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French fries, also known in their many variations as steak fries, curly fries, waffle fries, freedom fries, and across The Pond as chips, are generally deep fried in oil. I've not yet had the pleasure to try true pommes frites, but they too are fried, twice fried in fact. It is entirely possible, though, to bake "fries" in your oven, and though the result is not the same as that obtained by deep frying, over time I've found I prefer the baked version. Oven fries have a deeper, richer potato flavor due to the carmelization they achieve, and while they don't exactly qualify as a diet food, they are still far lower in fat and calories than typical fast food fare...and they are also quite yummy.

A few words about potatoes

At the grocery, pick potatoes which are smooth, unblemished and have relatively few eyes. Avoid those which are shriveled or wrinkled, lined with deep cuts or scratches, have dark/black spots, sprouting eyes, or have any hint of green on their skins. Contrary to urban legend, the Idaho Potato Board states that the green parts and sprouts are not poisonous, but are very bitter and/or fibrous and thus should not be eaten. As a good lass of strong Irish descent, I find this to be the worst sort of heresy, but I would hope that the Idaho Potato Board knows what it's talking about. The nightshades had an unfriendly reception upon their initial importation to Europe, certainly, and that probably contributed to the myth. Anyway, avoid the greenies. You'd have to cut away the green parts, and that would result in misshapen fries which would tend to bake unevenly.

Unless you are at a farmer's market or grow taters yourself, you are unlikely to find potato blossoms to tuck in your hair or to see "twinned" or other oddly shaped spuds. Odd-shaped taters are completely edible – when I was growing up, the sibling who found the weirdest tater during the harvest got major bragging rights – but again, don't use such taters for the following recipe.

Store potatoes in a cool, dark place and do not wrap them in anything airtight, as they need to breathe. But, how cool is cool? According to the Idaho Potato Commission, potatoes keep best at 40-50°F (5-10°C) and in high humidity. Unfortunately, most people do not have access to appropriate storage conditions. The problem is that if potatoes are stored over 55°F (13°C), they will most likely shrivel, turn green and/or sprout, so keeping them in a cupboard is straight out unless you are living in a yurt in the High North somewhere or you keep them for only a few days before consuming them.

On the other hand, refrigerator temperatures are too cold for extended storage. Excess cold makes the starch in the potatoes convert to sugar, which in turn creates an overly sugary flavor and an increased tendency to burn during cooking. What to do, then? Well, I keep my taters in the crisper drawer of my fridge in a paper bag, leaving the throat of the bag open. I don't buy bulk sacks of potatoes as there's only the two of us and I don't go through them that fast. Instead, I pick out individual potatoes from the supermarket's bin, and buy no more than I think I might need for the next week or two. It costs a bit more, but buying a few spendy taters is cheaper than throwing out half a spoiled sack. It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best I can do at the moment.

If you can, buy organic potatoes. For one thing, you'll be helping out small farms against The Man. For another, potatoes tend to suck up pesticides more than most other vegetables. If you're stuck with non-organic potatoes (and yes, I do buy them, as the organic ones I can get are rather small) peeling them will help.

Oven Fries

Ingredients

  • Large, regularly shaped starchy baking potatoes: Russetts or the like. (If you grow your own, do not use new ones right out of the ground, as their starch isn't developed enough. Instead, use some you've had in storage for a few months. Almost all supermarket taters do not have this problem, but you might encounter it at a farmer's market.) Two large taters will feed at least two adults. If you will be using more than 3 or 4 potatoes, bake them in batches, as you don't want to crowd the cookie sheet.

  • Your favorite cooking oil, to coat lightly. While I'm a proponent of extra virgin olive oil, I wouldn't use it here as its flavor is too strong. I suggest a neutrally flavored, refined vegetable oil with a high smoke point such as canola or safflower. Do not use butter or lard as these are likely to burn.

  • Coarse salt and black pepper, and/or your favorite spice blend. Garlic powder anyone? Maybe some sweet Hungarian paprika?

Equipment

  • One heavy duty cookie sheet, or two lighter weight ones, nested one inside of the other. If you use a single lightweight cookie sheet, the fries may not brown evenly. (Note: Nesting two cookie sheets is not as good as having one good, heavy one. I need to research this a bit more.)

  • Nonstick aluminum foil is a big help, whether your cookie sheet is nonstick or not.

  • A spatula and/or kitchen tongs.

Method

Give your cookie sheet (or the foil on top of it) a few spritzes of oil. Sprinkle the baking sheet evenly with few small pinches of salt. Do not bother to do this if you don't have coarse salt; it's meant to help make the pan a bit more non-stick.

Scrub the potatoes well and remove any eyes with the tip of a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Peel them or not as you wish; peel-on fries taste more "potato-ey" and have a slightly tougher bite, and some people (including me) enjoy this. Cut each tater lengthwise into 6 to 8 wedges, then put all the wedges into a large bowl filled with hot tap water.

Why the hot soak? According to Cook's Illustrated, soaking does a couple of things: it removes excess sugars from the cut surfaces of the potatoes, which helps reduce over-browning and development of an undesireably thick and tough crust. The water also interacts with the starch to improve the interior texture of the fries, making them less mealy. Using hot water simply makes this process happen faster.

Preheat your oven to 475°F (250°C). Allow your oven at least 20 minutes to heat, if not a half-hour. It's not a coincidence that I told you to prep the taters first; the preheating time allows the taters to soak. Once the oven is up to temperature, drain the potatoes and pat them dry very thoroughly.

Put the taters in a clean bowl. (If you are not bowl-rich or hate washing up extra items, simply wipe dry the bowl you used for soaking them earlier.) Drizzle on some oil, a little at a time, and toss the taters until they are lightly coated. For 3-4 potatoes, 2-5 tablespoons (30-75 ml) of oil should be plenty; what you do not want is a big puddle of oil in the bottom of the bowl. Season gently (remembering that you've already put some salt on the pan), and toss again.

Spread the fries in one layer on the baking sheet with whatever oil is in the bowl. Then take another piece of foil and cover the fries, crimping it fairly tight.

Bake for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and take off the foil.

Bake for another 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through this time.

While they bake, set up a cooling rack. Underneath this rack, put some towels, another pan, or that extra foil you already pulled off the top of the cookie sheet, to catch any drips.

Remove from the oven again and flip the fries. Then, back in again, and bake until crisp and lovely golden brown, for another 5 to 20 minutes. Towards the end of the baking, keep a close eye lest they burn.

When you pull the fries out, blot them dry very gently if they need it, and transfer to the rack. Taste test, adjust the seasonings as necessary, and serve immediately. Enjoy!


Sweet potato oven fries are also delicious and even more healthy than regular oven fries, but they require different handling. I hope to add to this node once I have the time to do some testing. In a nutshell, though, they need a lower temperature and a shorter baking time. I've read a number of recipes which suggest 400°F (about 205°C) for 20-25 minutes, flipping the fries halfway through, but I haven't tested it.


Sources and references

Personal experience
Idaho Potato Commission
http://www.idahopotato.com/
The Potato Council
http://www.npcspud.com/
The Healthy Potato
http://www.healthypotato.com/
Cook's Illustrated magazine, Jan/Feb 2004, pages 20-21.
Cook's Illustrated magazine, Nov/Dec 2004, page 31.
My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who contributed helpful ideas and nitpicking. You know who you are. Love ya!

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