I have a confession to make: I love french fries so much, I can hardly get enough of them, even when I fry them up in what could be described as excessively large batches.
To learn how to make french fries so fluffy and crispy that me and the rest of the diners on my table can’t help but become enamored with them, I’ve tried and tested pretty much every tip and trick in the book.
And, along the way, I’ve learned one of those valuable lessons that they don’t tell you on cooking shows or write about in cookbooks: the cooking fat matters more than most of us give it credit.
“Why is that,” you’re probably wondering. “And, if it’s true, then what’s the best oil for french fries?”
The best oils for french fries have a neutral to nutty flavor and high smoke point. As such, they won’t alter the taste of your fries and will stay stable, even at high heat. So go for avocado, canola, corn, grapeseed, rice bran, or soybean oil.
Head to the grocery store to get cooking oil, and, when you get to the cooking-oils-and-fats aisle, the chances are that you’ll be given so much variety, it will be damn right hard to pick. I know because I’ve been there myself (and I read and write about this stuff for a living!).
Think I’m exaggerating? I don’t blame you.
Still, picture this:
There are oils extracted from fruits and vegetables (avocado oil, olive oil).
Then, there are oils derived from nuts (coconut, peanut, walnut oil), seeds (canola, flaxseed, grapeseed oil), and grains (rice bran oil).
And that’s just the oils that come in a bottle, be it plastic or glass. Of the solids, there’s also animal fat (tallow, lard, duck fat) and vegetable fat (palm oil, shortening).
Some oils, like extra virgin olive oil, are unrefined, which means they’ve been unadulterated with, extracted from the source using solely mechanical means. Others are refined, which basically means that they’ve been derived using aggressive heat or chemical solvents.
Which ones should you go for?
The key takeaway is that not all cooking fats are created equal, and choosing the right one goes beyond the brand and bottle that appeal to you the most.
Actually, it comes down to two traits: A) flavor and B) smoke point.
Go for an Oil With a Neutral or Nutty Flavor
First, let’s talk flavor.
Your fries are the hero of your story, and you want to let their aroma and flavor—not that of your cooking oil—stand out. So you’re looking for an oil with a relatively neutral or, at most, slightly nutty taste.
Some cooking fats, such as walnut, hazelnut, and sesame oil, have a really strong taste, and they’ll impart it on any food you cook in them. You have no use for such oils when preparing french fries, as the fries will soak all that flavor up and come out tasting… least to say funky.
Olive oil, especially extra virgin, can make your fries bitter and peppery, an alternation that you may or may not find appealing. While it’s a great oil for drizzling over salads and whipping up pasta sauces, it’s best to avoid it when making french fries.
Of the oils on my list, avocado and rice bran oil have a barely-noticeable nutty flavor, whereas corn, grapeseed, and soybean oil have a neutral, completely unnoticeable flavor.
There is, of course, an exception to every rule: and your choice of cooking oil for french fries is no exception.
In some cases, you may intentionally pick a more flavorful fat, such as butter or duck fat, to enrich the flavor of your fries. You might even go for lard or tallow to give your fries a rich, meaty flavor.
Most of the time, the trick to getting this right is to mind the heat dial. Animal and dairy fat (unless we’re talking ghee) have low smoke points, so they’re somewhat quick to burn and turn acrid.
More on the topic of cooking oils—and their smoke points—below.
The Oil Should Have a High Smoke Point
Second, not every fat is suitable for cooking at high heat.
All fats and oils have a smoke point. The smoke point, also called the “burning point,” is the temperature threshold at which an oil stops to glisten and shimmer on the cooking surface of your pan or pot, and starts to break down and burn instead.
Heated past their smoke point, cooking oils will emit a steady stream of toxic bluish smoke. As a byproduct of their breakdown, compounds, potentially harmful to your well-being and which you can easily ingest with your food, will form in your cooking vessel.
When shallow- or deep-frying on the stove, most of us will crank up the heat to medium (or, on a less powerful range, medium-high). According to Mark Bittman, food writer and columnist for the New York Times, this typically heats the oil to 350°F (or, for readers who follow the metric system, approximately 180°C).
This basically tells you that, when making french fries, you should reach for a cooking oil that not only has a neutral or nutty flavor, but comes with a smoke point higher than 350°F (≈180°C).
Preferably, one that’s sitting somewhere on the top end of the spectrum, so that you have some leeway in case you heat your pan or pot to above-average temperature.
To help you pick, here’s a list of some of the most commonly-found supermarket oils that match this description:
|Cooking Fat/Oil||Smoke Point||Flavor Profile|
|Avocado oil, refined||520°F (271°C)||Nutty, slightly grassy|
|Rice bran oil||490°F (254°C)||Nutty, caramely|
|Avocado oil, unrefined||490°F (254°C)||Nutty, pronouncedly grassy|
|Soybean oil||450°F (232°C)||Neutral, soymilk-like|
|Corn oil||450°F (232°C)||Neutral|
|Grapeseed oil||390°F (199°C)||Neutral|
The Keys to the Perfect French Fries
Before we get into it, let’s define what the “perfect” french fries look like.
To me, french fries are great when they’re crunchy and crispy on the outside yet tender and fluffy on the inside. They’re well browned, and not burnt, and salted just enough to be savory without causing you reach for water at every bite.
Now that we’ve cleared this, let’s see what—other than the oil—it takes to get there.
Whip out the right kind of cookware from your cabinet:
As the team behind professional-grade thermometers ThermoWorks proved on their blog, “the key to good crispy homemade french fries is careful temperature control.”
For shallow-frying, you want to use a cast iron or carbon steel skillet, or a thick-bottomed stainless steel frying pan. Such pans are capable of heating evenly and holding on to heat well, even after you dip the room-temperature fries into the hot cooking oil.
For deep-frying, you’re looking for a cast iron braiser, cocotte, or Dutch oven (it can be enameled or bare; it won’t make that much of a difference). Though not as effective, a thick-bottomed stainless steel pot will also do.
Preheat your pan or pot before you get cooking:
The most accurate way to tell if the oil in your pan or pot is hot enough to cook the french fries in is to check its temperature with an oil-safe instant read thermometer. Still, in case you don’t happen to have one at hand, the rule of thumb is to preheat your oil for 10 minutes or so over medium heat.
When the oil in your cooking vessel isn’t hot enough, the french fries won’t brown. Instead, they’ll soak some of the oil right up, coming out soggy and undercooked.
A good way to test your oil for hotness is to half-dip one french fry. If you can see plenty of bubbles forming around it, you know that you’re there and you can add the rest of the batch.
Double-fry the potatoes for maximum crispiness:
Double-frying helps you get the perfect caramelization and crust on your french fries. Why? Because it helps to release more moisture from the potatoes than a single round of frying. And moisture, as we all know, is the enemy of crispiness.
Fry the potatoes for 5 to 10 minutes, then take them out and let them drain in a sieve placed in a ceramic bowl (the bowl is there to collect the grease) or on a sheet pan with a wire rack (and so is the sheet pan).
When you’re done with the last batch, take the oil off the heat and set the potatoes aside, leaving them out on the counter for 30 minutes to one hour.
Bring the oil back to heat and fry your potatoes for a few minutes, until they’re well browned and slightly caramelized.
Since I discovered this technique, it totally changed my frying game. And I’m talking fries, chicken, onion rings, and anything else you could possibly think of.