March 2011

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31    

« Can TV, cookbooks, and a line of signature frozen entrées be far behind? Part II | Main | Flogging a dead horse: Au Pied de Cochon's foie gras poutine with horse fat fries »

June 14, 2007

The Horse Crisperer: horse fat french fries

Img_20070610_02132

Those of you that don't already hate me for cooking with horse fat are probably going to hate me for my next statement: McDonald's french fries are perhaps the best fries in the world.  Period.

Before you disregard my last statement as the ravings of a culinary lunatic, hear me out.  I know it's fashionable to dismiss all fast food with a sneer and a wave of the hand, but McDonald's fries deserve a second glance.  Sure, they're about the farthest thing possible from artisanal or slow food, but that alone does not justify ignoring them.  Engineered food -- even fries developed in a lab cum test kitchen -- can be superb.

We can all agree on the fundamentals of a great french fry: a crunchy exterior, lots of salt, and a rich taste without greasiness. The only aspect of the fry that triggers debate is the proper texture of the interior, which is really a debate over which kind of potato -- baking or boiling -- to use in the first place.  Jeffrey Steingarten, in his brilliant piece on horse fat french fries, observes that North Americans tend to prefer their interiors fluffy, whereas Europeans prefer them creamy.  There's no argument that the soft flesh of the fry should act as a contrast to the crispy shell.  Now, visit your local McDonald's and order some fries.  They conform perfectly to this ideal.

The key to producing a french fry that meets this standard can be distilled to one critical factor: moisture, or, really, the lack thereof.  Whatever the process, all great fry recipes, knowingly or otherwise, are really about dehydrating potatoes.  "The potato that is first harvested in the field is roughly eighty per cent water," explains Malcolm Gladwell in his fascinating article about the science behind McDonald's fries. "The process of creating a French fry consists, essentially, of removing as much of that water as possible--through blanching, drying, and deep-frying--and replacing it with fat."  Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald's the fast food behemoth it is today, understood this, and used science to tackle the problem both outside and inside the kitchen.  First, he dispatched men equipped with hydrometers into the field to measure the water content of his potatoes; second, he hired a brigade of scientists to refine the cooking process such that it could be flawlessly reproduced the world over.

Of course, no kitchen has the resources of a McDonald's, yet we all have the right to great fries.  How, then, to get a Golden Arches result at home?  That's where we turn to Heston Blumenthal. For St. George's Day, Rachel and I prepared traditional English fried fish using Blumenthal's highly alcoholized, carbonated batter.  Our piece was also notable for what it was lacking: french fries, the yin to the fish's yang.  Unlike our post, Blumenthal's article on fish and chips includes his recipe for fries.

Blumenthal's process is uncannily similar to McDonald's.  Like Kroc, he starts with starchy (ie. baking) potatoes.  Blumenthal explains that such potatoes have a substantially lower water content than their waxy cousins.  (For proof, slice both and put them in a large bowl of water. The starchy potatoes will float, the moister, waxy ones will sink.) The rest of the process is identical to McDonald's blanching, par-frying, and deep-frying formula.  Blumenthal even chills the potatoes after blanching and after par-frying them, just like McDonald's, though the final chill for Mickey D's is actually a deep freeze.  Chilling is of course, a remarkably efficient way to remove moisture.

The critical step, I think, in Blumenthal's process is a thorough blanching.  A prolonged stay in hot water may seem counterintuitive, but the great benefit is that the rough and tumble of simmering water creates tiny fissures in the potatoes.  These cracks add surface area which increases the crispiness of the final product.  After a rest in the fridge to chill completely, the potatoes are finished in a conventional way: par-fried at a mere 130C (250F) to dehydrate them even further, chilled again, then finished by frying once more in extremely hot oil (Blumenthal calls for an eight-to-ten minute final fry, we found this to be about five minutes too long).

Sprinkled generously with salt, Blumenthal's method produces superlative fries.  We experimented with omitting the preliminary blanching, and quickly regretted it; it really does create a vastly more satisfying exterior than the twice-fried method  That delicious shatter of the fry’s exterior as you bite into it is incomparable, and absolutely justifies the extra step.

