Why It Works
- Fresh cheese curds at room temperature, made within 24 hours, provide the soft and squeaky cheese that's a hallmark of great poutine.
- Soaking the potatoes in water, then frying them at 350°F (177°C) and again at 425°F (218°C), creates fries with a crisp exterior and a soft, pillowy interior.
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 a gamble because I've gotten both squeaky and non-squeaky curds there, and their curds have a sharper flavor than what 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 mesophilic culture, calcium chloride, and rennet, all inexpensive and easily obtainable online.
I started by heating the milk to 90°F (32°C), then added the culture and calcium chloride and held 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 (39°C) 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 into 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.
Our Pressure Cooker Beef Stock recipe is the simplest way to create a flavorful beef stock in a short amount of time–stovetop beef stocks can take upwards of 12 hours to extract all of that flavor from beef bones.
You can even enhance the flavor of this recipe by adding a variety of bones, like oxtail, or using chicken stock instead of water.
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 (218°C) 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.
March 25, 2015
This recipe has been updated to streamline the stock-making process. The original from-scratch beef-chicken-veal stock took hours of stovetop simmering. We've since streamlined it to use our much faster and easier, but still very flavorful, Pressure Cooker Beef Stock.
For the Gravy (See Notes):
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
3 cups Pressure Cooker Beef Stock (see notes)
For the Fries:
For the Gravy:
Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until foaming. Whisk in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until golden blonde, about 2 minutes. In a steady stream, gradually whisk in stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until reduced to 2 cups, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in vinegar, and season with salt.
For the Fries: Place potatoes in a large bowl and cover completely with cold water. Let soak for at least 1 hour, or, alternatively, drain water and rinse again, changing water until it runs completely clear. Drain potatoes and dry thoroughly with paper towels.
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or wok to 350°F (177°C). Working in batches, add potatoes and cook, stirring and turning frequently until pale blonde, about 5 minutes. Transfer potatoes to a paper towel-lined baking sheet. (For crispiest fries, see note about adding a freezing step.)
Heat oil to 425°F (218°C). Add potatoes and cook, stirring and turning frequently, until deep golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to paper towel-lined bowl and season with salt to taste.
Reheat gravy over high heat until hot. Place fries in a shallow bowl or dish, top generously with cheese curds, and ladle on gravy. Sprinkle with minced chives (optional). Serve immediately.
If you want to go all-out on the stock, replace the five pound beef bones called for in the linked beef stock recipe with a combination of oxtail, beef bones, veal bones, and chicken bones, and replace the water with chicken stock. If you don't have a pressure cooker, you can make the same stock in a large pot on the stovetop, simmering it uncovered for three hours and adding liquid as necessary to keep solid ingredients just barely covered.
For the crispiest fries, freeze the potatoes after Step 4 by spreading them on an unlined baking sheet (before frying them a second time), then fry from frozen.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 39g||51%|
|Saturated Fat 18g||90%|
|Total Carbohydrate 40g||15%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||13%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 13mg||63%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|