Originally published May 26, 2006
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
THE RULES FOR making perfect French fries are pretty well-established. The potatoes — always russets — must be peeled, cut, soaked in water and then fried twice. Exact temperatures for the first and second frying have been established. (For the record, that’s 350 and 365 degrees F, respectively.) And if you ask me, the formula for hash browns should be just as firmly codified. Steam the shredded potatoes first, then brown them in butter and oil, first on one side, then the other — no stirring or messing around in between.
But the line between hash browns and French fries is fuzzy at best. It is spattered on one end with the butter and oil from pan-fried and oven-fried potatoes. Tempting and crunchy bits of straw potatoes are strewn across it somewhere near the middle, and further along, it’s blurred by latkes and those irresistible potato pancakes the Swiss call rösti. There are, in fact, more ways to fry potatoes than you can shake a skillet at. And somewhere in this vast no man’s land where almost anything goes stands an innocent plate of home fries. Ah, home fries: so simple, so appealing. Yet, depending on where home is, and who’s doing the frying, they can be made in any number of ways.
Like hash browns, home fries can be cooked before they’re fried, but they don’t have to be; some like to start with raw potatoes. Unlike hash browns, which are shredded, home fries should be chunky, preferably hand-cut into dice. And while hash browns should be composed of nothing more than potatoes and the fat in which they are cooked, home fries may contain — and generally do — all manner of onions, peppers, spices and herbs.
My brother’s first wife prepared the first home fries I ever ate. She used starchy baking potatoes, never waxy red ones, peeled them and cut them into even dice, then fried them, no more than a cup at a time in about 3 inches of hot corn oil. She was emphatic about using corn oil, and it had to be fresh from the bottle. Since they were fried only once, their crispness was fleeting, and we were encouraged to eat them promptly.
Later, when I was earning overtime as a brunch cook on Sunday mornings, I made home fries with potatoes that had been baked and chilled the night before. (Because my primary duties were those of a dinner cook, it could be fairly said that on the heels of a busy Saturday night, I was baked and chilled as well.) Stripped of their skins and tossed with chopped onion and peppers, the potatoes were cooked on a flat griddle in hot oil until they were crisped on two or three sides. People seemed to like them, but after those dinner shifts, I could never muster much enthusiasm for those potatoes.
In the decades that passed between my stint as a brunch cook and my current duties as a dad serving the occasional Sunday brunch at home, I never gave much thought to home fries until last winter, when I was drafted to provide some input on breakfasts for in-flight meals on a commercial airline. Working on “the breakfast project,” I ended up gaining at least as much information as I provided.
One of the breakfast menus included “home fries,” and I was a little vexed as to how these would turn out. The challenge with breakfasts served on a plane is, of course, that they must be reheated. This means no frying pan; no hot oil; and unless one is very clever, no crispy potatoes. Fortunately, my friend Andrea, the cook who worked for the airline, is very clever indeed. She came up with the idea of coating the potatoes with a mixture of spices and cornstarch that crisps up beautifully and, most important, reheats beautifully.
In a way, the potatoes remind me of those home fries my sister-in-law used to make. They are cubed and fried in oil, but with that extra layer of crispness and the added complexity of a smoky-spicy seasoning blend, these are better. Instead of starchy russets, waxy red potatoes are used here. They are denser, more toothsome, hold up better. And with all that cornstarch on the surface, who needs starchy potatoes?
The Best Home Fries
Cornstarch is the key to crispness in this adaptation of my friend Andrea’s home fries. I devised a sweet-and-salty spice rub with smoked paprika and a touch of cayenne to give the dish an extra kick.
For the Potatoes:
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes
Corn oil for frying
For the Spice Rub:
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ cup cornstarch
1. Scrub the potatoes, and cut them into 3/4-inch dice.
2. Put enough corn oil in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet to reach 2 inches up the sides of the pan, and heat the oil until it registers 375 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer or until a potato cube dropped in the oil floats immediately to the surface and begins to sizzle.
3. While the oil is heating up, whisk together the brown sugar, smoked paprika, oregano leaves, thyme leaves, salt, pepper, cayenne and cornstarch. Toss the potatoes in this mixture.
4. Working with 1 cup at a time, shake the excess spice mixture off the potatoes, and fry them in the hot oil until they are brown and crisp and cooked through, about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.