We also tinkered with potato varieties.  More specifically, we compared fries made with a starchy baking potato, the ubiquitous Russet, with a waxy boiling potato, the Yukon Gold. The Russet was the clear winner.  There's something to be said for the creamy interior of a french fry made with a Yukon Gold, but that's about it.  The biggest problem with the Yukon Gold is that its increased sugar content means that it can only be fried at a high temperature (190C/375F) for no more than two minutes before turning deep brown, hardly enough time to properly crisp the exterior. Russets, though mealier on the inside, crisp up wonderfully without turning deep tan.  Given the paucity of more popular fry varieties in Canadian groceries, like the Maris Piper, the Russet is now our french fry potato of choice.
 

Img_20070610_01922_2

Which leaves us only to decide on a fat medium.  For years, McDonald's used beef tallow. In 1990, the chain switched to vegetable oil due to concerns about cholesterol. Nonetheless, most fry afficionados acknowledge the superiority of animal fat in the process, which adds a complexity of taste plain vegetable oil does not possess. Others go further, arguing that certain animal fats -- beef, but especially horse -- make for unsurpassed fries.  Enthused by Jeffrey Steingarten's examination of this very issue, and having discovered Blumenthal's superior process, I set out to do a little animal versus vegetable fat test for myself. The biggest obstacle was getting my hands on some horse fat.

"You want to make french fries, don't you?" was the standard response from butchers on the subject of horse fat.  There’s usually a knowing chuckle, too. Unfortunately, it's also customarily accompanied by an apology and an explanation that, "Sorry, there's just not enough of a market to make it worthwhile."

This is not the case in Europe, where many cuisines, including those of Sweden, France, Belgium, and parts of northern Italy have a long history of including horse meat in their diet.  Rachel and I first encountered horse on a menu in Venice, where it's occasionally used in cicchetti -- Venice's signature bite-sized bar food -- and in main courses.  We didn't try it, however, until we visited Bruges in Belgium, where we enjoyed a little snack of horse sausage with fries.

Of course, the notion of eating horse is largely foreign to English-speaking North Americans, some of whom view horse consumption with the same revulsion others reserve for snacking on the family pet. Attitudes are slowly changing here, however.  Horse is beginning to show up on menus in Toronto.  La Palette, a bistro-style restaurant in the Kensington, serves horse tenderloin, for example, and Coca, which models itself after a tapas bar, also has horse tenderloin cecina on its menu.  There are, I think, three fundamental reasons for the change: first, horse meat is a higher protein, lower fat alternative to other red meats like beef; second, Toronto is home to immigrant communities, most especially Italians, for whom horse is a welcome addition to the table; and, third, we live in close proximity to Quebec, which produces and consumes large amounts of horse.

Not that any of these factors make it easy to find horse fat. Unlike cows, pigs, and ducks, horses are quite lean, so collecting fat requires substantially more effort.  Limited demand for the product merely compounds the problem, forcing butchers to only sell the product in bulk if they hope to make any money from it.  The first butcher I spoke to, an Italian specializing in horse meat no less, refused to sell me horse fat, explaining that it simply wasn't worth the effort. She did, however, sing the praises of horse fat fries, which she lauded for their more pronounced flavour.  When I did finally find a butcher willing to sell me horse fat, I had to buy a whopping twenty-two kilos (that's fifty pounds, for the metrically challenged).  Unrendered.  On the upside, it's incredibly cheap -- the whole lot cost only twenty-five dollars.

The process for rendering horse fat is identical to that for rendering pork fat, which is described beautifully by Derrick of An Obsession with Food. In a world of mass-produced food, it's also immensely satisfying to whip up something as elemental as "lard."  What starts as an unappetizing mass of fat, fascia, and tissue prone to rot, becomes a creamy disc of amazing utility and longevity with only minimal intervention.  It may sound odd to conceive of it as such, but rendering is really an act of purification.

The horse fat fries were delicious, with a well-rounded flavour.  As a control group, we also made a batch of fries using the exact same method but with vegetable oil.  The veggie fries were wonderful, too, but lighter-tasting and not as complex.   The most noticeable difference was in the aftertaste -- fries cooked in vegetable oil are clean, the flavour disappears once the potato leaves the palate, whereas the horse fat fries leave a barely noticeable but satisfying meaty note that lingers even after the fries are finished.  It is one of nature's crueler truths that the best way to appreciate this subtle difference is to sample fries that have cooled to a point that slightly compromises their texture.

