If you visit any of the popular food porn sites (e.g., Food Gawker, Tastespotting), you'll notice that certain choices tend to spread like that annoying Faberge shampoo commercial where someone tells two friends and so on and so on. If you're too young for that commercial, it's on YouTube here. That is to say, once a popular and approachable dish shows up on the food porn sites, you see a small explosion of more people making it. And if you don't know what a food porn site is and you've got visions of nubile, naked babes lounging amongst grapes and bananas seductively, think again.
About two or three weeks ago, the big fad among food bloggers was eggs in the hole or whatever you grew up calling cooking an egg in a hole in the center of a piece of bread. That mundane recipe, which was an old camping favorite due to the efficiency with which it cooks both the egg and bread in one pan over a camp fire, showed up again and again in tasteful shots by food bloggers who jumped on the bandwagon. Each one carefully wrote out a "recipe" and a description and took an artful picture for something which is essentially 'poke a hole in a piece of bread, break an egg in it and fry in butter.'
Though the "explosion" has been far smaller, oven fries seem to be the new mundane recipe that everyone is making and showcasing. Unlike my bland plate of boringly horizontal fries pictured at the top, their fries are artfully arranged (usually vertically or with a few of the sexier fries sticking out at odd angles) and look like the real deal, the ever appealing french fry. They also attempt to put a new spin on the recipe by using different spices or different types of potatoes, but the method is pretty much the same - fries tossed with some sort of oil, seasoned, then baked in the oven.
While I don't presume to know all there is to know about "perfect oven fries", I do know a few things that I've learned which don't seem to be reflected in the "recipes" I've been seeing. Here are a few pointers:
- Don't spray the cookie sheet with non-stick spray and place the fries on them or put the fries on the tray and drizzle them with oil. Unless you have good non-stick cookware, they're probably going to stick a bit if you do this. I get better results by heating the tray during the oven's preheat cycle and placing the fries (which have been tossed in a bowl with oil) onto the hot baking sheet. As Jamie Oliver has said in his cooking show, heat stops things from sticking (if the food already has oil on or in it) so you don't need to grease up the sheet if you pour the fries on a hot sheet. For the record, most Japanese ovens come with cookie sheets that are custom fit to the ovens size (not the standard oven racks you get in the U.S.) and they are not non-stick. My first trays were enamel-coated metal and my current ones are ceramic and my oven fries always stuck (even when both the fries and sheet were oiled) before I used the "heat the ungreased tray" method.
- Soak the raw fries in cold water for awhile first to remove some of the outer gum. This is less important if your potatoes are new, but most of what I get in Japan is clearly not freshly dug up. Soaking makes the texture better though it does leach out the potassium which may be a good or bad thing depending on your diet.
- The type of potato you use matters a lot, but so does the type of oil. In my experience, Canola oil browns better, but olive oil imparts more flavor. I usually use olive oil and settle for paler fries.
- Always dry the potatoes very well, coat evenly in oil and then salt and season. Never salt then add oil as the salt will leech moisture out of the potato and make it harder for the fry to be evenly coated. It also increases the chances that the potato will stick to the pan you use. This was a mistake I made for a long time.
For those of us living in Japan, the main problem is that most of the potatoes are tiny, and russets, which are highly desirable, are almost unheard of in Tokyo. It's a lot of effort to peel a lot of little potatoes compared to one big fat one. I usually pre-prepare them earlier in the day when I have time and just keep them in cold water in a sealed container in the refrigerator until I'm ready to use them. If you're got the time and energy, it's really worth it and a nice variation from rice-based dishes which are so often de rigueur in Japan.