I am staunchly of the belief that if you really really crave something — I mean, if you’ve tried very hard to move on or distract that part of your brain/belly that rather rudely interrupts into your thoughts most days at 4 p.m. and screams “CHOCOLATE!” or “CAAAAAKE!” and it’s just not working — you should indulge it. I have no patience for baked doughnuts or sugar substitutes, and you can probably already guess that I cannot abide anything but cream in my hot coffee. Have a salad for lunch the day before and the day after, eat the steel-cut oats for breakfast, make hearty soups a regular part of your dinner rotation, but FTLOG, if you really want that chocolate cake, please, have that chocolate cake and then enjoy every last buttercreamed crumb of it.
For me, said indulgences most often come in potato format. My love of french fries knows no bounds; they are, along with artichokes and bourbon, my desert island foods. Golden, crisp, glistening, glittering with a dusting of fine salt, heaped in a pile, I would eat a mile of baby field greens to have a single plate of the fries we used to get at a restaurant I was convinced used to use horse fat to fry them because I’m a monster and they were otherworldly. And so help you if you serve them with homemade mayo — so help you, because I love you and you will never get rid of me now.
Thus, I’m the last person I’d expect to be showering praise upon oven fries — that is, french fries that are baked instead of cooked as their name demands, but you’d be surprised rarely even someone as pedantic as me rarely actually feels like heating up a cauldron of oil just to have what they want the most. Were what came out of the oven secondary, unspecial, clearly a compromise coming from a vague notion of healthfulness, I’d probably own a deep-fryer by now. But in the very first month of this site I learned a technique for oven fries that made them exceptional. This came up again when we made Fake Shack Burgers earlier this year and you may have seen a glimpse of the 11 fries I hadn’t eaten while taking photos (because: pregnant. although: I would have done that anyway). I directed you to the 2006 post where it was buried but promised a refresh and then I had a baby and now a 5 month and 10 day turnaround is the norm.
Which is too bad, because it takes about 10 seconds to learn. The secret to great french fries is to cook them twice. If you only fry them once, either the outsides get tough or the insides taste undercooked. The reason — as described in one of my favorite french fry essays of all time, that by Jeffrey Steingarten as collected in The Man Who Ate Everything — is that potatoes have a very high ‘thermal inertia;’ it takes a long time for heat to penetrate the center. When cooked twice, the first at a lower temperature to gently warm and tenderize the potato, and the second at a higher temperature to seal and crisp the edges, you get the french fries I dream about. A decade ago, I watched Michael Chiarello on TV emulate this two-step process for oven fries by briefly simmering his potato batons in water before roasting them at a high temperature and I’ve made mine this way since because they’re spectacular, spectacular enough that I get to have french fries in my life as often as necessary without being so calorically indebted and grease-splattered that I’m only allowed to consume water and bone broth for my non-fries meals. Hallelujah.
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Inspired by Michael Chiarello’s technique
This works with either the classic Russet/Idaho potatoes used for traditional french fries, or with golden potatoes, such as Yukon Golds. The photos here show both. For fried potatoes, I prefer Russets, but for roasting, I prefer the Golds because their waxier state makes a more tender-centered fry with the more complex flavor you lose when not frying.
Yield: fries for 4 people
4 medium Yukon Gold or 3 smallish Russet potatoes (I find these to be equivalent in size, although the specific size isn’t terribly important)
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
Fine sea salt
Heat oven to 450 degrees F.
Peel your potatoes if you wish; scrub them well if you do not. Cut potatoes into just-shy-of 1/2-inch batons. Place in a large pot and cover with an inch or two of water. Set heat to high and set timer for 10 minutes. If potatoes come to a boil in this time (mine usually do not), reduce the heat to medium. Otherwise, when timer rings, whether or not the potatoes have boiled, test one. You’re looking for a very “al dente” potato — one that is too firm to eat enjoyable, but has no crunch left. A good sign that they’re not too cooked is when you roughly tumble them into a colander, only one or two break.
Meanwhile, coat a large baking sheet with 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil and place it in the oven for a few minutes, so the oil gets very hot and rolls easily around the pan.
Drain your potatoes and immediately spread them on oiled baking sheet in one layer. Drizzle with last tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast for 20 minutes, until golden underneath. Toss potatoes around to encourage them to color evenly and return them to the oven for another 5 minutes. Repeat this 1 or 2 more times (for me, 30 minutes total roasting time is the sweet spot), until your “fries” are deeply golden, brown at the edges and impossible not to eat.
Season with more salt while they’re hot, pile them on a platter and dig in.