Editor's Note: With Latin American Cuisine, we explore the wide world of food in South and Central America. Check back each week for recipes from Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, Peru, and beyond.
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The crispier, creamier cousin to french fried potatoes, yuca frita is a side dish and snack food found all over Latin America. In Cuba, it's served with a garlicky mojo sauce (or if you're at a Cuban restaurant in New York, more likely a cilantro sauce, originating from Victor's Cafe). In Colombia, you'll find them with a loose guacamole-like ají de aguacate, or in the snack aisle next to the potato chips. Head over to Peru, and it's a creamy cheese and chili sauce.
You can take the cheat-y route and make fried yuca (also known as cassava) out of a frozen bag, but unlike french fries, frozen yuca fries are invariably terrible, with a dry, stringy texture. There's also no point, considering how simple it is to make fried yuca out of fresh yuca—heck, it's even easier than making french fries.
The first step is par-boiling. Just like with potatoes, par-cooking yuca accomplishes two goals. First, is washes off excess starch which can burn, turning the yuca chips an unappealing dark brown and giving them a bitter flavor. Secondly—and more importantly!—it begins to break down the tough cell structure of the root, which is even stronger than that of a potato. Without par-cooking, a yuca root would be burnt before the interior ever softened.
Par-cooking also causes the surfaces and edges of the yuca to fray, increasing surface area and maximizing crunch factor.
Most recipes call for boiling the root whole before cutting it into batons and frying them. I wondered what would happen if I cut first then boiled.
Here's what I saw:
You can tell right away that the boiled-then-cut baton on the left is unevenly cooked. It has a creamy, gelatinized side (the side that was on the exterior), and a fluffy, starchy side. The baton that was cut-then-boiled was more uniform.
Which would fry up into a better chip?
I fried them both in 350°F peanut oil until crisp.
Again, you can see the difference. The boiled-then-cut chip on the left is smoother, with fewer crags and nooks in its surface, than the cut-then-boiled chip on the right. Biting into them revealed that the one of the right had not only far more crunch, but a much better creamy center. The one of the left was tender, but left a powdery, dry aftertaste in my mouth.
Cut-then-boil it is for me.
When peeling and cutting yuca, you have to work pretty quickly because it'll quickly discolor when exposed to oxygen. Peel one at a time, cut it, and submerge the pieces underwater immediately. Once the yuca is boiled and softened, you can refrigerator for up to three days before frying it, or freeze it indefinitely.
Unlike a potato which requires two dips in the fryer to get truly crisp, yuca is ready to eat after just one.
You can serve it with nothing but a squeeze of lime or bowl of guacamole, but I like to make a quick Peruvian-style sauce with mayo, lemon, and aji amarillo, a sweet-hot yellow pepper that you can buy as a paste in most Latin markets.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.