September 2nd, 2011
12:00 PM ET

How to make the perfect French fry

By Amar C. Bakshi, CNN

Nathan Mhyrvold is a polymath inventor and avid chef.  But his kitchen isn't your normal operation. It has "centrifuges and freeze driers and spray driers and rotary evaporators" that he uses to cook and analyze what he cooks.  Mhyrvold studies the science behind cooking, and has written a 2,438 page, $600 book called Modernist Cuisine that is the touchtone for what is known as molecular gastronomy, which melds science and cooking to create incredible concoctions.  In the video above, Mhyrvold describes how to create the perfect French fry. And in the interview transcript below, he also discusses the motivations behind the book and what his kitchen looks like.

Amar C. Bakshi: What was the impetus for your epic cookbook, Modernist Cuisine?

Nathan Mhyrvold:  I decided about five years ago that there was a real need for a book like this. There is a tremendous number of cooking techniques that have been developed by chefs, scientists and others that really could be the foundation of a whole new cuisine or a whole new approach to cooking - except that it was really hard to learn because there was no place you could go learn it.  If you worked at this restaurant you’d learn the three tricks they figured out. If you worked at this other restaurant you’d get the ten tricks they figured out. As a result this way of cooking was largely opaque and inaccessible to most people that would be interested.

So I thought, “Well if in fact you took the effort to make a comprehensive list of all these things, it would work out really well and it would be a single place you could go to learn all about the new cuisine.”

These new techniques are motivated in part by a better understanding of food science and how the scientific principles of food work. I thought, “Well, gee, maybe you should also explain them so that people can have some insights and they can understand why does this work? Why do you cook this way versus another way?”

And so that was the basic genesis of the book because we decided that there was an opportunity to make a comprehensive guide to cooking techniques that the world had developed over the course of the last five or ten years.

Is this approach, the scientific approach to cooking, applicable to other arts and crafts?

Well, take architecture as an example. In architecture you really need to know how to make your buildings stand up. And it’s no fun making buildings that fall down, so an architect spends a fair amount of time also being an engineer or collaborating with engineers.

A chef is much less likely to worry about their cake falling down and is much less likely to delve into the science of it, but I think that those insights really happen. In terms of other kinds of art, in most other kinds of artistic endeavors, there isn't the depth and complexity of science that you’d find in food. If you paint, you have to understand something about oil paints and acrylic paints and maybe you don’t mix oil and acrylic on the same canvas because they’ll fall off, but that’s a relatively straightforward set of things you need to learn.

In the case of photography, once upon a time photographers had to learn about the dark room and chemicals and so forth and a good photographer did understand that. Of course these days that’s all gone and it’s all digital now, so then it’s more about understanding some software. So yeah; there’s some analogy to other areas.

I think the difference is that in cooking people for 1,000 years have been more or less happy to follow recipes without having all of the deeper insights. And as long as you’re not doing something really new, if you’re just sort of repeating the same thing – taking your grandmother’s recipe and making it exactly that way or maybe with a little tweak - you don’t need to understand all of the details because you’re just proscriptively following: “Do (a); do (b); do (c).” And, hey, you get the result.

Could you describe the perfect French fry?

Mhyrvold:  So one of our principles is that any good is worthy of investing time and energy to make the ultimate version. That doesn’t mean you always have to lavish the time and energy but if you have something like a hamburger or a French fry I think it’s worthwhile asking, “Well, what is the ultimate one?”

Well the next thing you get is this question of what do I mean by ultimate? It’s very personal; so when I say the ultimate French fry what I really mean is our idea of the ultimate French fry. I like fries that are crispy and one of the problems with French fries is you get a bunch of them and by the time you eat them they’re a soggy limp mess. They’re sort of like potato noodles almost. I don’t like that. Now if you do like that, then my ultimate won't be your ultimate, so that’s the first thing I have to say.

To make the French fries really crispy on the outside and the inside be perfectly cooked and fluffy and it have a great texture that’s a challenge, particularly if you want it to stay fluffy for a period of time because the interior is moister than the exterior. And so moisture from the inside will tend to migrate out and turn it into that–that limp fry which isn't my favorite.

Heston Blumenthal, a great chef in England had developed a technique where he cooks the French fries three times, and he uses a vacuum chamber to vacuum cook and dry the outside in between these cooking stages. And that makes a fantastic French fry.