Pim, of Chez Pim, has also experimented with horse fat fries.  Her experience led her to question Harold McGee about what influence frying in horse fat has on flavour, if any.  McGee's explanation is that horse fat likely has little influence on flavour, and that such fries "come out well because the people doing the cooking in horse fat are clearly obsessives and making sure they do the best they can with this rare ingredient!"  I don't entirely agree, but I'll say this: I'd much sooner compromise on the fat than on Blumenthal's technique.  On second thought, McGee's probably right: "obsessives" like Blumenthal are just the sort of people he's talking about.  I wonder if Heston ever eats McDonald's fries.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c587a53ef00df3521afe38833

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Horse Crisperer: horse fat french fries:

Comments

Laura

Considering the number of emails I get a week from the ASPCA, enjoining me to help the fight against horse slaughter, I have a feeling that it'll be awhile before this really takes hold in the U.S!
That said... interesting article, and I'd try 'em! One would think that blindfolded taste-test studies from uninterested parties could help settle the dispute over whether fries made with horse fat taste better or are just more dear to the cook?

Tea

Oh, but this headline cracked me up!

I am so delighted that you have the single-minded focus for these sorts of explorations--I would never have the patience (or the stomach) to render horse lard--though I've eaten raw horse meat and, shockingly, loved it. I only wish I lived closer to you, so I could wheedle an invitation to come over and sample all your hard work!:-)

logicalmind

Regarding mcdonalds french fries, here is a video of what they look like after 10 weeks. Hint, they don't change at all. They don't rot or anything.
http://www.makemelol.com/media/275/McDonalds_food_left_to_rot/

Ivonne

I'm with Tea. Thank goodness for you and Rachel and your unbridled (pun intended) enthusiasm for experimentation.

I was waiting for this post and it did not disappoint!

m

You know, that was one of the most interesting posts I've read in a long time. It was an interesting bit of food science --a nice break from the usual.

Kudos.

tyronebcookin

I would still argue that 'In N Out Burger' still has the best french fry...their just like McDonalds (or better) but made fresh every day.

http://www.in-n-out.com/freshness.asp

But your article? Definitely interesting and peaks the mind.

Great Post!

Catherine Chandler

Shit, if you want the best french fries, go to the 6th Street Bistro in Hood River, Oregon. Hands down.

Steen

When I was in Munich last year, we were walking around the local food market and there was a store there that specialized in horse meat. It's the last photo in this post: http://www.sideorderofham.com/index.php?entry=entry061014-122442

faustianbargain

one other hurdle re horse tartare in the united states is availablity. more than 1/3 of the french horse meat comes from the united states. illegal, of course. most of these slaughtered horses are retired racehorses.

but whats really surreal is that the french horsemeat is exported to italy where they consume more than 3 times horsemeat as france. heard it in a podcast.. guardian.co.uk podcast..i'll get the url.

http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/food/2007/06/podcast_frances_horsemeat.html#more

there..found podcast link here> http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/podcasts/2007/06/audio_angelique_chrisafis_on_t_1.html

finally...my own opinion is NO to horsemeat, of course. to those who say why not horse, i say..why add one more creature to our plates? isnt it enough that we already imprison so many creatures in our factory farms.

brilynn

While I disagree about the McDonalds fries, the ones in your picture look perfect.

brilynn

And about pureeing the mango for my ice cream: I used my K-Tec so of course I didn't have to strain it when I had a 3 horsepower blender to make things as smooth as silk! You really need to get one...

Brokentusk

Of course a McDonald's fry looks the same after weeks of sitting around. Mold takes WATER. Fries don't have a lot and what little they have quickly evaporates.

Might as well be shocked the fry didn't turn into biscotti.

Wally Whitebelly

Hey , why don't you try deep frying some bunny ears in horse fat.

That might boost the flavor more than olive oil.

Bob delGrosso

You are really crazy Rob. Do you get that?

