Freshly cooked potato crisps are a far cry from the bagged variety, but what variety of spud should you use, how do you ensure they go crispy without burning – and is the superior taste worth all the effort?
We may not have the proudest culinary history on the planet, but if there’s one thing the British Isles does well, it’s potato crisps. No other nation can boast such a dazzling kaleidoscope of options. Few of us would turn down a hand-cut heirloom variety, fried in Spanish olive oil and seasoned with a pinch of Himalayan pink salt, yet, deep down, we’re all partial to a cheese and onion Hula Hoop, too. Roast beef and mustard, stilton and port, Marmite, haggis and pepper … you name it, we’ve made crisps out of it. Or, at least, crisps pretending to taste a bit like it.
I’m not claiming you can, or indeed should, ever try to recreate such rarefied gourmet delights at home – but a freshly fried potato crisp is the one flavour you can’t get over the counter. It’s hard to beat a bag of ready salted for soaking up a pint, but if you want something to savour, make your own. But, be warned, it’s a slippery slope.
There is surprisingly little disagreement on the optimum potato to use for crisps. American recipes universally recommend russets, which you don’t see much here, while Kerstin Rodgers, AKA Ms Marmite Lover, suggests “good frying potatoes”. The chef Shaun Rankin calls for maris pipers, which is my idea of a good frying potato, being fluffy enough to please and sturdy enough to keep its shape in the fryer. Maris pipers it is, although king edwards, arran victories, roosters or the purple violetta would also do.
Rankin, as befits a man at the helm of a Michelin-starred restaurant, peels potatoes to make crisps. This is a waste of both time and flavour, as far as I’m concerned, so I’m not going to bother.
Most recipes agree the potatoes should be sliced “as thinly as possible”, as Rodgers has it. Martha Stewart goes for a 1/8” or 6mm cut, which looks distinctly chunky beside J Kenji López-Alt’s 3mm versions: “thin enough that they [don’t] come off as tough, but thick enough to add some real heft and weight to the crunch”. Any slimmer, and they shatter too easily in the mouth; any thicker, and they cook too slowly to crisp up properly before burning.
If you haven’t already invested in a mandoline for the purpose of making dauphinoise, then I’d recommend you do so immediately. They’re cheap, they’re small and they’re surprisingly useful – plus, thinly slicing anything in quantity is a bit of a faff. As Vice’s Munchies puts it: “You are welcome to do this with a knife, but you will want to kill yourself.”
So far, so harmonious. Where my recipes differ is in their treatment of the potatoes after slicing but before cooking. Most make some attempt to bring down the starch content of the spuds so they don’t brown too quickly in the oil and burn before they’ve crisped up, as happens with Rankin’s recipe.
To this end, Rodgers simply soaks them for a couple of hours; Munchies washes them in three changes of water, “jiggling them around a bit”, then soaks them for 30 minutes; and Bon Appetit magazine rinses them until the water runs clear, then steeps them in a mixture of white vinegar and water for between 30 minutes and two hours. López-Alt, meanwhile, briefly cooks the slices in a pan of boiling, acidulated water instead, on the basis that “heating up starch granules in the presence of water causes them to absorb water and expand. Eventually, like little water balloons, they burst, expelling the starch into the water where it can be safely dumped down the drain.” The acid in the vinegar, he says, will slow down the breakdown of pectin in the potato, preventing the slices disintegrating in the process.
López-Alt has clearly, as ever, done his homework on this, but to be frank, even after eating my weight in crisps, I find it hard to decide which approach works best. As long as you get rid of as much starch as possible, you can’t go wrong. I do find, however, that López-Alt’s blanched slices, although they cook more evenly than the others, seem to take longer to crisp up, possibly because they don’t absorb oil as quickly. It’s also slightly less of a faff to soak the slices rather than blanch them, which is all I need to be sold on that particular idea. I do wonder, however, whether American tastes in crisps may differ from mine. I like a little bit of browning, whereas he chases a “thin, crisp, pale yellow, super-salty” ideal – “fundamentally, a chip should not be any sort of brown, nor the flavors that come with it”. If you like that idea, check out his recipe.
There are no two ways about it: crisps need to be fried. Stewart bakes hers, and they’re nicer than any of my tasters expect, but sturdy rather than light, and hard rather than crunchy. The temperature is paramount. Rodgers suggests 90C/194F, which I find too low; maybe I’m impatient, but turning up the heat gives quicker, better results, though Rankin’s 170C/338F seems a little excessive. López-Alt’s 160C/320F is a happy compromise: hot enough to cook the chips through before they absorb too much oil; cool enough not to turn them into burnt offerings. You can use whatever heat-safe oil takes your fancy, although I favour something neutral to bring out the flavour of the potato.
Season while they’re still hot, with Stewart’s cayenne, black pepper, smoked paprika … or just salt. Save the fancy stuff for the pub.
The perfect crisps
(Makes 1 big bowl)
1kg maris pipers or similar potatoes
Neutral oil, to fry
Salt or other seasoning
Slice the potatoes about 3mm thick and put in a large bowl. Rinse in cold water until the water runs clear, then soak for 30 minutes.
Heat a large, deep pan about a third full with oil to 160C/320F. Meanwhile, drain the potatoes and dry very well with kitchen towels.
Fry in batches (they will take longer if you overcrowd the pan), stirring as you first add them, until golden and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and season lightly. Eat immediately, or allow to cool, then store in an airtight container (they should be good for 24 hours or so).
Crisps: does anyone make them better than the British and Irish, and what are your favourite varieties from home or abroad? And would you bother to make your own?
This article was written by Felicity Cloake, for theguardian.com on Thursday 28th April 2016 08.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010