Skillet-fried potatoes are at their best when you use a skillet, cooking oil and type of potato suitable for prolonged, high-heat cooking. Waxy and all-purpose potatoes are less likely to fall apart if they stick to the pan. A heavy skillet that conducts heat well also prevents sticking, so the crispy golden surfaces of the potatoes don’t tear and soften when you flip them. The fat in which you fry the potatoes is also vital to success. The best choices have smoke points above 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Waxy and All-Purpose Potatoes
Waxy, low-starch potatoes hold their shapes during prolonged cooking more effectively than starchier spuds, so they’re less likely to break apart when they become tender. Red potato varieties such as Red Bliss, Pontiac Red and Norland Red are among the most common types. All-purpose potatoes also fry well. Many chefs consider white Kennebec potatoes the best spuds for French fries because they crisp well on the surface and develop fluffy interiors. All-purpose yellow Yukon Golds also fry well, but may be more likely to break if they stick to the pan.
Small Chunks Will Crisp Best
Rinse and scrub the potatoes to remove excess dirt. Leave the potatoes unpeeled, if possible. Skin-on spuds hold their shapes better. Potatoes cut in thin strips like matchstick potatoes will crisp effectively, but they’ll fall apart easily and stick together like hash brown cakes. Larger potatoes wedges hold their shapes, but take longer to cook. Small potato cubes or chunks about 1/2 to 1 inch wide maintain their shapes well and develop a better balance of exterior crispiness and internal fluffiness.
Soaking Spuds to Reduce Starch
Soak the cut potatoes in water overnight to draw out excess starch. Reducing the starch makes them less pasty and less likely to stick together. Cover and soak the potatoes in the refrigerator to prevent contamination. Drain and rinse the potatoes when you finish soaking them. Pat them dry to remove excess water. Dry potato pieces crisp more effectively than wet pieces.
Cooking oils with high smoke points and animal fats are the most effective frying fats; butter browns and burns too quickly for this type of dish. Peanut oil, grapeseed oil, vegetable oil and canola oil are all suitable for frying. Extra-virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, which means you must cook the potatoes longer at a slightly lower temperature, but it is an acceptable choice if you prefer the nutritional benefits. Light or refined olive oil has a much higher smoke point. Lard yields the crispiest results despite a relatively low smoke point, and it isn’t entirely unhealthy: Lard contains less saturated fat than butter. Duck fat is a high-end cooking fat that fries exceptionally well and yields sublime flavor.
Pan Selection and Preheating
Cast-iron skillets hold heat exceptionally well for prolonged periods, making them superior frying pans. Any heavy skillet should work if you do not have a cast-iron pan. Put just enough fat in the skillet to coat the bottom. Heat the skillet to about 380 F or medium-high if you are cooking with peanut, grape seed, light olive, vegetable or canola oil. Heat the skillet to about 350 F or medium if you are cooking with lard, duck fat or extra-virgin olive oil.
Add the Potatoes
Place a single layer of dry potato chunks in a preheated skillet. Avoid crowding the pan. You may need to cook in batches. Wait to flip or stir the potatoes until the undersides become golden and crisp, which takes 10 to 20 minutes depending on your pan, oil and cooking temperature and the sizes of your potato pieces. Handle the potatoes gently with a spatula or wooden spoon to avoid breaking them.
Reserve Additional Ingredients
Reserve seasonings and other ingredients to add later in the cooking process. Herbs and spices become bitter if they overcook, and other vegetables may burn before the potatoes cook through. Add salt and ground pepper about 5 to 10 minutes after you flip the potatoes the first time. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper and paprika are some of the seasonings that complement fried potatoes. Season them to taste. Add diced onions, diced bell peppers, minced garlic, or chopped bacon or ham when you season the potatoes, if desired.
Wait for the potatoes to crisp and become golden before flipping them again. Continue turning the potatoes until they reach your desired level of crispiness. Insert a fork into one or two of the pieces to make sure they cooked through. Reduce the heat if the potatoes are golden but not yet cooked through. Add 2 or 3 teaspoons of oil to the pan if it gets dry before the potatoes finish cooking.