Fries are my favourite form of prepared potato — even the freezer ones from the grocery store. They reach their peak when they’re freshly made, piping hot, crispy on the outside, and tender on the inside. Which is why dousing my home-cooked fries with vinegar is such an inner struggle: Keep them plain and basic? Or sauce them after the fact, which tastes good but feels sad and wet. Turns out, I’ve been doing it backwards this whole time. The best way to get that salty, vinegar punch without having to endure soggy fries is to thoroughly season the fries before you bake them.
I’ve always liked the UK and Canadian affinity for lip-puckering, sodium-stacked French fries. The potato chip version is equally popular (maybe even more), but I think the thick potato part of a fry balances and distributes those strong flavours better. However, the idea of drizzling a watery substance onto something fried and crispy is a culinary oxymoron, and it gives me a moment’s hesitation every time. The result is the same every time: Wet fries. Humid fries. I always regret it.
It occurred to me that flavorful fries didn’t have to be this way. Instead of using salt and vinegar as a condiment, why not use it as a purposeful ingredient like a marinade or a rub? I set out testing this salt and vinegar French fry recipe with confidence, but there was a tiny doubt lingering in the back of my mind. What if vinegar has to be suspended in water in order to be tangy? Maybe the flavour would “cook off.” After all, you can use vinegar to wipe down countertops and clean other surfaces with no lasting sour aroma once it dries. The benefits that I hoped for were dry, crispy fries with none of the wetness, and with a noticeable salty vinegar flavour that would adhere to each fry instead of settling at the bottom of the pan.
How to pre-season fries
I got a bag of shoestring french fries, extra crispy but otherwise unseasoned, a bottle of Heinz malt vinegar, and fine sea salt. I made three batches: one that was tossed in a vinegar and salt solution for a minute or so and then immediately spread onto a foil-lined baking sheet, a batch that was marinated in salt and vinegar for 15 minutes and spread onto a foil-lined baking sheet (that I sprinkled with extra salt), and a control batch to make sure I wasn’t imagining phantom vinegar flavour.
The results were phenomenal. I very much enjoyed both sets of fries (all three, really). The quick toss ‘n bake batch was a pleasant hint of vinegar, and even though the salt dissolved in the liquid during the pre-seasoning, it was well balanced and delicious. This style is perfect for folks who would enjoy a leveled-up frozen fry but might not necessarily guess what they’re eating is vinegar. The fries that soaked for 15 minutes were also fantastic. As I hoped, the marinating allowed the vinegar flavour to penetrate deeper and the final flavour was discernibly vinegar. The extra sprinkle of salt just before baking batch #2 definitely stuck to each fry and it felt a lot more like the assault of tangy saline I was looking for.
The fries in both batches were well-crisped — more so than the control batch. A welcome side-effect of extra browning from the acid in the vinegar also occurred. A similar phenomenon happens when making bagels and pretzels. According to the Vegan Physicist in this post, the lye or baking soda that’s added to the boiling water (or vinegar in this case) will trigger the Maillard reaction in a significant way, even under the relatively short bake time of these fries.
The recipe for these salt and vinegar fries can be adjusted depending on whether you want them lightly seasoned or stronger. I imagine you could marinate them for even longer to get a little more of the vinegar flavour, but after a certain point I’m not sure they would absorb more. Try these with your own hand-cut fries and let me know in the comments how it turns out.
Salt and Vinegar Freezer Fries
- 115 g of fries
- 1 ½ tablespoons of malt vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt (plus extra for sprinkling before the bake)
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Line a sheet pan with foil or parchment paper. There’s no need to oil the foil.
In a large, wide-bottomed bowl (even a skillet would work for this), drizzle the vinegar over the french fries and sprinkle with salt. Toss the fries in the salt and vinegar until evenly coated. For a stronger flavour, leave them in the solution for 15 minutes, stirring and tossing occasionally. When ready, use tongs or a fork to move the fries onto the sheet pan, leaving the excess vinegar in the bowl. Sprinkle them with extra salt. For a lighter flavour, spread the fries out on the sheet pan right after a brief toss in the salt and vinegar.
Bake for 20 minutes. Gently release the fries from the foil or parchment and enjoy immediately.