I always figured this step was for purely economic reasons, but perhaps there was more to it?
I tried freezing half a batch of fries before frying them and tasted them side-by-side against the other half.
Fries and frozen fries, pre-blanched to various temperatures. Notice how dark the un-blanched fries are due to excess sugars browning.
The improvement was undeniable. The frozen fries had a distinctly fluffier interior, while the unfrozen ones were still ever-so-slightly gummy. It makes perfect sense. Freezing the potatoes causes their moisture to convert to ice, forming sharp, jagged crystals. These crystals damage the cell structure of the potato, making it easier for them to be released once they are heated and convert to steam. The best part? Because freezing actually improves them, I can do the initial blanching and frying steps in large batches, freeze them, and have a constant supply of ready-to-fry potatoes right in my freezer just like Ronald himself!
I know it’s bad form to toot your own horn, but I’m simply amazed that these fries have been coming out of my own kitchen. I’ve been eating fries in various shades of good or bad constantly for the past few days, and I’m absolutely sick of them, yet I am still eating them even as I sit here and type. I really hope my wife doesn’t mind greasy keyboards. You never know what’s gonna set her off.
For instance—she gets mad when I say things like that about her on completely public forums. Go figure.
Perfect Thin and Crispy French Fries
May 28, 2010 8:00AM
J. Kenji López-Alt
J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT MANAGING CULINARY DIRECTOR
PROFILE TWITTER FACEBOOK EMAIL
J. Kenji López-Alt is the Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats, and author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab, where he unravels the science of home cooking. A restaurant-trained chef and former Editor at Cook’s Illustrated magazine, he is the author of the New York Times best-selling cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, available now wherever books are sold.
Most people have not heard of McDonald Gold Cards, because there are so few. The news story below tells some of the history of such “Gold Cards,” but not the whole story. Most McDonald’s customers are familiar with cards that can be purchased at any McDonald’s in various denominations, and then used as gifts or in any way to be redeemed for food and drink at McDonald’s of the same value. Others have heard of guest cards that might be used by charitable organizations, schools and such as fundraisers, also good for various amounts of food and beverages at McDonald’s.
But when I served as head of corporate communications at McDonald’s in the 80s and 90s, we did encounter at least one occasion in which a “Gold Card” were authorized by top management. This was the card created for Warren Buffett, at the direction of McDonald’s CEO Mike Quinlan, as referenced below. At the time is was created and about to be presented to Mr. Buffett, we even worked with the regional office covering the Omaha area where Buffett lives and works, to be sure pictures of Mr. Buffett were sent to every area McDonald’s, in hopes that a McDonald’s window or counter person would not refuse the card because he did not know it had really been issued to Mr. Buffett.
One day I was invited by Mr. Buffett to attend an awards dinner at his office for local elementary teachers recognized for excellence, in the name of Buffett’s favorite aunt Alice, who herself had been such a teacher in Omaha. At the table over dinner, one of the award winners asked Buffett if he ever carried any money or credit cards with him. Buffett was amused and said he did, and mentioned an American Express card he carried. But then he interrupted himself and said his favorite credit card was one he never had yet used, and pulled the McDonald’s Gold Card from his wallet and passed it around the table. He said he was honored to have received it, and cherished it, but couldn’t bring himself to request free food at McDonald’s. Unbeknownst to that group, a few years before, Buffett had quietly acquired several million shares of McDonald’s stock, which was the reason behind the award of that card.
While I can’t substantiate it, as I doubt any records support it, I had heard that Jerry Lewis and a few others may have received such cards. McDonald’s was the first and largest charitable sponsor of the Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy.
Story from ” Business Insider”:
The real story behind McDonald’s mysterious ‘Gold Card’ — the ticket to unlimited free food that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have in their wallets
by: Kate Taylor
Nov. 13, 2015, 11:15 AM 37,621 3
When Rob Lowe appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live with a golden McDonald’s card on Wednesday, one big question remained: How could the Average Joe get his own card that granted him access to unlimited McDonald’s?
Not easily, a little sleuthing revealed.
The first complication: Rob Lowe’s Gold Card was not issued by McDonald’s corporate office. Instead, it is from the owner of, and can only be used at, McDonald’s franchises in Santa Barbara or Goleta, California.
While Lowe says he received the Gold Card because his buddy’s dad created the McMuffin, McDonald’s confirmed to Business Insider that he in fact received the card from David Peterson — the buddy in question, who is now a McDonald’s franchisee himself.
Herb Peterson, who passed away in 2008, was a legendary force in the fast-food world. He debuted the first Egg McMuffin at the Santa Barbara McDonald’s he co-owned with David in 1972. Peterson started his work with McDonald’s as the vice president of the company’s advertising firm, D’Arcy Advertising, and went on to become a franchisee and operator of six McDonald’s locations.
Today, David Peterson has carried on his father’s legacy with the chain. Earlier this year, the franchises he runs in the Santa Barbara and Goleta areas became some of the first to launch “taste-crafted” sandwiches as part of the McDonald’s turnaround plan, reports local news station KEYT.
herb peterson, mcdonald’s, egg mcmuffinAP Images
Peterson also wields the power to give out Gold Cards, granting the recipient free McDonald’s at the locations he owns and operates. While Lowe is quite likely the most high-profile person to be awarded the card, he is not the first — just the first to brag about it on late-night TV.
For example, Larry Crandell was awarded a Gold Card by Peterson on his 90th birthday, reports SantaBarbara.com. While the cards are nearly identical, unlike Lowe’s card, Crandell’s awards him free McDonald’s for life.
Crandell is a bit of a celebrity in Santa Barbara, having reportedly helped raise millions of dollars for the community as a volunteer and expert emcee.
Assuming you aren’t a famous actor who has a personal connection with David Peterson or a local legend in Santa Barbara, California, there are other ways to get free McDonald’s.
In fact, McDonald’s franchisees across the country appear to be more than happy to give local heroes free food with their own versions of the “Gold Card.”
Warren Buffett told CNBC he had a McDonald’s card that allowed him to order unlimited food for free in Omaha. Charles Ramsey, who ditched his half-eaten Big Mac to help rescue three kidnapped women in May 2013, was awarded free McDonald’s at all locations for a year and unlimited McDonald’s for the rest of his life at local Ohio restaurants. In March, Ottawa Senators goalie Andrew Hammond, nicknamed the Hamburglar, received a card that gave him free McDonald’s for life from an Ottawa franchisee who, coincidentally, was also the father of Hammond’s former coach.
However, there are only two major confirmed stories of people in possession of cards granting them free, unlimited McDonald’s anywhere in the country, or even the world.
While on the campaign trail in 2012, Mitt Romney told a story of how his father had a “little pink card” that awarded him free McDonald’s for life. McDonald’s confirmed that founder Ray Kroc had given Romney the card, but did not have any record of the reason for the gift. However, the chain noted that Kroc was known to informally gift these Lifetime “Be Our Guest” cards to various people throughout the years.
The other lucky recipient of a lifetime of free McDonald’s — not a little pink card, but a bona fide Gold Card, according to the company — is Bill Gates. According to Warren Buffett, Gates’ card works worldwide. Of course, it is unclear how often Gates stops by McDonald’s these days, after The Gates Foundation Asset Trust liquidated its position in the fast-food company in February.
Getting your hands on a McDonald’s Gold Card is no piece of cake. But, the legendary cards are real — and something that could end up in your own pocket, if you befriend the right McDonald’s franchisee.