Crispy, substantial exterior
Smoky, spicy creamy sauce
Patatas bravas are a quintessential tapas offering, the perfect bite to nibble between sips of sherry. These chunks of crispy fried potatoes are served with a smoky, spicy tomato sauce (bravas means “fierce”) and sometimes a thick, garlicky mayonnaise, or alioli, to balance the heat. In Spain, patatas bravas are served at virtually every tapas bar but rarely, if ever, made at home.
That being the case—and because I’ve always wanted to be able to serve these at home with drinks or even alongside a simple roast—I was glad to find that recipes for the dish abound. But when I tried a handful in the test kitchen, the results were disappointing. The potatoes didn’t have the supercrispy, well-browned exteriors and fluffy interiors of those I’ve enjoyed in tapas bars, and the bravas sauces lacked complexity. Finally, most of the recipes were very involved, but I wanted the workload to be reasonable.
The Road to Supercrispy
Though some recipes called for waxy potatoes, I went straight to floury russets, whose tightly packed, starch-filled cells swell up and separate from one another during cooking, resulting in just the dry, fluffy interiors I was after. I began by trying the twice-frying method called for by many recipes. It involves parcooking the potatoes in relatively cool oil (about 250 degrees) and then giving them a second, brief fry in hotter oil to crisp and brown. During the initial fry, some of the starch molecules (mostly amylose) on the exterior of the potato loosen and are hydrated by moisture in the potato. This starchy gel settles on the outside of the potato, creating a thin shell that crisps up during the second fry.
Indeed, double-frying delivered good, nicely crispy results. However, it was time-consuming and required multiple batches.
In a test kitchen recipe for Home Fries, we call for parcooking the potatoes in water instead of oil. In that recipe, we add baking soda to the boiling water to help create a starchy coating. Here’s how it works: Alkaline baking soda triggers a chain reaction that causes the pectin on the exteriors of the potatoes to break down and release a substantial layer of amylose from the potato cells that, when fried, develops into a thick crust. We also toss the drained, parcooked spuds with kosher salt to rough up the layer of potato cells and create lots of nooks and crannies. The extra surface area means there are more pathways by which moisture can escape and oil can enter the potatoes during frying—a process that leads to a thick, porous, ultracrispy coating.
To give this method a try here, I added ½ teaspoon of baking soda to 2 quarts of water, brought the water to a boil, and added the potato pieces. Once the water returned to a boil, I set a timer for 1 minute—just long enough for the pectin in the exterior potato cells to break down—and then drained the spuds, put them back into the empty pot, and let them dry out for about 1 minute over low heat. Next, I added 1½ teaspoons of kosher salt, vigorously stirring until the exteriors were coated in a thick paste. I spread the pieces on a baking sheet while I heated 10 cups of vegetable oil (most recipes call for about this much) in a large Dutch oven. Once the oil hit 350 degrees, a standard temperature for deep frying, into the hot fat went the potatoes. I fried them in three 6- to 7-minute batches until they were deep golden brown, draining each batch and sliding them onto a baking sheet and into a 200-degree oven to keep warm as they finished cooking.
As soon as I crunched into my first bite, I knew that things had gone according to plan. The potatoes were encased in shells that were even thicker and crunchier than the ones I’d produced with the double-fry method. Plus, they stayed that way, even when dunked in sauce (a placeholder recipe, for now). I still had tweaking to do, though. First, some of the potato chunks, which hadn’t been in the hot oil for very long, were undercooked at the very center. Second, I had been hunched over the stove for what felt like an age, shuttling batches in and out of the oil and transferring them to the low oven to keep warm. Could I streamline the process?
For Supercrispy Potatoes, Put a Shell on Them
Patatas bravas are commonly made by frying the potatoes twice. The first fry creates an exterior “shell” of gelatinized starch that turns crispy during the second fry. Double frying works well, but it’s time-consuming, so we looked for an alternate method. We found that boiling the spuds in baking soda–laced water and then tossing them with kosher salt before frying produced a crust that was even more substantial than that of the double-fried potatoes. Here’s how it works: Baking soda causes the pectin on the exterior of the potatoes to break down, releasing a gloppy, starchy paste that fries up crispy. Kosher salt roughs up the surfaces of the potatoes, creating many nooks and crannies through which steam can escape. As the steam escapes, it leaves behind small holes, and the hot oil fills those holes, helping to create a substantial, brittle crust. –Annie Petito and Dan Souza
One place to trim back was the amount of oil: I wondered if 10 cups, which took a long time to heat up, was overkill. Sure enough, the potato pieces only needed to be just submerged—not swimming—in oil. Three cups of oil was enough to just cover the pieces (any less would require flipping to ensure allover browning).
I had cut the amount of oil by more than two-thirds; could I also reduce the amount of hands-on time? The simplest solution would be to fry all of the potatoes in one shot. This would increase the overall cooking time, but maybe that wasn’t all bad since the potatoes were emerging a bit underdone anyway. Since the oil temperature would surely drop when I added so many spuds, I heated the oil to 375 degrees instead of 350. It fell to about 300 degrees when I added the potatoes and crept up to 350 during frying.
Happily, the process worked beautifully and was mostly hands-free: I only nudged the potato pieces occasionally with a wire skimmer (a slotted spoon would also work) while they were frying to separate any that were sticking together and to encourage even browning. About 20 minutes later, I pulled out a single batch of supercrispy, browned potatoes. Deep frying had never been so easy.
With the potatoes perfected, I moved on to the smoky, spicy tomato sauce. I sautéed sweet smoked paprika with minced garlic, salt, and a healthy dose of cayenne, cooking the mixture until it sent up wafts of heady fragrance. For the tomato element, I turned to tomato paste thinned with water, which provided bright, sweet flavor and a smooth consistency. Finally, after simmering the sauce briefly, I stirred in a couple of teaspoons of tangy sherry vinegar. The result was vibrant, tomatoey, and full of spice and smoke.
I was tempted to whip up an alioli (the Spanish take on aïoli) as well, but in an effort to save time, I decided to experiment with a hybrid sauce. While not entirely traditional, adding just ¼ cup of store-bought mayonnaise to the bravas mixture created a twofer sauce featuring the best of both worlds: The mayo added creaminess and helped the sauce cling to the potatoes, but the sauce still boasted plenty of brightness and heat to cut through the richness of the potatoes.
To re-create a tapas experience, I spread some sauce on a platter and piled the potatoes on top, passing the remaining sauce for dipping. When I noticed the pace at which my colleagues consumed this batch of potatoes, I smiled—and started to prep a second batch.
Keys to Success
Crispy, substantial exteriorParboiling the potatoes in baking soda and then tossing them with kosher salt helps release a starchy paste on their exteriors and creates nooks and crannies that will turn crunchy during frying.
Fluffy interiorWe use russet potatoes, whose starch-filled cells swell up and separate from one another during cooking.
Smoky, spicy creamy sauceWe make a quick tomato paste–based sauce seasoned with cayenne and smoked paprika. Since a garlicky mayonnaise often accompanies the dish as well, we stir in store-bought mayo to create a creamy two-in-one sauce.