If you couldn’t tell by my last name, my family has French Canadian roots, with my grandparents immigrating to the United States from Quebec when they were adults. Though I grew up in Massachusetts, and my French language skills aren’t great, I have always had a burning interest in French Canadian culture and cuisine—and poutine is one of my favorite dishes of all time. For the uninitiated, poutine is french fries topped with cheese curds that are then doused with gravy. Boom. It’s as amazing as it sounds.
There’s a lot of conflicting reports on the origins of poutine, but we know it was born and popularized in Quebec. Found on menus throughout Canada, poutine can be a lot harder to find in restaurants throughout the United States. This isn’t a problem if you, like me, prefer to make poutine at home.
Over the holidays, my dad and I were fixated on perfecting homemade poutine, since we’re not able to visit north of the border anytime soon. After many tries, I think we got it right. What I want to share with you isn’t an ultimate recipe, but rather what we learned through our trial and error. Poutine is about the finesse and balance of three ingredients. Screw up on one, and the whole thing is off. These were our delicious lessons learned.
The best poutines, in my view, all featured thicker-cut, skin-on french fries made with russet potatoes. They were supremely crispy but not molar-gnashing crunchy—chip on the outside, mashed potatoes on the inside. To start, we used a french fry cutter to ensure consistent size for consistent cooking. This also helped cut down on the time spent breaking down the potatoes. After soaking them in a water bath and drying them, we discovered that double frying was the key to a fry with the right texture. This is a french fry recipe (behind our paywall) our test cooks developed, and it’s a good one.
There were some attempts where we simply didn’t have the time to cut our own potatoes. But we found that Ore-Ida Extra Crispy Fast Food Fries work great as a frozen substitute. They’re even better if you have an air fryer to cook them in!
The Cheese Curds
Sprinkled on top of your fries, white cheddar cheese curds are the second building block of this dish. Cheese curds are pieces of curdled young cheese formed early in the cheese-making process. It’s not the same as just eating a piece of cheese, though—their best quality is their chewy texture, almost like chewing on cheese bubble gum. They’re as good fried as they are eaten on their own. Their ultimate application, I think, is in poutine.
You absolutely should not substitute shredded cheese. First, it would melt too quickly when combined with hot gravy. Cheese curds keep their shape and provide an appealing “squeak” when you bite in. A cheese curd’s squeakiness is dependent on the freshness of the curds. You could go straight to the source and buy them directly from a cheesemaker or cheese shop, but you can also find them frozen, which can help preserve their squeak, at some grocery stores or via mail-order.
The final piece to the poutine puzzle is the gravy poured over the top of your fries and curds. The gravy is my favorite part of poutine. It brings the dish together and wraps it up in a big, savory bow. Its rich, meaty flavor pairs beautifully with fries and curds.
Most restaurants serving poutine will use either chicken or beef gravy. Some might use a hybrid. Personally, I’m a fan of the beef and chicken gravy combo, such as this one from French Canadian chef Ricardo Larrivée. It’s both thick and smooth. You want a gravy that adheres to the fries and curd, not a watery one that sinks to the bottom of your dish. It’s also important to have a gravy that’s not chunky. There’s nothing less appealing than biting into a clump of flour during your poutine experience.
You want to pour this gravy on when it’s hot, though not boiling hot. It should lusciously drench the fries and curds to the point the curds begin to lightly melt. Then you stab a fork through several fries, a curd, and slosh it through the gravy. This is a perfect bite. We owe a major merci to the French Canadians for this one.
Lead photo: Cavan Images / Getty Images