ℹ️ You’re reading Quartz Essentials: quick, engaging outlines of the most important topics affecting the global economy.
- 1 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 1
French fries get a bad rap. They’re oily, salty, and often unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of a paper bag. But beneath their greasy, fast-food sheen, fries are one of the world’s best-traveled and best-loved dishes.
From Quebecois poutine to Spanish patatas bravas, there are dozens of ways to slice, fry, and drizzle potatoes around the world. In the UK, chips go with fish. In France, pommes frites go with steak. Japanese furo pote is shaken in a seasoning-filled bag before being served. Belgian friets and frites are wrapped in paper and drizzled with mayo.
Depending on where you ask, fries should be crispy or soggy, stringy or thick-cut, salty or sweet. But regardless of how they’re served up, french fries find their devotees. McDonald’s alone sells 9 million pounds (4 million kg) of fries around the world every single day.
If you’re embarrassed to admit fries are your favorite food—even though they’re basically everyone’s favorite food—this one’s for you!
- 2 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 2
3.4 billion lb (1.5 billion kg): Pounds of potatoes McDonald’s buys each year
11+: Global variations on McDonald’s fries, including waffles, wedges, twisters, and sweet potato fries
28: Sauces offered at Amsterdam friet stand Vleminckx de Sausmeesters
270,000 won ($250): Price of a french fry order so supersized it got a group of teens kicked out of a McDonald’s in South Korea in 2013
3: Days it takes Bangladeshi-American chef Avishar Barua to make his “perfect” fries
60%: Share of Belgians who eat fries at least once a week
$2.4 billion: Value of potato exports in 2017 for the world’s top exporters: the Netherlands, France, Germany, Egypt, and the US
- 3 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 3
The exact origin of fries is hotly disputed. France is one obvious contender. “Today’s fries are fundamentally Parisian,” French food historian Pierre Leclercq told Le Figaro in 2018 (link in French, quote translated). According to Leclercq, chefs and street vendors in Paris were chopping and double-frying potatoes by the early 1800s. These French french fries were popular with elites, with noted foodies Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, and Thomas Jefferson declaring their love for French-fried potatoes.
But Belgium is adamant that the label “French fry” is a misnomer. Belgians feel so strongly about their claim to deep-fried fame that they applied for UNESCO heritage recognition for their fries and mayo in 2018.
In the humble Belgian story, villagers invented fries in 1680, when a frozen-over river forced them to substitute potatoes in their fried fish recipes. Much later, during World War I, US soldiers encountered the snacks while stationed in French-speaking Belgium, muddling culinary history for all eternity by calling them French. Leclercq finds the origin story implausible, instead pointing to a French-trained Bavarian chef (link in French) popularizing the dish in the mid-1800s in Liège.
- 4 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 4
Raising venture capital during a pandemic. Y Combinator, the prestigious Silicon Valley accelerator, was forced to move its recent demo day online. Like so many other things that coronavirus has affected, it could permanently change the way startups raise money. Startups already face numerous risks, but experiments like these could help it weather the storm.
- 5 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 6
“I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”
- 6 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 7
8,000-5,000 BC: Potatoes are domesticated in modern-day Peru.
1530s: Spaniards bring potatoes to Europe from the Andes.
1755: The first recipe for sliced, battered, and fried potatoes appears in the French cookbook Les Soupers de la Cour.
1771: Antoine-Augustin Parmentier wins a contest seeking foods to improve France’s response to famine by proposing the potato.
1789: James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, returns from Paris to Virginia with a recipe for French fried potatoes.
~1860: Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant living in East London, opens a shop pairing fried fish with chips—some food historians believe this to be the first fish and chip shop.
1863: An entrepreneur named John Lees opens a fish and chip stand in Mossley market in Lancashire, another contender for the first fish and chips business.
1949: McDonald’s adds french fries to its menu.
1960: Gilbert Lamb invents the “water gun knife,” which fires potatoes at 80 miles per hour (118 km per hour) at a metal grate to create shoestring fries.
1979: Edgar Matsler patents a potato slicing machine that makes waffle fries possible.
2014: Belgium plants its flag squarely in “French” fry history by opening the Frietsmuseum, the world’s first fry museum.
- 7 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 8
There are about 10 times as many fry stands per capita in Belgium as there are McDonald’s per capita in the US. Most of those 5,000 stands are remaining open during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown, even as restaurants and bars are forced to close.
