The Horse Crisperer: horse fat french fries
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.
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.