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What Idaho® Potato Variety Should I Use for Fresh Cut French Fries?

Q:

Do you have a recommendation as to what variety of Idaho® potato I should use for making fresh cut French fries?

A:

In Idaho, we grow more of the Russet Burbank variety than any other. The famed reputation that McDonald’s earned of having America’s favorite French fries actually started out with the Idaho Russet Burbank, washed and cut in each unit, blanched (pre-cook method of getting a consistent finished fry) and then fried to order for a crowd of Baby Boomers that helped support the growth of the chain to the point that it had to find more efficient ways to do the volume of fries where nearly every burger sold included an order of potatoes too. The JR Simplot company, based in Boise, Idaho approached Ray Kroc with a new fangled invention, the frozen French fry, which could be made ahead of time and shipped ready to cook off for three size orders, small or regular, large and Super Size. It is interesting to note than over fifty years later the Russet Burbank is still the reigning king of spuds, thanks largely to Americans’ love of fries.

The industry stalwart comprised 44.6 percent of total acreage this year in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Maine, North Dakota and Minnesota, according to a recent report from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The Russet Burbank traces its roots back to the original “Burbank” potato developed by Luther Burbank in Massachusetts in the 1870s. The russet cultivar used by growers today first came into usage about 1914.

“The Russet Burbank’s staying power is amazing,” said Jeff Harper, a farmer from Mountain Home, Idaho, who also serves as chairman of the Potato Variety Management Institute. Few modern products have been as resilient as the Russet Burbank, Harper said. The industry has made some significant improvements in growing and storing the variety in the past century, but “the actual genetics are exactly the same,” he said.

We now grow several varieties of russets and some yellow flesh varieties that can be fried to a beautiful golden crispy outside.  The Five Guys Burger and Fries chain, which has grown from 6 units in 1986 to nearly 670 as of September 2010, test the doneness of their Idaho® fresh cut fries with a simple “Smush test” where they squeeze a single cooked potato strip to see if it is crunchy on the outside and has that mashed potato texture inside.

I have found that the best fresh fry comes from two key ingredients. Use a potato variety (and the right soil, water, nurturing, etc. to end up with a high starch content potato) but also follow the steps you outline in your operation religiously, every single time. Both the variety and the method of preparation are equally important to a final food product that you can be proud of.

Whenever there is some inconsistency in how the fries turn out, go back to both areas… check out the solids content of the potato variety you are receiving in the back door, but also spend time double checking the steps to prepare and cook and serve the potatoes.