- 8 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 9
The standard fry-making process goes something like this: Soak evenly-cut potatoes in water to remove excess starch. Fry your prepped potatoes for three to five minutes in oil heated to around 300ºF (149ºC). Then heat the oil to 400ºF (204ºC) and fry again. But why double-fry? Because, as we’ve told you, fries are a sophisticated art—or science. As J. Kenji López-Alt writes on Serious Eats, “The intricacies involved with taking potatoes and oil, applying science, heat, and a bit of blind faith are so complex that I will not even attempt to cover it in a single blog post.”
According to López-Alt, the first round of frying accomplishes two things: cooking the potatoes and drying them out. The second fry has one purpose: making a thick, crispy outer layer. But step two couldn’t happen properly without the science behind step one.
Frying a food in oil releases some of the water trapped inside its outer layers. This is why the oil appears to bubble up: The water is boiling. This process dehydrates the food and allows it to become crispier on a second fry. With potatoes, the water escaping at the surface also creates a starchy, firm outer layer as it combines with starch molecules into a gel-like sheath. This layer doesn’t get thick and crispy because the water still trapped just under the surface expands, creating puffiness instead of crunch. But the starch-reinforced layer does prep the fry exterior for its golden, double-fried finish. And voilà!
Tl;dr: Cut potatoes. Soak. Fry in hot oil. Fry in hotter oil. Repeat. (If you’re from South Africa and prefer soggy slap chips, ignore the above and grab some vinegar.)
- 9 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 10
Fried potatoes are popular in almost every corner of the globe, but the way we top them varies enormously. Here are a few favorites.
🇻🇳 Vietnam: Butter and sugar
🇳🇱 The Netherlands: Peanut satay sauce and mayonnaise, called patatje oorlog (”war fries”)
🇨🇦 Canada: Cheese curds and gravy, called poutine
🇰🇪 Kenya: Tomato paste, chili powder, and lemon
🇬🇧 UK: Malt vinegar
🇵🇪 Peru: Hot dogs, called salchipapas
🇰🇷 South Korea: Butter and honey
🇺🇸 US: Chili and cheese
- 10 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 11
There is no wrong way to drizzle or dip a french fry, but for this toddler trying ketchup on her fries for the first time, there is certainly a right way.
- 11 of 11
Quartz Obsession — French fries — Card 12
The classic McDonald’s french fry isn’t so classic after all. Depending on when you ate your first order of fries from the golden arches, you might have noticed a big change in their flavor around 1990. Since the 1940s, McDonald’s had fried spuds in its legendary Formula 47—a beef tallow and vegetable oil blend that resulted in flavorful, fluffy perfection. But animal fat is incredibly high in cholesterol, and to one health-food crusader, Phil Sokolof, McDonald’s had a responsibility to sacrifice taste for public health. Sokolof (and his multi-billion dollar public campaign against the chain) eventually convinced a reluctant McDonald’s to throw out beef tallow and use 100% vegetable oil.
The saga didn’t end there. Hydrogenated vegetable oil has no saturated fat, but it does have trans fats. So in the 2000s, faced with a less flavorful and just-as-unhealthy fry, McDonald’s changed its recipe twice more—first to a soy-corn oil low in trans fats and then to a trans-fat-free blend of canola, corn, and soy. Malcolm Gladwell tells the full story on the “McDonald’s broke my heart” episode of his podcast, Revisionist History.
- TAKE IT BACKThe most offensive curse word in English has powerful feminist originsQuartz • August 5, 2017
- SUCK IT UPThe world’s first “negative emissions” plant has begun operation—turning carbon dioxide into stoneQuartz • October 12, 2017
- BRAIN PRANKScientists studying psychoactive drugs accidentally proved the self is an illusionQuartz • February 9, 2018
- STEAM STEAM BABYEurope’s heatwave is forcing nuclear power plants to shut downQuartz • August 6, 2018
- LIGHTWEIGHT LIFE HACKWhy every cyclist needs a pool noodleQuartz • May 17, 2019
- WINDOW TO THE BRAINScientists may have found a better way to spot early signs of dementia: our eyesQuartz • July 11, 2019
- JOINTS ON A ROLLMore Americans are smoking marijuana than tobacco cigarettes nowQuartz • August 29, 2022
- Grown up techIt’s time for companies to digitally grow up. Here’s howQuartz at Work • January 31, 2023