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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

On Horse Fat, Fries, and Harold McGee


Last week I wrote a little post about one of our cooking adventures while in the South of France last year, where we cooked our first batch of fries in horse fat, which our friend Mikael sourced from one of the horse butchers in Nice. Jeffrey Steingarten who is one of my favorite food writers –I have a soft spot for grumpy old men, especially the pedantic ones- also wrote about horse fat fries in one of his columns in Vogue magazine a while back.

Quite a few of you left comments and emails, asking what about the horse fat that makes it such a great medium for fried potatoes. Alas I had no idea. I could only tell you what I tasted. Frankly, I was quite curious about it myself.

And so I thought who'd be better to ask than Harold McGee? So I did. I fired off and email to Harold, who promptly wrote back:

Can you describe how the fries were different, or especially good? Horse fat is actually sort of intermediate between solid animal fats and liquid vegetable oils. It's harder (more saturated) than the latter, but softer than tallow or lard, not too different from chicken or duck or goose fat. So I wonder whether it was maybe a difference in the flavor more than the texture? Because I don't see how the consistency of the fat itself would make a distinctive difference in the texture of the fries. Tell me what you remember about them, and I'll see how good of a rationalization I can come up with!

Hey, I usually get by with random guesses or just outright make things up, so a rationalization would do me just fine, especially one from Harold McGee.

So I replied with my best recollection of the experience:

The fries were really delicious. It's hard to describe why I suppose, since it may have to do with the type of potato we used as well. We used Ratte Mona Lisa potatoes, by the way. The oil itself stank to high heaven during the rendering, but produced a beautiful, dark golden oil that had a strong, complex, almost meaty flavor to it. I was worried that the fries would somehow tasted 'horsey', which I suspected I wouldn't like. They didn't, luckily. They only tasted like fried potatoes, but with a deeper flavor than just regular cooked potatoes. They crisp up beautifully though, didn't crisp through and through but had a nice but not super crunchy skin and a soft, perfectly cooked inside.

Now, armed with my description, Harold wrote back:

So here's my horse-fat rationalization. Jeffrey Steingarten also remarks on the flavor, and the stink, and I think this may be the main thing. Horse fat is unusual among quadruped fats in having a lot of highly unsaturated fatty acids, which are reactive and finicky and readily go rancid, but on the way there can give an aromatic complexity to whatever is cooked in it. The general flavor of horse may also be different enough from beef and pork to add something unusual and enriching to the fried flavor. As for the texture of the fries: horse fat isn't so different from other animal fats as to do something different to the structure of the fried potato, either crust or interior. So I think horse-fat fries come out well because the people doing the cooking in horse fat are clearly obsessives and making sure they do the best they can with this rare ingredient!

Heh. What do you know, perhaps Harold is right in that it's less about the oil itself but more about the cooks! There's something about the cooks alright. We were so dedicated that even a rainstorm and a leaky patio didn't stop us. We had decided to do the frying on the covered pation because the stench during the rendering was so bad. But before we could get to the frying the rain hit, so Mikael and Jonathan were out there, one holding an umbrella -no, not over the cooks, over the fryer!- so the other could do the cooking. Think long extension cords exposed to all that water, ok, can you see our dedication now? Happily we all survived, the cooks and -more importantly- the fries.

Hmm...I think this calls for more experiments, which I would gladly do next time I find myself with a batch of horse fat and a deep frier. And hopefully we won't have to do it à la vapeur again!

What do you think?


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