Then we learned of some work done by some Polish scientists who had found that using a particular enzyme which attacks pectin, a compound that’s in jelly and jam and it’s in most fruit and vegetables, they could attack the outside of the French fry and make it even crispier. So then we decided to take it one stage beyond that and to use an ultrasonic bath. Ultrasonic baths are used for cleaning jewelry, cleaning all kinds of other delicate things. It works by having very high frequency sound. The high frequency sound literally rips the water apart because of these tiny bubbles called cavitation bubbles and those effectively scrub something for cleaning.

We put the potatoes in there and in that case the potato after cooking it once, the potato outside would get eaten away by these cavitation bubbles. So that would create a very large surface area, very crenulated rough surface to the potato, which when fried would become super-crisp.  And so far as we can tell, it’s the ultimate that we’ve found so far. Now the great thing about science and cooking is tomorrow someone could have a better idea and there could be a penultimate French fry that’s better than what we’ve done so far.

There’s nowhere one can go to eat this French fry right?

There’s no commercial establishment that makes them to my knowledge. That’s right. If I really want them I know how to make them. At our food lab, we crank them out every now and then.

Describe your food lab.

My company invents new technology and if you invent new stuff you have to have a laboratory where you can prototype it and test it and do experiments. And so we have a laboratory facility that’s got chemistry labs and biology labs and machine shops and we took one corner of that and we turned it into a cooking lab. And there we have a full kitchen, as well equipped as any restaurant, plus tons of scientific equipment you’d find in essentially no restaurants - centrifuges and freeze driers and spray driers and rotary evaporators and all kinds of scientific equipment, some of which we actually use to cook - other things we use to analyze what we cook.

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Topics: Food • Ideas • Innovation

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. diane

    Be serious Fareed! are you trying to make the "perfect presidency" with this analogy!?! lol

    September 2, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • Geo T

      You don't get it. Fried potatos is big business. Imagine inventing a cheap way of making better fried potatos. You win the lottery...

      September 4, 2011 at 9:14 am | Reply
  2. graham burgess

    Tomorrows french fry cannot possibly be the 'penultimate'. It would be the newest, 'ultimate' french fry, making yesterday's french fry the penultimate and the one from the day before that the ante-penultimate. 'Ultimate' simply means the last or latest, not necessarily the greatest. The Bugatti Veyron may well turn out to be the ultimate supercar, coming on the heels of peak oil and increasing climate change. It is, of course, the greatest....

    September 2, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  3. Manoj

    Hi Fareed .. Interesting but ill-suited to what we perceive in you : a serious individual who is trying to have an honest discussion through a medium addicted to trivia and bias. Please remain different. I am aware that imperfect french fries is a huge problem in the '1st' world , but with great courage and will, I am sure they will somehow survive this bleak scenario. Mean while, let's think about how we can provide, at-least, a half baked potato to millions of those empty stomachs all over the world and then we shall discuss the molecular aspects of fine dining. ..

    September 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  4. joeblow

    Sounds like crap. I like my food to taste like food. By the time you do all that to it, the "french fry" won't have a hint of potato taste, it will completely taste like the fast it's been cooking in. Disgusting.

    September 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      How much would such a portion French fry cost? I suppose the cooks and chefs couldn't be bothered with this clinical concoction. It's too costly!

      September 3, 2011 at 7:30 am | Reply
  5. Geo T

    Yes, Nathan is super smart, he does fantastic things but it would be good if he could sell his cookbook for substantially less than the almost 460 bucks he asks now.

    With 460$ Nathan a whole family in Somalia lives for a year.

    September 2, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  6. N d lakshmi

    Hindu women are not burnt on funeral pyre of dead husbands. It is not a Hindu custom. May be it is Muslim custom from your country Pakistan. Do not talk rubbish on tv. You are shame to cnn

    September 4, 2011 at 11:07 am | Reply
  7. Cindy Friedman

    Thanks! I've been pondering this for decades!!

    October 25, 2011 at 9:12 am | Reply
  8. London cleaning

    Fascinating but illsuited to what we recognize in you : a solemn single who is attempting to have a trustworthy dialogue through a medium dependent about trivia and predisposition. It would be ideal if you remain better. I am mindful that flawed french fries is a tremendous situation in the '1st' universe

    November 24, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply

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