Get your geek on and start up your kitchen gadgets – We’re going to try to cook one of Heston Blumenthal’s classics, tweaked for the home cook. Which one – Snail porridge? Bacon-and-egg ice cream? No! We’ll be doing our utter best to give Heston’s Triple Cooked Chips a run for their money.
And I’ve got absolutely everything I need to make it happen.
✓ I’ve got a reason.
✓ I’ve got a back story.
✓ I’ve got a recipe.
✓ And I’ve got silly glasses.
I am ready.
The reason: The elusive Great British chip (as in “fried potato strips” – not “wafer-thin fried crispy potato slices”).
Crispy on the outside. Fluffy on the inside. Did I say elusive?
I apologise for interrupting this post for an important message to 9 out of 10 chippies in Britain.
Hello, you can do considerably better.
End of announcement. Sorry, it had to be said.
The back story: I went to a wannabe-gourmet burger joint in the past week. The expression “Cheap as chips” was clearly lost on the owners of this joint, as a single portion of them cost £3.35, as much as five kilos (over ten pounds!) of Maris Piper potatoes. I also ordered a burger, which I shall ignore for the remainder of this post.
Potatoes don’t tend to turn into chips all by themselves, so I figured I’d give this establishment a fairer price comparison with other establishments. That’s where Heston Blumenthal’s original Triple Cooked Chips enter the story. Served at the three-starred Michelin chef’s pub The Crown at Bray for £3 per portion. I’ve had these chips at The Crown in the past, and they were excellent. Crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside – the way chips should be.
One would expect that chips priced at an even higher price point than this gold standard ought to be, at the very least, pretty good. So while I was waiting for the food to arrive, I was daydreaming about the most glorious chips ever.
The daydream ended abruptly when the chips arrived. They lacked any crisp, were stodgy and unseasoned. I sent them back for a bit longer fry, but even that didn’t remedy the situation, and I ended up leaving into the miserable gray. Alone, without umbrella, disappointed, my pocket a good deal lighter, feeling sorry for myself and still craving nice chips. Good thing it wasn’t raining.
I decided to make some proper chips myself, so I got myself a bag of Maris Piper potatoes and looked up the original Triple Cooked Chips recipe from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook. It’s a fairly simple recipe (to Heston’s standards, anyway). In short, if you’re feeling peckish and want some chips now, here’s what you’ll have to do:
|Start cooking yesterday. Peel Maris Piper or Arran Victory potatoes, cut them into 1.5cm square strips. Rinse them for a few minutes to wash off some starch. Boil them in salted water until almost falling apart, use a vacuum chamber at full power to dehydrate them (thrice!), chill them in the fridge, fry in oil at 130°C, vacuum chamber thrice again, freeze them, and finally deep fry again at 180°C. **|
Almost nobody has the requisite gadgets in their kitchen to make this happen (a vacuum chamber and a time machine). I thought it might be useful to build a cheap vacuum chamber, so I looked up vacuum pumps on eBay, and got scarred for life because people are freaks. So I’ve come up with an alternative recipe which can achieved by a normal home cook in a normal kitchen. It’s got all the appeal of the real thing, but takes a lot less time. I’ve made some tweaks to make the recipe my own, making me even slightly prefer my version over the original; but it’s possible that I’m biased, or simply delusional.
Understanding the original Triple Cooked Chips recipe
If we take a closer look at the above method, we see some steps that are intended to accomplish a particular goal, and some steps that describe how to optimize the recipe to get the best possible result.
- The potatoes are chosen for their moisture content (just shy of 22% dry matter) and flavour. The humble home cook has no means to check dry matter content of potatoes in store, but Maris Piper is an obvious choice as it’s an easy to find, flavoursome all-rounder here.
- Peeling them appears to be the norm.
- The size of the strips is an about getting the optimal balance between exterior crisp and interior fluffiness. Too thin and your chips will all crisp and no fluff; too thick and they’ll never crisp up. Chippies, take note.
