Will Food Delivery Ruin the Perfect French Fry?

Researchers have spent years looking for ways to prevent flawlessly crispy potatoes from going soggy in transit.

A chef flips french fries during a cooking demonstration at the Frietmuseum in Brussels.
A demonstration at the Frietmuseum (Thierry Roge / Reuters)

Shoestring, waffle, curly, or thick-cut: However you slice it, nearly everyone loves a deep-fried, golden-brown piece of potato. But that’s where the agreement ends and the battles begin. While Americans call their fries “french,” Belgians claim that they, not the French, invented the perfect fry. Who’s right? This episode, we take you right into the heart of the battle that continues to be waged over who owns the fry: Who invented it, who perfected it, who loves it the most? And then we take you behind the scenes into another epic fight—the struggle for the perfect fry. Can food scientists create a fry with the ultimate crispy shell and soft inside, one that can stay that way while your delivery driver is stuck in traffic? Plus, the condiment wars: Does mayo really have the edge over ketchup? Listen in now to find out!

Potatoes were domesticated in what’s now Peru approximately 10,000 years ago, but fries—sticks of potato cooked in oil so that a crispy shell surrounds a creamy interior—are a European invention. Exactly where and when these crispy delights evolved, however, remains a matter of debate. The Spanish brought potatoes to Europe from their South American colonies in the 1500s, but even though they undoubtedly fried pieces of potato in olive oil, the results wouldn’t have been fries as we know them. It took northern Europeans, with their animal-fat-based deep-frying, to create the true fry. But which northern Europeans: the Belgians or the French?

To get to the bottom of this mystery, we travel to Belgium to visit the world’s largest and smallest fry museums—the Frietmuseum, in Bruges, and the Home Frit’ Home micro museum, in Brussels. With the help of the museums’ founders, Eddy Van Belle and Hugues Henri, we examine the evidence—books, engravings, fairground posters, missing letters, and dead journalists—and declare a victor. And then, undaunted, Gastropod wades into another battlefield: the fight for the perfect fry.

Thanks to food scientists, this is a battle that has largely been won. “About 50, 60 years ago, it would be not unusual to walk into a restaurant and eat a fry that was soggy, doughy, mealy, limp, or very hard,” Kantha Shelke, the principal at the food-science and research firm Corvus Blue, told us. “You don’t get that today. Practically every restaurant has fries that are crisp and deliciously and sensually soft inside.”

We go behind the scenes with Shelke, as well as Deborah Dihel, the vice president of innovation at Lamb Weston, one of the largest producers of frozen french fries in the United States, to learn the scientific secrets of that success. We also hear about the failures along the way—from Lamb Weston’s fry-shaped graveyard to Shelke’s undercover operation to try to make a certain fast-food restaurant’s fries match up to those of its competitor. (Shelke wouldn’t reveal the name of either restaurant, but we have an educated guess!)

Today, however, there’s a new challenge facing fry scientists: the rise of delivery. “When you make fresh french fries and you put them in a closed package, you create a little sauna in there,” explains Dihel. Her team has spent years fighting soggy delivery fries—one of her colleagues even signed up to be an Uber Eats driver to better understand the challenge facing fries. Can they deliver a fry that stays crispy all the way from the restaurant to your front door? Listen in to find out!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.