Earlier this morning, we announced that starting today, the Upper East Side location of Shake Shack would replace the chain's standard frozen crinkle-cut fries with fresh-cut fries.
Here's how Serious Eats Overlord and vocal frozen-fry hater Ed Levine reacted to the news:
As a food writer, it's rare to see what you've written have a direct and discernible effect on any food served to the public. So forgive me for kvellling about the new Shake Shack fresh-cut french fries now being served at the 86th Street location in Manhattan (more locations to follow). As Kenji mentioned in his earlier post I have been a vocal critic of the frozen french fries served at Shake Shack since its inception. So when Shack Shack CEO Randy Garutti e-mailed me this morning to say that after years of reading and hearing my complaints about the old french fries they were finally going to serve freshly cooked french fries at Shake Shack, I was thrilled. Not because they listened to me (though there is a certain amount of satisfaction to be derived from that), but because I had a feeling these new fries were going to be seriously delicious.
Unsurprisingly, the internet's reactions have ranged from the ecstatic:
@TheFoodLab i dont say this often, i actually say it never, but OMG!!!!— Mathew Rubinstein (@MRR14) August 6, 2013
...to the skeptical:
...to the outright angry:
*And don't bother saying, "ask for them well done!" What you get then is dried out potatoes. In-N-Out's problem is they only single fry.
We're not ones to pass judgment without testing out the goods at hand, so I immediately jumped on the 6 train and stopped in to test them out. There's no missing the new fries when you walk in. There are banners hung from the ceiling and flyers taped to every register. Shake Shack fans have been clamoring for change since day one, us included. Union Square Hospitality group CEO Danny Meyer, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti, and Culinary Director Mark Rosati issued their response loud and clear—every employee in the kitchen was wearing a new t-shirt printed with a stylized box of fries and the text "WE HEARD.".
So, how were they? My initial reaction: Damn, these are some good fries.
Salty, crispy, and intensely potato-ey, they're a new gold standard for what a fast food french fry can be—provided they manage to keep them consistent as they roll out to new locations.
I brought some fries back for Ed to taste. Here's his reaction:
Kenji brought fries down to SE World Headquarters on the subway (meaning they were a minimum half hour out of the fryer) and when I tasted one, I couldn't believe it. The new Shake Shack french fries are awesome: salty, crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and totally addictive. I can't wait for these fries to be rolled out to Shake Shacks everywhere. The world is now a better place to eat french fries.
Mark Rosati happened to be overseeing the new operations in the kitchen when I sat down with my fries, so I chatted with him a bit about the process and how he plans on expanding it to the other 28 Shake Shack locations around the world.
"The biggest hurdle for us is scaling up operations. We've had the fry recipe down for a while, but how do you make thousands of orders a day?," he said.
The fries start as whole Burbank russets that are hand cut with a press and sent into giant rolling plastic containers for an initial soak, intended to leech the potatoes of excess starches and sugars. The potatoes soak for a minimum of two hours, and up to overnight (which means that if you get in early, the first batches of fries in the day may well be better than the afternoon batches).
From there, they go through a traditional double-frying process, first at a low temperature to cook through the center and gelatinize starches on the exterior, followed by a hot fry to crisp them up. In between fries, they hang out in custom-designed basket hangers for quick service.
"A lot of the organization came down to custom-designed equipment to make things more efficient," explained Mark. "But staff training has been a big deal, too. We've been here training staff and cooking fries every morning before opening."
One major reason many fast food operations rely on frozen fries is consistency. With frozen fries, you can make sure that you have the exact same fries, with the exact same starch and sugar content, and the exact same frying characteristics year-round, which leads to ease of operations—so long as the fries are cooked at the same temperature for the same length of time, they should end up identical.
Fresh-cut fries offer no such promises. Depending on when the potatoes were harvested, their cooking qualities can vary immensely. "We're currently at the very end of last season's harvest," says Mark. Older potatoes tend to fry up crisper and paler compared to fresher potatoes, which have a higher moisture and sugar content. "It'll be interesting to see how we have to adapt once the new season's potatoes start coming in."
Staff training, he says, is an essential step in that process. "We train our staff not to follow the timer exactly, but instead to look for visual cues in the process to know when the fries are cooked properly.
According to Mark, all new locations of the Shake Shack will be designed with the new frying stations already implemented. Retro-fitting existing Shake Shacks will be a bit of a challenge, particularly in small spaces like the original Madison Square Park outpost.
But I can say with confidence that if they manage to start serving fries as consistently good as the ones I had today at all of their locations, it'll be a major step toward their world domination. (That is what they're after, isn't it?)
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.