The French kiss isn’t French; it’s Italian. French dressing isn’t French; it’s American. And French fries, as we know them, aren’t French; they’re Belgian.
It’s likely that World War Two U.S. Army grunts nicknamed the twice-fried, long-cut (julienned) potatoes that they encountered in southern Belgium “French fries” simply because southern Belgians speak French.
It’s exactly how, for coffee-making, we call the plunger pot a “French press.” We first saw it in or from France. The French don’t call it that. They call it a “cafetière à piston.”
For centuries, cooks have written recipes on both sides of the Atlantic for potatoes “served in the French manner” or even “French-fried potatoes,” but none were recipes for what we know as French fries. The potatoes always were sliced very thinly (into “coins”) and cooked, in only one go, in some sort of fat, “goose-dripping,” to cite the 1828 “The Cook and Housewife’s Manual” from England.
“They were very high relish.” Indeed.
A recipe for such—“pommes de terre frites, à crû, en petites tranches” (“potatoes fried, initially raw, in small slices”) —exists from 1802 in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting, likely gotten from his time as ambassador to France in the late 1700s.
Another interesting example comes from an 1838 issue of the Irish “A Freeman’s Journal” for the “FRENCH METHOD OF COOKING POTATOES They divide into the thinnest possible slices the potatoe [sic], raw, not boiled, and fry it in the finest olive oil or butter.
“It then eats crimp [crisp or brittle] like the finest biscuit [cookie].” Note the old use of the verb “to eat,” as “to have a certain consistency on eating.” What we have here are early instructions for potato chips, or “crisps,” as the British and Irish call them.
But it was 20th-century Belgians who perfected the French fry as we know it. (Full disclosure: I am half Belgian.) They are very particular about method, resting it on four cornerstones.
First, to use a correct type of potato. For them, it is the Bintje or Nicola, varieties we rarely see. The Yukon Gold and similar golden waxies are fine substitutes. Second, the potatoes are washed, peeled and dried and then cut (specifically, julienned or, to use another culinary term that may further explain the name, “frenched,” as in “French-cut beans”) into thick sticks, not thin slices. To preserve any coating of starch, at no point after the initial peeling are the potatoes rinsed.
Third, the Belgians commonly fry in beef tallow (melted beef fat), something by and large anathema to Americans. We get by with good-quality vegetable oil. (That said, after an initial taste, you will crawl on your knees through broken glass to your next serving of duck fat fries.)
And fourth, and perhaps most important, certainly most unique, Belgian-style French fries are cooked in two separate phases or deep fat fryings, the first at a slightly lower temperature than the second. The initial frying seals the exterior of each fry; the second crisps and browns it, as well as slightly steams the interior moisture for a sort of “baked-potato-ish” center.
Vacationers to Belgium often remark how the Belgians mop up mayonnaise with their fries. Sure, they also use ketchup, or various other sauces, but to them it’s their mayonnaise that matters. (If you’re really fired up, you can make homemade mayonnaise and DIY ketchup too.)
Try the combination yourself. It’s so fine.
Belgian ‘French’ Fries
3-4 cups vegetable oil or, if you can find it, white beef tallow
2 pounds Yukon Gold or similar potatoes, cleaned, dried and peeled
Salt to taste
Cut or julienne the potatoes into sticks 1/2-inch wide and up to 3 inches long. Dry all the pieces thoroughly with paper toweling. (Gently “roll” them underhand, using a couple layers of paper toweling. At no point rinse them.) Separate or pile them into batches about 1 cup each in volume.
Use a pot of a size that the melted fat or oil reaches halfway up the sides but no more than 3/4 of the way up. Heat the fat or oil to 300 degrees.
Deep-fry the potatoes for 6 minutes per batch. (They should be lightly colored but not browned.) With a slotted spoon or “spider,” remove them to a flattened brown paper bag or 2 thicknesses of paper toweling, either set onto a baking sheet. Before doing the next batch, be sure to bring back the temperature of the oil in the pot to 300 degrees.
When finished with the batches, let the potatoes rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to a few hours.
Reheat the oil to a temperature of 375 degrees. (Note the 75-degree difference from the first frying.) Fry the potatoes, as before in 1-cup batches, until they are just browned and crisp, 1-2 minutes. Drain on fresh brown paper bags or paper towels and place in a warmed serving bowl lined with more paper towels. Sprinkle with salt to taste and serve with mayonnaise.
Reach Bill St. John at email@example.com