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Why aren't the best potatoes for pan-frying the best for French-frying, vice versa? Pan- and French-frying potatoes both heat potatoes in oil. What distinctions have I over-looked?

Cook's Thesaurus: Potatoes

Best for pan-frying: red-skinned potatoes, white round potatoes, new potatoes, and fingerling potatoes

Best for French fries: russet potato, purple potato, Bintje potato

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Well, from those lists anyway, I think you've overlooked shape and size.

The "pan-frying" potato list is largely of varieties of round potatoes and/or rather small potatoes. They won't produce very satisfactory french fries because of the simple fact that they aren't very big. Or, if they are big and round, you're still bound to get a lot of very short fries when slicing near the edges.

For "french fries" you want a potato that's somewhat large and long. Or at least oblong-shaped, so you don't end up with lots of clumpy short fries. I'm assuming that for "pan-fried" potatoes, the site your list is from considers that you might dice them or make them into shapes other than long, thin strands.

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The difference between those two groups of potatoes is that the first group are "hard, waxy potatoes" and the second group are "soft, starchy potatoes". Waxy potatoes are lower in starch and higher in moisture; starchy potatoes are the opposite. There's also "all-purpose" potatoes like the Yukon Gold that are somewhere in between.

It's a general rule of thumb that starchy potatoes are better for roasting, mashing, cream soups, and other dishes where they are intended to get very soft or even dissolve. They are also generally considered better for french fries because their lower moisture content means more frying and less steaming. In fact, some cooks get obsessive about moisture content, even measuring specific gravity.

Waxy potatoes are recommended for most pan-frying recipes because the potato holds its shape, even in high heat. For example, one usually (but not always) uses waxy potatoes for potato chips, whether pan-fried, oven-baked, or deep-fried because one can easily slice waxy potatoes thinner without the slices breaking up. For pan-fried potatoes, one often (but not always) uses waxy potatoes, both because they hold their shape and because they are smaller, so they can be cooked in 1/2 or 1/4 potato wedges instead of sliced.

However, these are just rules of thumb and the type of potato you use should be based on what specific recipe you're using. For example, this french fry recipe with an unusual cooking method uses all-purpose or waxy potatoes. And the classic Joël Robuchon mashed potatoes are made with the waxy ratte potato. And Pommes Anna, despite being pan-fried, is better made with a starchy potato like a russett. So keep in mind that guidelines are just guidelines, and don't always apply.

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    Yeah, I thought about this before I wrote my answer, but I don't think that's where the site OP linked got its criteria. Russets are certainly starchy, but Bintjes are quite waxy (yet Dutch use 'em for "frites"). New potatoes and fingerlings are generally waxy but white potatoes are often in the middle; reds are often waxy but it depends on variety (same with purples). I do agree with you that starchy potatoes are better for frying, which is why I almost exclusively use them for frying--whether deep or pan. And if russets are good enough for Kenji's potato chips, they're good enough for me. – Athanasius Dec 21 '19 at 1:22
  • Except that Bintje's aren't any larger than many white or yukon gold potatoes. Maybe the Cook's Thesaurus is just being inconsistent. – FuzzyChef Dec 21 '19 at 5:33
  • Oh. The Cooks Thesaurus is pretty much entirely the work of a single woman. It's not really a well-researched reference guide, although it's pretty impressive for one person. – FuzzyChef Dec 21 '19 at 5:36
  • I don't really know what the criteria were for these lists. But +1 for the links anyway. I appreciate the "unusual cooking method" for fries... I'll have to try that sometime. – Athanasius Dec 21 '19 at 14:33
  • It works really well; it's probably the lowest-effort way to make good fries you can find (oven fries just never work). Its drawback is that there's no good way to make multiple batches. – FuzzyChef Dec 22 '19 at 0:54

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