- Washing off the starch makes the chips easier to handle and is supposed to make them more crispy. More on this later.
- Boiling helps the potatoes fluff up and create crevices all over their surface, which will help oil to soak in when frying.
- All the oil in the world won’t crisp up a wet chip – moisture is the enemy of crisp, so a vacuum chamber is used to drive off moisture. High school physics says that lower pressure causes water to boil off at lower temperatures.
- We then fry at 130°C. This is traditional for twice-cooked chips; it will drive off more moisture by turning it to steam. This creates cavities in the surface of the chip as steam escapes. As the potato is already softened, the effect is more dramatic than if we had started with raw potato. The temperature is chosen above the boiling temperature of water, but below the temperature at which browning generally takes place.
- We drive off yet more moisture by another trip to the vacuum chamber.
- Finally, we brown the chips to the desired degree, sprinkle them with salt and serve them immediately.
For our home recipe, we’ll follow roughly the same procedure, but with a few tweaks.
1. I cut my chips slightly thinner
I like my chips fairly crispy, so I cut them roughly 12mm thick. It’s a bit of a balancing game, and this thickness seems to work well for my recipe. For what it’s worth, the Triple Cooked Chips at The Crown in Bray were also cut slightly thinner than indicated in the Fat Duck cookbook.
2. I don’t rinse the starch off my potatoes when making chips.
I don’t doubt that washing off the starch for several minutes will make the chips easier to handle. In a commercial environment it would be desirable for potato strips not to stick to each other, but in a home kitchen this might not matter all that much. Another reason for rinsing off starch is given; it is supposed to make the chips crispier. This seems counter-intuitive to me. After all, prawn crackers are made of nearly pure starch and are amongst the crispiest things out there. So I tried a little side-by-side experiment, and found that the unrinsed chips were indeed slightly crispier (confirmation bias applies, but feel free to try this out for yourself). I’ve also tried a batch where I lightly dusted the potato strips with pure potato starch; these were without any doubt a lot crispier, but the crust ended up so thick and crunchy that it distracted from the pleasure of eating them.
3. I don’t boil my potatoes. I steam them.
In the original Triple Cooked Chips recipe, a lot of effort is made to drive off moisture. It doesn’t have to be like that. When I was in the process of developing my potato-and-gravy cupcakes for Britain’s Best Dish, I had trouble with the moisture content of boiled potatoes. To make a long story slightly less long, the solution was to steam the potatoes instead. As a bonus, this also means less of the potato’s flavour and nutrition leaks away into the boiling water. Not to worry, though, they’ll still be plenty unhealthy.
4. I don’t have a vacuum chamber – so I use the microwave instead.
You’ve likely got a microwave in your home kitchen, right? The Fat Duck Cookbook mentions the microwave as one of the methods considered to help dehydrate his chips – Heston discarded this method, not because it didn’t work, but because it was deemed “too inconsistent”, according to the book. I could only imagine this inconsistency being the result of the microwave heating up food unevenly. But guess what – it is possible to work around this. One can either cook at a lower power setting (which gives the heat more time to distribute through the food), or by nuking full blast for a while, rearranging the chips on the plate and blasting at full power again. The latter is the method I tend to use, and to good effect.
I’m aware there are other methods to drive off moisture from chips, but they invariably take a lot more time.
5. I don’t refrigerate or freeze my chips. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
After the chips are boiled, they are chilled in the fridge to make them firm enough to handle (and condensation helps drive off yet a bit more moisture). The chips are indeed very delicate when they’ve just been boiled or steamed. But with less moisture to begin with, a few extra cracks in the chips will only make them more crispy. So the chips go from steaming right into the microwave. As far as freezing is concerned, I do find that it improves the crust, but negatively impacts the texture of the interior. It seems to make the chips more starchy. Maybe due to ice crystals poking through the potato cell walls?
