On Horse Fat, Fries, and Harold McGee

horsey

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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  • http://www.ieatthereforeiam.blogspot.com Thanh

    I think it sounds like a good idea. Finally get to the bottom of this horse fat mystery and why the fries tasted so much better. Maybe you can start a business selling horse fat in a can Pim. There might be a niche market out there of food bloggers who love their food enough that they are willing to stink up their kitchens in order to eat the best fries in the world. :-)

  • http://www.freshcatering.blogspot.com Rachael

    Now see, this is what makes you the coolest girl around. You have a question, you email Harold. Sure, why not.
    LOL. Really, you are the coolest. Thanks for the info!

  • http://angoulvant.net/sblog/ Stéphane

    Great investigation, I think all my questions about horse fat have been answered!

  • Lev

    So this makes you horsefat lover? Not to be confused with the Philip K. Dick nome du plume Horselover Fat.

  • http://www.chinesejetpilot.com Mat Bergman

    I read a study years ago (sorry, I can’t reference it) that Americans prefer the taste of rancid potato chips to fresh ones. It’s the rancid grease that gives potato chips their complex taste. In fact, most people didn’t even realize that the potato chips they enjoyed were rancid.

  • http://gastronomydomine.blogspot.com Liz

    Well we’re off to France (we’ve rented a manoir and are going self-catering, in order that I can get the requisite number of blog posts out of the holiday) in three weeks or so. If pans and butchers permit, I’ve been planning to cook fries in horse fat – Jeffrey Steingarten hasn’t been wrong yet, and I’ve been dying to have a go at this for some years now.
    What was the smell of the fat like? It’s had me wondering. Is it like sweaty horse or…something else?

  • Alexander

    Sorry for my bad English, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. You have a cooking experience and ask somebody famous for explanation. McGee didn’t write anything you couldn’t find online, but maybe searching the web is too ordinary these days.

  • http://kitchen-parade-veggieventure.blogspot.com Alanna

    YIKES. And no one’s yet reacting to “horse” fat? Maybe it fries up a skillet of great guinea pig! (OK OK yes this exposes an unworldly squeamishness about animal foods that other cuisines take for granted … but no one’s mentioned it. So I will.) I love that Harold McGee (and Amanda Hesser, recently, at Cookie Madness) is just as into the curiosity, the learning, as the average food blogger.

  • http://kitchen-notebook.blogspot.com/ Lucy Vanel

    I think it is perfectly appropriate to think of asking H. McGee for an answer. It certainly falls within my logic. Mainly because he would most likely appreciate such a question, and many people, including Pim, enjoy reading Dr. McGee’s work and would be thrilled to communicate with him. So it’s a win win situation. Another thought, not very scientific, about the horse fat comes from good old McDo, if they found beef tallow to be the ingredient that gives that little oomph to their fries, the horse fat could as well, and maybe even more – given the excellent flavor of the steaks that are sold by the chevaline butchers here.

  • http://xianrenaud.blogspot.com Christian

    Pim,
    Were they better than the duck-fat ones we had at Bouchon? Those were pretty darn tasty!
    Best, C

  • http://www.aminglingoftastes.com Julie

    That is so interesting! And I do think the final taste of a dish has just as much to do with the method, the cooks, even the ambience in which it is served. They sound delicious.

  • Jonathan

    Those fries were delicious. But I think McGee is right. The adventure of standing on a terrace in the pouring rain, holding an umbrella as Mikael carefully watched the potatoes seethe in the bubbling fat and removed them at just the right time — all this care and atmosphere may have had more of an effect than the horse fat.
    The fries weren’t nearly as astonishing as some of the things that David and Mikael prepared, for example a perfect roast of veal, done over an apricot wood fire, or Bernard Antony’s cheeses.
    The rendering fat did stink (and there was a lot of fat and it was rendered over a very slow fire, so the smell was around for a long time) but it was a strong rather than a rancid odor. Personally, I’m not sure I would go to the trouble of finding and rendering horse fat. The potatoes were very, very good, but they didn’t redefine fries. But this was a session in which the concept of “not going to the trouble” would have made no sense. There were no limits.

  • jeremy

    Hi Pim,
    Good story! I seem to recall some news feature that spoke of hindus outraged by the use of beef “flavoring” by McDonald’s on their french fries. I certainly don’t hold them as an example, but you can be sure that they do nothing without extensive trialling. I can easily imagine that a certain meaty quality would be highly desirable in fries and quite probably horse fat procures that sort of richness of flavor. Perhaps something could be found down the “umami” track?

  • http://www.theoldfoodie.blogspot.com/ The Old Foodie.

    Hello Pim, I am belatedly catching up with this post. I did a story on a complete horsemeat menu from 1868, on my blog in February. I did not include the complete 29 course menu, but if you are interested I can send it to you. The blog entry is at http://theoldfoodie.blogspot.com/2006/02/theme-too-far.html

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  • Anonymous

    is this all came from the horse…!?
    does horse now use for food business…!?

  • http://twitter.com/chefzadi Farid Zadi

    the flavor of horse meat is closer to beef than lamb is to beef.

  • Selin Timur

    horse fat is gross. Who the hell wants to eat mother natures creations?????/ Not me!!!! who want to eat something rode on and brushed so much like a human. So if you eat a horse you are eventually geting one step closer to eating a human

  • Selin Timur

    horse fat is gross. Who the hell wants to eat mother natures creations?????/ Not me!!!! who want to eat something rode on and brushed so much like a human. So if you eat a horse you are eventually geting one step closer to eating a human

  • Gwech D

    Horse fat comes from liposuction… So if you someday get one too, keep the fat and make your own fries! ;)
    Cooking fries in horse fat is a Belgium recipe, so next time you hear someone saying that they enjoyed Belgium fries you will know in what they were supposed to be cooked!
    I hope that you are a vegan, as otherwise I do not understand the hierarchy between different animals! Why would the life of a grown horse would be more valuable compared to the life of a lamb or a calf
    But I suppose that you can find any reason and explanation to convince yourself that there is a difference! ;)

  • Gwech D

    Horse fat comes from liposuction… So if you someday get one too, keep the fat and make your own fries! ;)
    Cooking fries in horse fat is a Belgium recipe, so next time you hear someone saying that they enjoyed Belgium fries you will know in what they were supposed to be cooked!
    I hope that you are a vegan, as otherwise I do not understand the hierarchy between different animals! Why would the life of a grown horse would be more valuable compared to the life of a lamb or a calf
    But I suppose that you can find any reason and explanation to convince yourself that there is a difference! ;)

  • Jesus Christ

    Yes, this all came from horse, and yes, horse now use for food business, use much (very good).

  • Jesus Christ

    You’re gross.