Musings on Belgian Frites and How They Are Made

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Well, here I am in Belgium, and this country is, of course, a foodies’ paradise. Chocolate truffles, mussels, oysters, waffles…. all kinds of delights. And then, of course, there are the frites.

Why are the Belgians so proud of their frites, or frieten as the Flemish Belgians call them?

The potato

One condition is the potato itself. An authentic frite needs to be made out of the Bintje potato – originally bred by a Dutchman – it has yellow flesh and skin, an all-purpose potato halfway between the starchy-waxy spectrum. This potato is widely grown in France and Belgium for good reason. It’s easy to grow and it withstands disease. It also has a lower water content than the potatoes used, for example, in Britain, producing a crisper result.

The older the potato the better (within reason) – it needs time to develop the starch.

The method (for heaven’s sake, don’t even think of using frozen!)

  1. First of all the potatoes are peeled and cut into bâtonnets of 1cm (rather than the thinner allumette favoured in France)
  2. Then they are soaked in water. This is an important stage because during the first cooking the water is turned to steam, and forces its way out of the potato flesh, producing air channels which result in a lighter chip.
  3. Then they are towel-dried.
  4. Then they are fried in fat. The fat is also important – it needs to contain a solid animal fat. Originally it was beef tallow with sometimes some horse fat added. Now it is more often a mix of ox fat and vegetable oil.
  5. Then the chips are deep fried for a first time at a temperature of 150 – 160°C. As the chips lighten due to the formation of tiny air channels (see step 2 above) they will rise to the top and become hard. This is one way to tell when they are done. It’s important not to crowd the fryer basket or the temperature will drop too much and the water won’t evaporate quickly enough, or with enough force, to form the essential air channels.
  6. They are then taken out and left to ‘rest’ and become soft.
  7. Just before serving the chips are fried a second time – this time the purpose being to crisp them up – at a much higher temperature, 175-180°C.
  8. They are then served with a flourish in paper cornets, with tiny plastic forks.

The sauce

Personally I prefer my frites nude. The beef fat gives a particular flavour, the cooking method a particular texture and by slathering them with a sauce you lose part of their true essence. They do however, obviously, need salt! Good quality sea salt is fine, but on a recent trip to Hamburg I found some pommes frites salz which is rather fun to try. This sunshine yellow seasoning includes onion, paprika, mustard, pepper, celery and turmeric as well as sea salt.

However, they are traditionally served with a range of typically mayonnaise-based sauces – aioli or tartare, and sometimes tomato ketchup.

salt for pommes frites
Pommes frites salz from the specialist seasoning shop, Violas’, in Hamburg


What to serve them with

They go well with all sorts of things Belgian of course. They’re excellent with:

  • with frikadellen (follow this link for a German version of these meatballs)
  • with moules (as in moules-frites or mosselen-friet)
  • with a gratin of chicory
  • with boudin blanc…
  • even, I discovered first hand, with oysters
  • and a French friend assures me, with roast chicken and apple sauce
  • And, of course, they pair naturally with steak

A little history

Of course there is strong contention between the French and the Belgians as to the provenance of frites with each nation claiming them as their own. The Belgians are particularly miffed at the American term ‘French fries’ which they claim (unfortunately not correctly) was coined by US soldiers in the first world war, who assumed, due to the local language in use, that they were in France, when in fact they were in Belgium. The next post on Saucy Dressings will give a full, unexpurgated version of the history and origins of the Belgian frite.

Where to buy

I spent a happy, and fruitless, morning searching for non-existent frites trucks – by their very nature they are impermanent and any recommendations are likely to be out of date as soon as they are written. More reliable and well-known establishments are Fritkot, Bompa, Flagey. In the end, I found mine at Papy, where I was treated with undisguised disdain and surliness…. nevertheless, the frites were crisp and light.

belgian frites shop
Ideally buy your Belgian frites at a truck, rather than a shop.

“Chips from Frituur No 1 in the centre of Antwerp, fried twice in beef tallow, scalding hot but cooled with mayonnaise. The fries are accompanied by a glass of Westmalle Tripel, indisputably the finest beer in the world.”

Tim Harford’s fantasy dinner party in The Financial Times


La frite suspendue

One rather nice idea, pioneered by the Belgian restaurant M&M Comme à la Maison  is La frite suspendue – same idea as with Tods shoes – for every cornet of frites you buy, one is given free to a person in need.

Drawing by Michael Craig-Martin at the Royal Academy summer exhibition
Drawing by Michael Craig-Martin at the Royal Academy summer exhibition

Music to eat your chips to

And finally…..some music. Here we have Paolo Conte singing Via Con Me….bear with me, about half way through there is a continual refrain….‘chips, chips’…worth waiting for!

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