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How to Serve Up Perfect Hand-cut Idaho® French Fries

Q:

I am starting a new concession business. I want to provide the absolute best Idaho® French fries this market has ever seen. Can you help? We’re starting a new gourmet burger concept featuring hand-cut fries.  We are already capitalized for several locations and I want to be sure that we get the preparation method for our fries PERFECT from the start.  With a simple basic menu, we want to do a few things perfectly, including making the VERY BEST hand-cut fries in the market.

A:

Why am I reminded of the Jack Nicholson role in A Few Good Men when he blurts out “you can’t handle the truth”? Making the best fries takes such dedication and quite frankly most people have difficulty pulling it off.  Every compromise makes the final product less ideal or consistent.

Starting with the equipment…most locations that plan to franchise try to keep the equipment costs down and buy a cheap french fryer, or only one, when they fully expect the French fry to be the most popular side dish they serve. Buy the best fryer you can afford, one with super fast recovery times as it does no good to serve the perfect fry at 11 AM and by 12:30 be putting fresh cut refrigerated potatoes into a fryer that is straining to keep up. Hatco and FryMaster have some of the best. Buy enough of them or design in a layout to have more than one or two added later when the volume picks up.

Decide whether the potatoes will be peeled or not, if peeled get a commercial peeler.  Nothing kills a fresh fry program faster than to waste labor prepping the potatoes. At some point you or your accountant will say “what are we doing, spending all this time peeling the potatoes?” Personally, I would not peel any of the potato skins away unless it has a defect such as a green part, dark spot or bruise.

Get a heavy duty French fry cutter.  I only recommend one brand, the Keen Kutter. Vollrath makes a good one, but remember…every single potato you serve is going to make a one time pass thru the cutter and it better be smooth, fast, dependable, etc. When you order it, get an extra blade.  And replace the blades when they wear out.  They do wear out, just like a can cutter.  When the blades get dull they make jagged cuts. This produces hairline cracks in the potatoes and when handled the potato strips will break up into smaller pieces.  Smaller pieces means more potato surface is exposed and more oil is absorbed and so on. Don’t change the blades and I guarantee your food costs will go up.

Frying oil is so important, but so overlooked by most operators who price compare and then pick the cheapest oil instead of doing any kind of taste testing or sampling.  Think about how an emerging chain called McDonald’s managed to earn the reputation for the best fries in fast food. Originally it was because of the hand cut Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes, animal fat based oil and strict adherence to frying temps, the condition of the oil, etc.

Nowadays the very first place you go to for your frying needs is www.fitfrying.com. There are tons of tips on keeping oil fresh, frying temperatures, etc.  Some of the chains that specialize in fresh cut fries also pay the extra money to fry in 100% peanut oil or a blend with peanut oil for a very distinctive flavored fry.  The reason most people don’t do this is that the oil costs substantially more.  Others make a choice of oils based on how many different places the oil can be utilized…for salad dressings, for sautéed foods, and so one, but each time you broaden the applications you lose consistency in the final fry outcome.

Frying temps are critical.  It is a foolish tip to turn up the heat to cook the fries faster; the oil can burn or lose its pure flavor when pushed past 350°F. Here are some other quick tips having to do with oil…skim off the broken or small potato bits as they will break down the oil faster, drain off the water on the fries before placing into the baskets, and never ever salt the fries over the oil.  One company advises the staff to drain the fries, put on a tray next to the fryer and salt vertically, top to bottom and never horizontally side to side as the sideways motion might end up salting the fryer oil in the middle of a fast lunch or dinner time.  Filter the oil frequently, and as unappetizing as it seems, taste the oil (let it cool a little) to detect any off flavors.  It goes without saying…use a dedicated fryer for French fries, no battered chicken or fish.

To save on labor…think once more about whether or not your customers will pay a premium to get a home made Idaho French fry.  If you can’t charge a premium and are stuck matching other restaurants pricing for fries, then re-consider using a frozen french fry product from Simplot (the originator of the frozen fry in the United States), Lamb Weston or McCain’s.  They have huge sku’s for a variety of cuts including skin on home style fries.  Lamb Weston has an excellent worksheet on their website for comparing fresh versus processed potatoes from a cost standpoint.

In some cities, produce specialists will cut and blanch the potatoes for you. The restaurant chain Mon Ami Gabi, part of the Lettuce Entertain You enterprise, has an outstanding French fry, shaped like a flat, wide fettuccini noodle, and the initial steps are prepared off premise by a fresh potato specialist to their specs.

Isn’t this amazing?  I have written nearly two pages of notes on preparing the perfect Idaho® Potato fresh made French fries and have not really mentioned what to look for in the potatoes you choose or where to get them.

The first consideration you should make for your potato sourcing is performance.  Idaho potatoes are the potato of choice by nearly every chain of 20 units or more that are doing fresh made fries.  That list includes Wingstop, New York fries, Five Guys, Steak Escape, Charley’s Steakery, and so on. Outback and Chili’s used to specify Idaho potatoes for fresh fries but both chains have switched over to a more consistent frozen fry.

The second important thing to consider is availability year round.  This is no time to think you can source locally for some months and then switch over to Idaho later on in the season. Idaho is one of the only states to not have a “gap” from old crop to new crop and that is a very important decision to consider.

While our potatoes are grown in Idaho and carry the certification mark on each carton (No.1) or bag (No.2 or Standard) they are available in nearly every state. Check with your local distributor or produce specialist. We have over 700 growers and some of our fresh shipping facilities are grower/shipper owned, but nearly all chains purchase their Idaho potatoes from the distributor or through a contract with the shippers.  I know of no sales (other than local) that go directly to the growers.

The third is variety, and it’s hard to beat the Russet Burbank variety. We also have other russet varieties used by our processors and sometimes in the fresh market that fry up great, such as: Alturas, Umatilla, Ranger, Bannock, Blazer, Classic, Clearwater, Premier and Western.