I say this with love, curiosity, appreciation, disgust, and full awareness of the human condition: In-N-Out’s fries are dogshit.
Let me explain. Fast food discourse is meaningless escapism, but fast food is also a culinary touchstone worth discussing. Embracing its nostalgia factor—and, more importantly, arguing about the minute, meaningless details therein—has never felt better. In the face of death, the influence of fast food has never been more widespread and palpable. There’s a specific and enduring reverence for it: even though deep down we know it’s a flawed product that’s often accused of killing us, we champion it. We criticize it. We rank its products, show up in droves for its new offerings, and pontificate on its cultural significance. And that’s why I’m here to tell you that In-N-Out Burger makes a terrible french fry.
You might be saying to yourself, “Okay, the fries aren’t great, fair enough. Who cares, loser? Don’t you have better things to do than complain about food, Yelp King?” First of all, no, and secondly, I love In-N-Out. The reason I’m writing about its fries, in addition to wanting to take my mind off of my own impending death, is that it’s goddamn astonishing to me that they are this bad. So bad that I need to talk to peers about it. There’s always a reason something is bad, and if I learn how and why these fries suck, I’ll have a better overall understanding of french fries. You can’t fully appreciate what makes something great unless you’ve seen how bad it can get.
The fries at In-N-Out are sickly. I’m not breaking ground here. People know this. You know this. It is well documented that they are flaccid, pale starch ghosts. They’re under-salted and only kind of saved by ordering them animal-style. Even then, any corner of your new potato casserole that’s not covered in pickles, onions, cheese, and special sauce is a letdown. Fries are one of the simplest things in the world to make properly. The method for making consistently delicious, perfectly textured fries is well known at this point. Fries only need two things to be successful:
- They must be golden brown; preferably crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside
- They must be salted (ideally right when they come out of the fryer)
And these are two points on which In-N-Out fries fail.
“They suck cause they’re not blanched,” says chef Kenya Bovey of Jeff’s Table in Highland Park, Los Angeles. “I’m pretty sure they punch and fry.” That is to say, In-N-Out more than likely punches its potatoes through a potato puncher, then immediately plunges them into a deep fryer without blanching them in cold water or par-frying them first—two things that work to create a crunchier, more enjoyable fry.
Kenya’s been around the block, punching fries at places like A.O.C. and Tavern, so I trust her directions for getting perfectly cooked results: “Punch the fries or cut them, then soak them in ice-cold water for at least 16-36 hours. Strain them and get off as much excess water as you can. Set your fryer for 275. Blanche the fries for 5-7 minutes. Spread them out to cool on sheet trays.”
“Fry at high until the desired level of GBD (golden, brown, delicious) is achieved.”
This is decidedly not what In-N-Out does. In-N-Out says, “Hey, how about we drop the spuds directly in the fryer, pull the plug on the whole cooking process early, and instead of salting them while they’re hot we just give you a tiny packet of iodized salt to pour over your already (whoops) cold potatoes?” It’s a huge error. A giant, glaring mistake made by an otherwise spectacular fast food chain.
I asked Matthew Kang, editor at Eater LA and somebody whose opinion is pretty much gold around here, to share his thoughts on the fry issue.
“I’ve never been a huge fan of the In-N-Out fries, but honestly I just order them well done and they’re perfectly adequate for me,” Kang said. “I don’t expect greatness from fast food fries, or any fast food, for that matter. I am a huge fan of the Double-Double at In-N-Out and that’s the main reason I go there. That being said, I would love for In-N-Out to tinker with their fry recipe and figure out a way to make them better.”
Kang makes a fair point here: people don’t tend to expect greatness out of their fast food. But In-N-Out has set a precedent that makes it reasonable to expect something better. The Double-Double isn’t just in the upper echelon of fast food burgers, it’s a great burger, period. I’d put it against most burgers you get at a sit-down restaurant. And that’s why the mediocrity of the fries sticks out so much—the disparity in this chain’s products is too great. We’re harsher on the institutions that have a reputation for being good, because they’ve set a higher standard. If the Dodgers don’t win the World Series in 2021, the year is a failure. But, if the Angels make the playoffs? Throw a fucking parade. My God.
In addition to hiding the sins of these fries by ordering them Animal Style, a lot of people have come up with another solution: ordering the fries “well done.” I never considered that I might have to order my fries to temperature. It’s common to order steak, tuna, lamb, and even scallops to a desired level of doneness, but you know what’s not on that list? Motherfucking french fries. One person even told me to “order them salted.” But isn’t this just how fries are supposed to exist? Shouldn’t they already come well done and salted? If there’s a secret In-N-Out menu for properly cooked fries, then aren’t we just fully admitting that they suck in the first place?
So, I ask again: why haven’t they changed? We live in a world where no fast food item is sacred. Wendy’s is aping Whataburger by doing a honey butter chicken biscuit. Everyone loses their mind when a fast food icon enters the chicken sandwich foray. Why not just rebrand In-N-Out fries? Wouldn’t customers get excited about that? Isn’t it easy to make a good fry? Couldn’t In-N-Out achieve newfound levels of greatness with a perfect, McDonald’s-esque fry?
I am, it should be said, an outsider critiquing a Southern California institution many have grown up with, and I’ve gotten my ass handed to me when I’ve been vocal about this online. I don’t ever enjoy poking the hornet’s nest, but I have to admit, I do like seeing people get passionate about a place they’re nostalgic for, defending their regional institutions with vigor. And while I feel the fries at In-N-Out are undeniably, mind-bogglingly bad, I think I’ll leave the final word to a SoCal native. Comedian Paige Weldon saw me griping about the fries and had only one thing to say:
“Have you noticed there are always at least 20 cars in the drive thru? It’s a non-issue. Let people enjoy them, and if you don’t, may I invite you to do literally anything else with your time other than complain about it online.”
“Also, order them well-done,” she added.