I'm not sure where or when my fascination with poutine began. All I know is that I'm always compelled to order it when I see it on a menu, and that my perception of its quality is directly proportional to my level of inebriation. When I'm sober enough to know better, most poutine strikes me as pretty sub-par.
For the uninitiated, poutine is a dish born out of rural Quebec that consists of three ingredients: fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds. It's simple enough, but as with anything seemingly simple, the devil is in the details. Poutines fail because they don't strike the right balance of textures and flavors. A good version starts with a bed of fries that have crisp exteriors and soft, pillowy interiors. On top of that should be a generous portion of bite-size soft cheese curds that have a distinct squeak to them. Smothering the fries and curds is a brown gravy that has just enough beefiness and tang to make it stand out, but not so much that it overwhelms the other two components.
This past summer I went up to Montreal and managed to squeeze in a fair amount of poutine eating. Some examples I tried were so good—like the one from Comptoir 21 shown above*—that I wondered why I couldn't get something like that back in New York. Ever since, I've been on a journey to develop the ultimate poutine recipe, and I'm now ready to share it with you all. If you're looking for a poutine that you can whip up after you've already shotgunned a six-pack, this is not the poutine for you. There are no shortcuts here.
*Amazingly, this one had a vegetarian but still very meaty-tasting gravy.
Cheese curds can either be the easiest or most difficult step when making the ultimate poutine. If you have a source for great fresh cheese curds, it's as simple as buying them. If you don't, you're going to have to make them yourself. (Yup, I said I wasn't going to take any shortcuts here.)
The traditional curds for poutine should be soft, have a mild tanginess, and squeak when you bite them. This squeak is the result of long elastic proteins that form during the curd-forming process, which rub against your teeth as you chew. These proteins only exist for a short period of time, since they're dependent on the pH of the cheese. After the curds are more than a day old, their pH lowers and they lose their squeak (here's an explanation of the science of this process for those interested).
This means you need a source of incredibly fresh, day-of cheese curds, which can be a challenge for a lot of us. In my home base of New York, for instance, Beecher's Cheese is the only source I know of, although it's a bit of gamble because I've gotten both squeaky and none-squeaky curds there, and their curds have a sharper flavor than I like in my poutine. Still, they're the best bet in the area.
If you can't find great curds, the next best option is to make your own. With the right tools and patience, it's not all that difficult. I followed this recipe exactly, which required me to buy thermophilic culture, calcium chloride, and animal rennet, all inexpensive and easily obtainable online.
I started by heating the milk to 90°F, then added the thermophilic culture and calcium chloride and holding it at that temperature for an hour. Next I stirred in the rennet and waited another hour until the milk coagulated. With a long slicing knife, I cut the coagulated cheese into curds (whey separates from the coagulated milk as you do this) and let it rest for five minutes. Then I slowly brought the temperature of the curds and whey to 102°F over a period of 30 minutes. Once there, I cooked the curds at that temperature for another 45 minutes. I then drained the curds through cheesecloth and while they were quite nice looking, they had yet to develop a squeak.
The next step was to "cheddar" them while keeping them warm, which I did using a steamer insert above the remaining hot whey. After letting the cheese settle into a cohesive mass for 15 minutes, I cut the block in two pieces and flipped them every 15 minutes for two hours. The cheese was then solid enough for me to break apart into bite-size curds, which I seasoned with salt.
The curds have a great squeak and mild tanginess, perfect for poutine. I'll admit I'm not a cheesemaker, so I'm still tinkering with my technique (I'd like to get a little more tanginess in my future batches), but overall this is by far the best bet for those of us who don't have a proper cheese curd source nearby.
The main characteristic of poutine gravy is that it's brown, which usually means it's made with beef stock, although places like Comptoir 21 show that a roasted vegetable gravy can be just as good.
I stuck with the more common beef version, but didn't want to use canned beef stock because store-bought ones are never quite good enough. They're always too strong, too weak, artificial tasting, and/or overly salty. So I needed my own stock with just enough beefy flavor to give it some backbone, but not so much that it overpowered the curds and fries.
A traditional beef stock usually starts with marrow bones roasted with tomato paste, which creates a deeply brown and flavorful stock. Since I wanted something more subdued, I skipped the roasting and made a hybrid beef and chicken stock. I started by browning oxtails, beef shin bones, veal bones, and chicken necks in a large stock pot. After finishing those, I added carrots, celery, garlic, and onions, which turned a beautiful brown as they picked up the fond left behind from the roasted bones.
I deglazed with chicken stock, then added the meat, bones, and just enough water to cover, along with aromatics like thyme, parsley, bay leaves, and peppercorns. I let this simmer for three hours, then strained out the solids and separated the fat using a fat separator—you can also chill the stock and remove the hardened fat that collects on the surface. As for the meat from the oxtails, you can either shred it and add it to the finished gravy, or save it as a snack or pasta topper.
With the stock ready, the rest of the gravy was straightforward: I started it with a flour-and-butter roux, and once that was a golden blond color, I slowly whisked in the stock, simmering it until thickened.
Poutine gravies usually have a touch of tanginess, so I whisked in a tablespoon of rice vinegar, which is delicate enough to brighten a bit without making the gravy too sour.
Ultra-crisp fries are essential for poutine, since they need to retain their crunch even after the gravy has been poured on top. I knew I wanted a thick-cut frite-style fry for this, since those have a good ratio of crisp exterior to pillowy potato center.
I cut my skin-on russets into 1/2-inch strips and used the double fry method—first cooking them at a lower temperature to soften the potatoes, then frying them at a hotter temperature to crisp them. Typically I wash off the starch before frying the potatoes, but I wondered if leaving the starch on would yield even crunchier results, so I tried out both ways.
Both sets of potatoes cooked similarly on the first low-temp fry, but the non-rinsed fries almost instantly turned a dark brown in the hotter 425°F oil. More importantly, the rinsed ones were both crispier on the outside and softer within. Rinsing it is.
To bump up the crunchiness, I cooked my fries a minute longer than normal, which gave them a deeper golden color and crispness without compromising the interior. What actually made for the crispiest fries, though, was freezing them after the first frying step and then frying them the second time while still partially frozen.
Once the fries are done, assembly needs to happen quickly, so it's best to have all components ready to go. The curds should be soft and slightly (but not fully) melted. Having them at room temperature is the key to getting them there from just the heat of the fries and gravy alone. The gravy, meanwhile, needs to be hot enough to soften the curds, but not so hot that it melts them completely—if it's hot enough to burn your tongue, let it cool just a little before pouring it on.
Building the poutine is as simple as topping the fries with a healthy portion of room-temp curds, and then pouring the hot gravy on top. A garnish of minced chives is a nice fancy-pants touch.
This poutine was as close to perfect as I've had outside of Quebec. The fries retained a nice crunch and had excellent creamy interiors. My homemade cheese curds squeaked with each bite. And the gravy took it over the top with its robust, beefy flavor.
Poutine may have a reputation as drunk food, but when it's done right like this, it's really a thing of beauty, just as excellent whether you've been imbibing or not.