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Pan Fried Potatoes

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John Thorne’s Maine Pan Fried Potatoes

John Thorne is not a celebrity chef or even a graduate of a prominent culinary school; in fact, he dropped out of college in 1961 and, by his own admission, more or less followed directions on packages when it came to cooking. But his Simple Cooking newsletter and the books that have come out of it are nevertheless some of the best food writing in existence, for two reasons.

Iron skilletFirst, Thorne is an obsessive experimenter and perfectionist with an insatiable curiosity. In the pages leading up to the recipe below, for example, he describes his experiences over multiple summers in Maine with fifty-pound sacks of different kinds of potatoes (Delta Golds, Kennebecs, Green Mountains, Carolas, Superiors, Chieftans…), trying them out in different recipes to get a sense of each potato’s qualities. For a recipe author, no better qualifications exist.

Second, Thorne is a superb writer. Most people who write books about food are not trained writers; as a result, they tend either to produce competent but somewhat clunky prose or to hire ghostwriters, who specialize in writing that is technically superior but very bland. Thorne’s writing, in contrast, is brilliant. He informs, educates, amuses, and inspires, all with an astounding economy of language. I bought his book Serious Pig because I assumed it would have a few good recipes for pork, and I love pork. In fact, it does, but I was so enthralled by the second chapter on potatoes that I ran home and tried the recipe below and didn’t get to reading about the pig until much, much later.

The keys to this recipe are the temperature and the size of the potato cubes: the more I experiment, the more I realize that Thorne really got it right the first time, especially the part about watching for bubbles and listening for that little hiss in the butter and not initially going above that temperature. Also, it really does pay to use a twelve-inch iron skillet: it wasn’t until I’d made this recipe a few times and gotten annoyed with how crowded my skillet was getting that I re-read it carefully and realized that my trusty old Lodge is only a ten-incher. (It may not seem like it makes much of a difference, but a twelve-inch circle is actually 44% larger than a ten-inch circle. I even went the extra distance and bought the 13-1/4″ Lodge, which is better still.)

• • •

Unfortunately, potato flavor is very evanescent. Pan-fried potatoes made from already-cooked potatoes are, at best, a pale imitation of the real thing. Made from scratch, their inside is meltingly tender and flavorful; their outside is more than just crisp… it is brown and crunchy. There are no shortcuts to this effect. To achieve it, pan-fried potatoes must be cooked—please mark this down—slowly.

The potato. As it turns out, the Green Mountain makes an excellent pan-fried potato. Some suggest you soak it in cold water first to remove some of the starch. We feel this is a mistake. True, the unsoaked potato is more likely to stick to the pan, but strategic thrusts of a thin-edged metal spatula can take care of that. Left in place, the potato’s starch caramelizes in the hot fat to create a dense, crunchy crust—a pan-fried potato that beats hollow almost any French fry we’ve ever eaten.

However, much to our surprise, good-flavored, waxy-textured potatoes also make fine pan fries. These take longer to cook and their crunchiness is not as spectacular, but they have more substance, both in the pan and in the mouth. The mealy texture of the Green Mountain allows so much water to evaporate that the pieces actually shrink while you cook them, and the resulting fry, like French bread, is largely crust. The pan-fried waxy potato, on the other hand, keeps its moisture. Frying it produces a crisp outside that enrobes a dense, molten-soft, and delicious interior. When pan-fried potatoes are to make a meal, a red-skinned Bliss, Norland, or Bison will give you more of one. Only the all-purpose Carola was a disappointment, without enough starch to give it crunch or the density to provide a really luscious interior.

The preparation. Choose your potatoes, and clean and peel them. We find four medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds) make a meal for two or a side dish for four, and—more to the point—completely cover the bottom of a 12-inch skillet. The smaller the cubes, the faster they cook, but also the more they crowd the pan: we cut ours into a half-inch dice.

The pan should be large and have a cover. Also, because the potatoes are to be cooked slowly over a low flame, it should have a heavy bottom to distribute the heat evenly. Cast iron is the traditional choice. As Robert P. Tristam Coffin wrote in 1944 in Mainstays of Maine, one of the few wrongs that war ever righted was that it got aluminum out of the kitchen and back into airplane bodies.

The fat. Use no cooking oil except olive or peanut oil. Any fat that suits your taste is fine—goose, duck, or chicken fat are all excellent. So is rendered lard or salt pork or bacon fat or suet or, of course, butter. Only good (not great) olive oil or peanut oil enhances the taste of potatoes; other vegetable oils simply replace it with their own, and despite what the cookbooks say, there is no such thing as a tasteless oil. Butter is the beginner’s best choice. It makes delicious fried potatoes, and it’s a sure guide to correct temperature. Ignore cooks who warn you to mix the butter with oil to keep it from burning. The secret to perfect pan-fried potatoes is gentle cooking… slow enough so the butter doesn’t burn.

The cooking. Put about two tablespoons of the chosen fat or oil in the pan. The bottom should be well oiled but not swimming with grease. We’re not deep frying, remember. The trick is to allow them to stick—just that much—to the bottom of the pan. No stick, no crust… which is why potatoes take forever to fry on a nonstick surface. To start, melt the fat slowly over a low-medium flame. After a while the surface of the fat will cover over with bubbles. These will begin to move, and a faint hiss can be heard. This is your cooking temperature. Don’t be tempted to turn the flame up higher. (You’ll feel the pull to do so, first when you put the potatoes in and there’s no loud sizzle… and later when you want things to hurry along. Resist.)

Distribute the potato pieces evenly over the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch or two of salt. Now cover them and let them cook for twenty minutes. The only noise you should hear is that gentle, bubbling hiss. At the twenty minute mark, lift off the cover (carefully, so that the moisture condensed on it doesn’t spill back into the pan) and put it aside. Give the potatoes their first turn, patiently using a flexible-edged metal spatula to free any potato flesh that has stuck to the pan. Here, and in all the turns to follow, you’ll find that your fingers are a necessary accessory tool.

Raise the flame just a little. Now turn the potatoes over with the spatula every ten minutes for the next half hour, for a total of four turns. The edges of the potatoes should be getting crisp. Raise the heat one more time—again, only a little—and now turn them every five minutes for the next twenty minutes.

Total cooking time is 1 hour and 10 minutes. Total number of turns, eight. Depending on the moisture content of the potatoes and the intensity and evenness with which your skillet radiates heat, the potatoes will be about done. Don’t despair if they need more cooking, just keep turning. By the time the inside has melted into a buttery soft amalgam, the outer surface will have turned brown and crunchy—and will stay that way. During the last minutes of cooking, mix in some minced fresh parsley and grind some black pepper over them. Serve out onto warmed plates and eat at once. You’ll find the meal worth the wait.

(Excerpted verbatim from Serious Pig, by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne, North Point Press)


Written by Bear

January 27, 2008 at 11:34 pm

3 Responses

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  1. So, the lid is on only for the FIRST 20 minutes, then reamains off for the remainder?

    I’m glad I found this recipe. I never would have done low heat for 70 minutes. Unthinkable! But a successful outcome would make it worth the wait.

    glen lincoln

    July 30, 2010 at 2:32 am

    • Yep, that’s right. And be careful when removing the lid: keep it level, or condensation will drip into the potatoes. Enjoy!


      July 30, 2010 at 2:44 am

  2. This is exactly how my Father made them. I have tried to make them as he did but never did get them quite right. He’s passed on a few years back but maybe now that I have found this recipe I can get it right…we’ll find out later tonight as they are on the stove top as I type!


    August 26, 2010 at 7:42 pm

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