The Secret to Crisp, Homemade French Fries

This weekend, I decided, in the spirit of the conference championship games, to bust out my rarely used deep fryer and have a sort of hot oil brouhaha. After all, what goes better with football than fried food? (Hmmm, maybe I can think of something.) So I called up the gang and had them come over for a nightlong fry session that included chicken wings, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and hand-cut French fries. Today, I'm going to talk a little bit about the fries we made, which, thanks to just a little prep work ahead of time, came out amazingly crisp and flavorful.

Step One: Prep

Making great fries isn't tough. It just requires a little bit of forethought and some practice. The first step is easy: Grab a five-pound bag of Russet Burbank potatoes, or if you like, you can go with something like a large red potatoes. The Russets, however, have that smooth, almost mashed flavor most of us have come to know in a French fry. Look for tight skins with minimal "eyes."

Next, give your potatoes a bath. Potatoes often look a couple of shades darker in the bag than they actually are thanks to a layer of dirt and sediment. You're going to want to scrub that off, especially if you plan on serving your fries with the skin on, which I recommend. Use a soft wire brush and scrub the potatoes under warm running water. The cleaner the better. As far as servings go, choose about one large potato per person -- two if you've got extra-hungry friends like I do.

Now it's time to slice. Make sure you have a good cutting board and a very sharp knife -- dull knives are dangerous with dense root vegetables like potatoes because you have to press harder to slice through the flesh, increasing the chances you may cut yourself. Now grab one of your cleaned potatoes and slice it parallel to its length into quarter-inch rounds. Be careful when you get to the last bit that you don't cut yourself. Now turn each round flat on the cutting board and slice them into quarter-inch strips. It's important that you make each fry as even in shape and dimension as possible so that they cook more evenly. But if you get a few big or small ones, don't freak out.

Step Two: Soak

Once you've cut all of your potatoes, place the newly formed fries in a container large enough to fit them all without cramming. Now comes the crucial part: Look at your cutting board. The potatoes probably left a white film behind on the board. This is the starch. Potatoes are loaded with an almost slimy starch that we have to remove if we want them to fry up crisp and golden. The best way to do this is to soak the potatoes in cold water, thus drawing out the starch and keeping the flesh firm.

Fill your container with water so that the potatoes are covered thoroughly. A large Gladware tub works great, though any vessel you can fill with water will do fine. Place the container in your refrigerator to soak for at least eight hours. This will give the water ample time to do its thing. I would even suggest changing the water once in the middle of the process, just to make sure you get as much starch out as possible. Some websites advocate using a two-step soak: One eight-hour bath after peeling and another after cutting. But since we're not peeling our potatoes, you can basically reduce the soak to one step.

Tomorrow: The fry process and how to really create a crisp fry with a smooth, buttery interior.  

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