Until the middle of the previous century, fries were still fried in precarious conditions. Cooking occurred over coals and so soot and ash particles would fly around and end up in the fat. There were no extractor hoods and keeping the cooking temperature at the right level was a tricky business. Sometimes the entire snack kiosk caught fire, an occurrence that in time became so common that it no longer even made the local press. The arrival of butane in gas bottles also heralded considerable improvements to the equipment. Today, a snack kiosk will have high-performance, professional installations with accurate thermostats and cleaning mechanisms.
The quality of the potatoes has also largely stabilised. The Bintje is the most popular variety for fries. Good fries require quality potatoes with a diameter of between 9 and 14 cm. They are cut into fries that are 9 to 14 mm wide and 5 to 12 cm long although this may vary depending on the region. Some snack kiosk operators and chefs swear by thoroughly rinsing the fries and then drying them, others don’t.
It is undeniably a Belgian specialty to work using raw potatoes. These are harvested once a year in September or October. At the beginning of the season, the new potatoes consist primarily of starch and water. In the months that follow, the starch tends to transform into sugar, especially if the potatoes are not kept at an optimum storage temperature. Potatoes with a high starch content will tend to yield light-coloured fries when fried; those with a high sugar content are darker. The result is that fries made from newly harvested potatoes often have a light colour and at the end of the season (in August) they are darker. A good snack kiosk operator understands the art of taking that into account when frying so that he can offer his customers as constant a quality of fries as possible.
For a long time, fries made from hand-peeled potatoes were reputed to be the best. Nowadays, pre-peeled potatoes are of a similar quality to hand-peeled ones and most snack kiosk operators use peeled potatoes that are delivered fresh daily by their potato supplier. Not just because that is less labour-intensive, but also because in the meantime, in Flanders by law a water treatment installation must be in place for you to be allowed to peel them yourself, or the rinse water has to be collected in a separate container which is then picked up by a specialised company. However, such installations are almost the same size as the snack kiosk, which is not feasible for many operators. In Wallonia, the legislation is less far-reaching and as a result, potatoes are more often still peeled by hand at the snack kiosks.
In the past, most fries were fried in animal fat, namely beef tallow. Today, every snack kiosk operator has his own preferred fat: some still swear by beef tallow, others prefer a vegetable fat, and other still stick to their ‘own’ mixture of the two. None of the different types of fat is by definition healthy or unhealthy, it all depends on what you do with it. A great number of factors play a role. The snack kiosk operator must use the type of oil or fat best suited to the conditions in the snack kiosk, in other words, one that is suitable for heating for long periods at high temperatures, and make sure that it is changed often enough.
Furthermore, the choice of fat also depends on the personal taste and preference of the operator. In contrast to the fries at McDonalds that taste the same in Helsinki, Madrid or Chicago, each Belgian snack kiosk has its own specific flavour and specialty. One of the most important elements of the frietkot culture here is that two operators even within the same village will make fries that taste different, and their respective customers will feel that the fries of their ‘regular snack kiosk’ taste the best. It is important to keep cherishing this diversity.
The process of frying twice is also typically Belgian. The precooking is not actually deep-fat frying but more a question of cooking in fat. The water in the potatoes cooks and the steam escapes. That is why the temperature during precooking may not be too high, otherwise the strips immediately seal and you get flat fries. The best temperature is 130° to 150°C. A good operator also takes into account the percentage of sugar in the potatoes: at the end of the season there is more sugar so that the fries brown more quickly. Then it is better to precook them slightly shorter at a slightly lower temperature.
Frying them a second time makes the fries crunchy. That is when the ‘strips of mash’ are sealed as it were. That has to occur at a sufficiently high temperature, because otherwise the strips absorb too much fat. The final frying is best done at a temperature of around 170 to 175°C. It is fine to leave a few hours between the two bouts of frying. When the strips cool down, the ‘temperature shock’ is even greater so that the ‘strips of mash’ seal quickly with perfect fries as a result: soft inside and golden and crunchy on the outside. The art is to get them like that!
It is best to fry the fries in small portions so that they ‘swim’ in the oil or fat. The optimum ratio is 12 to 15 litres of fat or oil in the deep-fat fryer for 3 to 4 portions. So the ratio of chips to fat is often far lower than when fries are fried at home, which is one of the reasons why fries from the snack kiosk taste better.
And finally, let them drain, give them a shake, sprinkle on (a little) salt, and they’re ready!