I grew up in a semi-rural community near a much larger city. The schools – elementary school, junior high, and high schools were clustered together on the same campus. It was shortly after WWII, and our cafeteria was an old converted army building. We ate from army surplus steel trays, and the food was almost all surplus commodities including cheddar cheese, ground beef, eggs, and lots of ground beef. In those days there were honest-to-goodness “lunch ladies” who actually cooked from scratch instead of opening a package and slipping it into a microwave. Most of the women were mothers of friends and classmates (In fact, my mother was a lunch lady at a nearby school). They knew how to cook homestyle food, and they clearly loved their work.
The kids all loved their work, too – spaghetti and meat sauce, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches ( a lot of surplus cheese in those days), freshly baked hot rolls or cornbread every day plus milk and a sweet dessert like apple pie. The price was right, too: 25 cents.
About once a month the lunch ladies prepared a special treat, hamburgers with all the trimming along with homemade potato chips (potato crisps for my UK friends) still hot from the deep fryer. On those days the crowds of hungry kids were enormous.
I thought about that memory the other day when I wondered to myself, “How hard can it be to make homemade potato chips?” The answer is, “Not hard at all.” The hard part comes in cleaning up the kitchen, especially if you are a messy cook like me. The hot oil splatters all over the place, paper towels used for draining get soggy and greasy, and accidental spills seem unavoidable.
Still, homemade potato chips taste so much better than the commercial kind that there is no comparison.
You can’t just sit down and eat nothing but a batch of fresh potato chips. (Actually that’s not true; I know I can.) So you need to have a menu. I served the chips with fried chicken and broccoli. That only reinforced my memories of school days.
- medium-large russet baking potato (allow ½ potato for each person)
- peanut oil (or other oil with high smoke point)
- Scrub and dry the potato(es). Then slice crosswise with a mandoline. The modern, cheap plastic ones are better. Otherwise you will spend a lot of time cleaning up your expensive French one
- Cover the potato slices with water and soak until you are ready to cook.
- In a heavy frying pan with tall sides (cast iron works great), pour in oil to a depth of 1 to 2 inches. Heat to 375°F. If you don’t have a deep fry thermometer, heat until the surface shimmers.
- While the oil is heating, drain and dry the potato slices as well as you can. Residual water will make the hot oil flare up when the potato slices are added. Serious burns can result.
- You can test the heat of the oil, either with a cube of bread or one of the potato slices. Bubbles should rise immediately, and the sample should brown in a minute or so.
- Add the potato slices, a few at a time, to the heated oil, being careful not to burn yourself. Watch to make sure the oil does not boil over. Stir the slices gently while frying so that they don’t stick together.
- When the bubbling has subsided and the underside of the slices are the desired color, turn them over, finish frying them, and then remove them to multiple thicknesses of paper towelling to drain.
- While the fried chips are draining, lightly salt them.
- As you continue with more batches, transfer the finished chips to an oven-proof bowl in the middle of an oven preheated to 200°F. Serve when all the chips are fried.