Q. I have heard that sugar is the enemy of making French fries turn out golden brown. Why is that? Doesn’t the sugar give the fried potatoes its great color?
A. Sugar is the number two enemy when making fresh cut French fries. Number one is low solids or starch. Low solids will make your fries soggy. That’s why a low solids potato, such as a waxy red just won’t fry up properly. High sugars will mask the problems, as it can ruin a perfectly good potato with high solids by tricking you into thinking it is fully cooked. We eat (and cook) with our eyes, so when the potato looks this beautiful golden color we assume that it is done. Too much sugar causes the potato to change color prematurely… but it is not fully cooked.
The final color is directly related to the quantity of sugars in the tuber. Storage (before you get the potato) is important. But storage, especially in a cool refrigerator or walk in at your operation is also important. Remember this guideline… below 40 degrees F the starch in the potato will start to turn to sugar. As a potato matures and sizes up, the sugars in that potato are reduced to a low level (depends on the variety). Long term storage at cooler temps raises the sugar level. Stresses in storage such as low temperature, low oxygen or physical damage all can increase sugars.
Q. I see some places store their bags of frozen fries right next to the fryer during peak serving periods, Will a thawed French fry cook faster?
A. Yes, a thawed fry will cook faster, but at some real costs in more oil absorption and in final fry quality.
When frying French fries, do not let them thaw before using. I recommend that frozen French fries be kept completely frozen before using. This guarantees that the surface of the potato is sealed during the frying process, resulting in a crispy, high quality fry. Some operations do thaw potatoes before cooking. This results in an excess absorption of fat and an undesirable greasy flavor.
This method is called slacking, and while it may speed up the cooking think twice about it being good for the potatoes.
I am not doing anything different, why are my fries turning out dark and undercooked?
The chances are that you just experienced a phenomenon called “the gap” or in laymen’s terms “old crop/new crop”. Idaho growers have been harvesting russet potatoes for a couple of weeks now and this continues through the middle of October. Idaho only harvests potatoes one time during the year (no multiple crops like Salinas can have with lettuce for example) and relies on state of the art storage at high humidity levels and temperatures around 45 – 48ºF, or sometimes a little cooler to be able to supply year round product. Some early to mid-harvest varieties, such as the Russet Norkotah, Ranger Russet, Classic Russet, etc. have a little shorter growing season and originally were developed to bridge the gap between the last of the Russet Burbanks (most frequently used for fresh cut fries) and the new crop.
The first thing you are experiencing is frying an old crop, which can have the ratio of starch to water climb as the season finishes up and the potatoes are slightly more dehydrated than they were just a few months ago. That means the fries crisp up quickly and can often be the ones that your customers compliment your crew about when they mention the terrific Idaho homemade fries your restaurant serves. Some experienced operators ask their distributor or supplier to order in more “old crop” potatoes to carry them a little further into the new season. Nation’s Restaurant News (www.nrn.com) recently had a terrific quote from New York Chef Daniel Boulud who said that when potatoes are typically harvested (beginning in August in Idaho) at that point their water content is too high to make excellent fries because they get soggy faster than an aged potato, so he works with suppliers to hold onto some old crop until October when the balance of water, starch, and sugar makes the potatoes just right for frying.
Second, when you receive “new crop” potatoes you may find that the potatoes will have a different appearance, with a somewhat flakey skin, which happens when the potatoes are dug and don’t have a chance to go into storage and mature. This maturing stage heals over most cuts and bruises (called suberization) and stabilizes the skin, firming it up. It takes a month or two for this to happen. Of course, in a restaurant you can’t wait that long, so here is what we advise…We recommend that when you cut the potato for frying that you place it in running water until the excess sugars or starch have a chance to be diluted and the water runs clear.
Third, We STRONGLY recommend that you blanch the potato and then store it for frying during the serving period. This makes for a more consistent French fry. Check out the frying temps and times at this link: http://foodservice.idahopotato.com/how_to/id-1
You may experience a new potato fry turning dark before it is fully cooked. The blanching really helps offset this. The Norkotah sometimes benefits from blanching at a lower temp for an extra ten minutes, then finish frying at the same 360ºF as other russet varieties.
What potato varieties do the chains that specialize in fresh cut fries mostly use?