Craig

I am not a big potato fan, but one type of potato I will eat is fries, or fried potatoes (although not that often). I have no problem eating horse, or something made with horse fat -- in fact this
is something I could see myself trying. It is hard to imaging retired race horses as meat since it sounds as though it would be very low grade meat.... I have tasted raw horse before in Japan, and it was very good -- but I expect the horses would be raised specifically for that purpose (similar to Kobe Beef).

I would not have thought about using horse fat since it is not something that is a regular staple, but I will keep it in mind sometime to try. Maybe I will try your fish recipe and this chip recipe together sometime.

Ellie

Interesting! I've never actually made home-made french fries before but it sounds like to get the perfect fry is quite an involved process! I wonder if I can track down horse fat here...?

Steve

How about a comparison with identical home-frying methods, but using horse fat, beef fat, and pork fat? That would be interesting.

cookiecrumb

You rendered your own horse lard. Awesome.
Also, major props to you on your research for this wonderful piece: Gladwell, Derrick, Pim.

Tammy

CookieCrumb sent me. What an interesting post. I long for the days of McDonald's fries fried in beef tallow. Sadly, I don't think what they're peddling now holds a candle to them. But, maybe yours would.

Bob delGrosso

So I was puzzled by your statement that blanching potatoes in water would dry them out. It's totally counterintuitive as it is common knowledge that potato starch absorbs water during cooking via gelatinization. So I did a short test.
I cut a 9.5 gram piece of a russet potato and cooked it (blanched it really) in boiling water and weighed it after 2 minutes. The piece went up to 10 grams.
Then I put it back in and cooked it for another 2 minutes and weighed it again: 9 grams. Given the small sample size and ridiculously few number of tests I cannot think that the results are in any way conclusive but I have been given pause to wonder wtf if anything might going on.
It might be that at some point the starch begins to lose it's ability to hold on to the water it has acquired. Dunno. I also wonder if the slight drop in water content I saw is critical to the crispiness of the final product . I'll bet that the "shocking" process is really the step that causes the potato to give up the most water.
See, whenever you chill gelled starch it goes through a process called "syneresis" whereby the cold starch "squeezes out water" (think about rice that is cooked and frozen. It's always hard and dry bec. it has squeezed out water in the freezer.) so by shocking the blanched potatoes you are forcing water out. Make sense?

I suppose the thing to do is do a bunch of tests aimed at determining how much water if any a blanched potato loses when you shock it in ice water.

And here I thought the best fries were the ones cooked at Pioneer Pit Beef in Woodlawn. Obviously, I've been lulled into thinking that by the malt vinegar and Old Bay seasoning.

There's a type of potato chip sold in central Pennsylvania that's cooked in beef lard. I love them but my kids found them too greasy.

Amy

That was a very interesting read. I've never tried horse meat before. And yes I love McDonald's fries too.

neil

McDonalds fries only taste good because you normally eat them with one of their burgers, anything would taste good after a bite of one of those! Home made are better, horse fat or no. Don't think Maccas completely dropped the animal thing with their fries either.
Adding 'flavour' in the form of milk or a milk product and wheat, so in essence Maccas fries aren't celiac or vegan friendly. Your fries contain potato, fat and salt, this from McDonalds web site - Small French Fries
Potatoes, vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor (wheat and milk derivatives)*, citric acid (preservative), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (maintain color), dimethylpolysiloxane (antifoaming agent)), salt. Prepared in vegetable oil ((may contain one of the following: Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated corn oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness), dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent). *CONTAINS: WHEAT AND MILK (Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients.)
Salt.
Home made starting to sound better?


I'm sure there's an easy explanation, but how do you check water content of a potato with a hydrometer? Speaking of which, supermarket spuds of any variety never seem to make decent chips. A potato farmer told me it was because they store them too long and some of the starch converts to sugar making the chips go brown too fast.

Omer

I came, I visited, I ATE!!!

When I first read this post, I thought "Here goes Rob again." I managed to get an invite (which wasn't hard to do since Rob is married to my daughter). I am a fussy eater! Rob whipped up a batch for me on Father's Day and my only regret was that we live so far apart and I won't be able to have these fries on a steady basis.
GREAT FRIES!!!!

Stephen

The picture I have in my head of someone rendering 25lbs of horse fat makes me laugh. I appreciate your obsessiveness.

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.

Food &
Drink Blog Top Sites Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.