Nowadays, it’s pretty well established that Belgian fries (or frites, as they’re called in that part of the world) are the gold standard for fries. They’re just the right thickness, twice-fried so they’re soft on the inside and super-crispy on the outside, and served in a cone with a wide selection of fun sauces to dunk them into. While most of the Belgian fry shops you’ll encounter in America these days fry their frites in vegetable oil, fry experts will tell you that real Belgian frites, the most authentic ones, are fried in something a little different.
I know what you’re thinking: beef fat, right?
Close, but not quite right.
It’s horse fat. Or to be more specific, a 50/50 mix of ox fat and horse fat.
Belgian fry shop owners (the ones in Belgium, at least) will tell you that in order to be considered authentic, Belgian fries need to be cooked in animal fat. If you’ve ever had a beef fat fry, you’ll agree that there’s something about that fat that imparts a rich, meaty, undeniably delicious flavor to the fry that just can’t be imitated. Nowadays, most Belgian fry shops have swapped the horse fat for vegetable oil and use a combo of oil and ox fat.
Why exactly do the Belgians prefer to fry their frites in horse fat? Mainly, because in that part of the world, horsemeat doesn’t have nearly the stigma that it does in the U.S. You’ll find plenty of horsemeat butcher shops (called boucheries chevalines) in France and Belgium to this day (although not as many as there used to be), so using the fat for deep-frying was perfectly normal.
But does horse fat really change the flavor of the fries as much as beef fat does? Do the fries end up tasting like horse?
“The general flavor of horse may also be different enough from beef and pork to add something unusual and enriching to the fried flavor,” Harold McGee told LA Weekly. “As for the texture of the fries: Horse fat isn't so different from other animal fats as to do something different to the structure of the fried potato, either crust or interior.”
Moral of the story? The next time you’re about to buy some fries in Belgium, you might want to ask what they’re fried in.