By far, the chains that sell fresh cut fries rely on the Idaho Russet Burbank variety. It has been the gold standard for French fries in the United States going back to longer than I can remember. When McDonald’s still made fresh fries, the JR Simplot Company sold them Idaho Russet Burbanks. McDonald’s switched to frozen fries back in the sixties, and now they are supplied by a combination of processors in multiple states (Lamb Weston, Simplot, and McCain’s all have dedicated lines just for their fries). While they now use different varieties, using a high solids, low moisture potato is still the key to the perfect fry.
Outback Steakhouse built their reputation for great fries on the Idaho Russet Burbank and up until recently made them from scratch. They also now use a more convenient frozen fry. It just makes economic sense when you factor in the need for consistency, controlling labor costs at the units, and pacing the volume requirements of a chain with over 800 locations.
Charley’s Steakery, Steak Escape, and the fast growing (over 430 units since 2001) Five Guys chain prefer using the Idaho Russet Burbank. New York Fries uses Idaho for most of the year, switching over during the gap to other sources till the new crop has “matured”.
Exceptions to the Russet preference include Ted’s Montana Grill, which uses a yellow flesh chipping stock variety potato and the Los Angeles based IN-N-Out Burger that specifies a Kennebec variety, also a yellow flesh chipping potato that has a light outer skin and does not accumulate sugars as much as some other varieties.
Everyone has their own preference, I find that using the best ingredients possible and following the proper steps for frying will consistently yield the best tasting fries. The biggest errors that units make when they fry fresh potatoes are (in no particular order):
Filling the baskets too full
Not giving the cooking fries a shake part way through the cycle to better distribute the potatoes to get rid of any cold spots
Salting over the fryer
Not filtering the oil
Frying at too high a temp (375ºF is TOO HIGH!)
Holding the fries too long if they are not prepped to order
Your best bet… order a French fry wall chart (bi-lingual English and Spanish) for tips on frying fresh or frozen Idaho potatoes, watch our foodservice videos on French Frying potatoes, and go to www.fitfrying.com for frying and oil tips.
Q. What suggestions can you make to include potatoes on the menu at breakfast time besides the usual home fries or hash brown patties? My clientele is bored with plain breakfast choices.
A. You have come to the right place. First of all, think ethnic. Then potatoes can be easily included as an ingredient. Check out this Breakfast Burrito from Scott Hoffman, The Mason Jar Restaurant, SC:
Q. What do you think about combining cauliflower and mashed potatoes? I know it is supposed to be healthier for you, but when I put the two together it was very bland. Any suggestions?
A. The cauliflower option is a popular way to add in some different flavors to mashed potatoes, especially for those who like both but want to keep the potato portion reasonable. The net result often needs some spice. Here is a recipe that does just that; adds in crunch and spice to perk up the potatoes and is a wonderful dinner meal with chicken. Try it:
Q. Does size matter when a recipe calls for small or medium potatoes? If so, what should I use?
A. To determine the most likely size, compare the recipe to what you find in the produce aisle of your local grocery store. Chances are, the loose potatoes sold in bulk are around what we often refer to as a 70 count, i.e. 70 potatoes in a fifty pound carton. Now that term makes sense in foodservice, but not to consumers at home. Typically a 70 count potato averages 11-12 ounces. For a small potato, I use the USDA standard portion size, 5.3 ounces. If the size is crucial to how the recipe turns out, then the recipe writer will usually call out the measurement in ounces rather than just saying “each”. By the way, that small potato is about 110 calories each.
Q. What do you think about McDonald’s reducing the portion of the kid’s meal French fries to two ounces and adding apple slices instead?
A. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t have a problem with that. But it is for different reasons. Portion sizes on a lot of menus are too big now. I think kids should experience smaller sizes of food, but a variety of flavors when they order a kid’s meal at a fast food place or a restaurant. By the way, historically fry sizes were much smaller in fast food.
From The Hamburger, A Global History, by Andrew F. Smith he says that “During World War II, when meat was rationed, hamburger stand operators had to find alternatives for the scarce beef hamburger. Potatoes were not rationed, and they were abundant and cheap, so during the war French fries became a staple on restaurant menus. Even after the war went away, and rationing ended, the demand for French fries increased.”
“Initially McDonalds only offered a large 2 ounce (57 gram) size. Today a small order of McDonald’s fries is 2 ounces.”
So, for kid’s meals we are back to where we actually started. At home, when serving oven baked fries, try pairing the potatoes with a dip or salsa. The dipping process slows down how fast the potatoes can be consumed, making kids conscious of how much they eat at one setting.