6. I don’t fry my chips in peanut oil – though I’m not opposed to it.
Peanut oil and sunflower oil are both great frying oils which are relatively flavour-neutral. Both of them have a high smoke point. If you can afford paying twice as much for your frying oil, I’d recommend frying in peanut oil – it is slightly higher in saturates and this results into crispier chips. I’d probably use peanut oil if I had a cook-off to win. But I otherwise I tend to use sunflower oil for flavour-neutral frying – Seriously, it’s fine.
7. I refuse to drench my chips in vinegar
Yeah yeah, Brits like their chips with salt and vinegar. Salt and sour. But the moment you splash vinegar over your chips, this will introduce moisture we’ve painstakingly tried to remove from the chips, and they’ll go soft in no time. It’s no wonder British chippies hardly ever serve crispy chips – most Brits wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. That salt-and-vinegar flavoured bag of crisps you had a while back shows a solution. As it turns out, a bit of crystalline citric acid (E330) will go a long way – and you’ll find it at most Asian supermarkets. Alternatively, serve your chips with a dip by the side, such as ketchup or mayonnaise. Entire populations do.
By now, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the recipe we’ve arrived at. So without further ado, here it is, in all its glory.
Peel as many Maris Piper potatoes as you’d like to turn into chips. If you’re outside the UK, you might want to go for whichever potato is indicated for chips/fries in your country (start your search engines!).
Cut your potatoes into strips 12-15mm thick. Don’t worry about the edge pieces being slightly thinner – They’ll become extra crispy bonus bits for you. We’re going to steam them. If you have a steamer, this is your opportunity to use it for junk food. Otherwise, you might need to improvise a bit; I’ve used a metal sieve from the bargain shop, sitting just above boiling water. Maybe you’d get a Chinese bamboo steaming basket. If you can, spread out your chips into a single layer. I couldn’t, because I was too forgetful to do so.
Carefully spread the chips out on a plate in a single layer, and microwave on full power for 90-120 seconds to drive off excess moisture. Rearrange the chips and repeat. They should now have slightly dried out and fluffed up a bit. You’ll probably break a few while handling them. Never mind – they’ll be delicious.
Deep fry the chips in oil at 130°C until a pale crust begins to form. Do not overcrowd your cooking vessel – it’s far better to cook several small batches than one big one. This is because the moisture in the chips will keep the temperature of the oil down until the water is boiled off. If using a thermometer to control the temperature, you can keep an eye on the temperature; first it will drop to around 100°C and then slowly climb again. Once the temperature has climbed back to around 130-140°C, enough moisture should have evaporated that a slight crust can be felt while moving the chip around – about 5 minutes if your batch is small enough.
Once a batch has a pale crust, remove from the oil with a slotted spoon or similar and start the next batch. Drain briefly on kitchen paper, cooling rack, heat-proof colander or metal sieve (an excess of oil on the kitchen paper won’t help your chips to crisp up). By now you should be able to see the surface of the chips develop cracks and crevices (as visible in the centre chip below), and this will allow extraordinary crisp after the final fry.
Microwave the chips on full for another minute or two. Then either refrigerate them, or freeze them, if you must – but I’d suggest to finish frying them at 180°C until golden brown and crisp. During this browning stage, get them to that point where no amount of additional frying could possibly make them look any better. Briefly drain on kitchen paper, sprinkle with the best salt you have and optionally a bit of citric acid you want a bit of acidity; using liquid vinegar at this point would be a waste of perfectly good chips.
And there you have it – perfectly crispy/fluffy home made chips, cooked in under an hour from start to finish.
And what if all this is still too much work? Surprisingly, some frozen chips are pretty decent. And if you’ve come this far, at least you’ll know what to look for.
** Heston Blumenthal has published several versions of his recipe over the years – my short description above is based on the Fat Duck Cookbook version. Alternate versions do not require a vacuum chamber but require extended cooling periods – an hour between every cooking stage. This includes the recipe published in “Total Perfection”, which prescribes frying at 190°C, and that in “Heston Blumenthal at home”, which suggests cutting the chips as much as 2 cm thick and returns to frying at 180°C for the browning stage. Apparently, even perfection isn’t set in stone.