When fried food beckons, try these oven-baked fries

Oven baked fries Jenna Cho

I don't know about you, but when a craving hits me, it doesn't just go away with time. It nags and nags and nags until I address it.

A craving for sweets is one thing, but I find it's almost harder to deny a craving for salty, greasy foods. If I opt to eat salads and healthy, clean foods for a week, at the end of that week, I will invariably want a good plate of fatty French fries. Preferably smothered in some fake yellow gooey deliciously disgusting "cheese."

I came across a recipe for oven-baked fries on npr.org a couple of years ago and was immediately taken by the promise of deliciously crispy fries straight from the oven, not the deep fryer. Could baked fries really be as good as fries plunged in a vat of fat, twice?

NPR, which adapted the recipe from the kitchen experts over at Cooks Illustrated, explains how the recipe achieves the qualities of deep-fried fries by baking: "Deep-frying is a delicate battle between oil and water — the water evaporating at high speed, repelling the oil as it browns and sets the crust. When you oven-fry, you replicate that central act of deep-frying by evaporating moisture from the inside of the food and browning the outside. An oven isn't nearly as efficient as a deep fryer, so it's going to take a little longer. ... But with sufficiently small pieces of food, sufficiently high heat and a bit of surface oil, the switcheroo can just about be pulled off."

Yeah, what they said.

I let the recipe sit in a binder full of recipes for years. I'm not sure why. Then I let a bag of good potatoes donated to the cause go bad in my pantry. This, even though I was in a prolonged state of longing for fries and finally addressed the issue by cheating and going to Five Guys.

Finally, when I was gifted with yet another handful of handsome russet potatoes, I decided it was now or never. I peeled. I chopped. I forgot to rinse the potatoes under cold water, which apparently helps remove some of the starch from potatoes, making them less likely to stick and more likely to be awesome.

The results were still mighty fine, despite the sloppiness of my approach. Crispy, airy, light. A little limper than I'd like, but I blame that entirely on my haste and the fact that I skipped the rinsing part.

I think the preheating of some base oil on the baking sheets is key to helping develop that main coat of crispiness as the potatoes first make contact with the hot oil.

These fries can't compete with what I consider the king of fries: fries fried in duck fat, at the appropriately named Duckfat eatery in Portland, Maine. But they're just as satisfying as fries deep-fried in vegetable or peanut oil, and they require so much less oil that I'm willing to go through the effort to make them and skip the drive-thru window next time.

I'm already planning future batches. I think I'll cut these up into thinner sticks 'cause I like my fries crispy. I'm eyeing some fresh rosemary sprigs that will come out of the oven all crunchy and concentrated with flavor, all the while infusing the fries with notes of the herb.

I also have some smoked sea salt that I think will give a batch of these fries a deep, meaty flavor.

Jenna Cho blogs about food on theday.com. Email her at j.cho@theday.com.

Oven fries

From npr.org, which adapted a recipe from "Perfect Vegetables," by the editors of Cooks Illustrated

4 large russet potatoes, scrubbed

5 teaspoons peanut oil (I used vegetable oil because I didn't have any peanut oil. I'd recommend going with peanut. All the cool kids are using it.)

Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the potatoes into ½-inch sticks.

Rinse the potatoes in a bowl under cold running water until water runs clear.

Add ½ teaspoon of oil each into two rimmed baking sheets and coat the bottoms. (The bigger the sheets, the better — you want the fries to be able to spread out onto one layer for maximum crispness.)

Place sheets in the lower-middle and upper-middle racks of the oven. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Now you'll steam the potatoes. Add enough water in a pot to reach just under your steamer basket. Bring water to a boil at high heat.

Add potatoes to the steamer basket, cover the pot, dial the heat down to medium and steam for about 5 minutes. The potatoes will look shiny but will still be fairly firm.

Blot the potatoes dry using paper towels or clean kitchen towels.

Pour 4 teaspoons of oil into a large bowl. Use clean hands to toss potato sticks in the oil to coat evenly. Salt and pepper to taste.

Remove baking sheets from oven. Carefully add potatoes to the sheets. (You'll hear them sizzle upon contact with the hot oil, but the oil shouldn't splatter.) Spread the potato sticks out so that they're in a single layer.

Bake for 20 minutes, remove from oven, flip the potatoes over, then pop the baking sheets back in the oven, switching their rack positions.

Bake for another 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are golden brown.

Feast.

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