Thrasher’s French Fries: Best Fries on the Boardwalk? My Attempt to Make Them at Home


Thrasher's French Fries

Thrasher's French Fries

For over 80 years, the Thrasher’s French Fries stand at 401 South Atlantic Avenue, in Ocean City, MD, has served as a kind of gatekeeper to the famous boardwalk. At Thrasher’s, the potatoes are cut fresh, fried twice, doused with vinegar, and served in buckets. Big buckets. With only three sizes available (16 oz, 32 oz and 53 oz buckets), the smallest serving you can buy is a pound. But, there is something about these fries that makes them so addictive that a pound often is not enough and Thrasher’s fans are adamant. These are the best fries on the planet.

Thrasher's French Fries

Always a line of people waiting for their fries

With more than eight decades of frying and over 22,000 fans of the unofficial facebook page, who’s to argue? In 1933, Thrasher’s weathered a hurricane that not only destroyed vast sections of the boardwalk, but actually severed off Assateague peninsula to create the now-famous Assateague island across the inlet. Thrasher’s then went on to survive the Great Depression, two World Wars, Reaganomics, and the “freedom fries” era. Featured in countless magazine and newspaper articles, like the Woman’s Day 8 Best Boardwalk Food in the U.S., and inevitably found in the comments section of any web article about the “best fries,” these fries inspire a fanaticism usually reserved for politics and religion.

So, when I was heading back to my native Maryland Eastern Shore, I knew that it was time to make a pilgrimage to the place where I first learned what a French fry is supposed to taste like. Sure enough, there is something irresistible about these fries. They aren’t particularly crispy, but the flavor is pure potato. In fact, Thrasher’s is so proud of the fresh potato flavor, they don’t provide (or even allow) ketchup.

NO KETCHUP.

Katherine Bunting-Howarth of Delaware remembers using so much vinegar once, she soaked a hole through the bottom of the bucket and she’s not the only who considers the vinegar to be an essential element of the Thrasher’s experience. 939 people on facebook have “liked” the Thrasher’s facebook update, “[...] diggin’ the Apple Cider Vinegar with no ketchup!” and dozens more have added their two cents.”


OC, MD 3073 miles

After returning to California, more than 3000 miles away, I began to wonder. Can I recreate true Thrasher’s French Fries at home? I know the basic ingredients: Russet potatoes, peanut oil, salt and vinegar. But can I get that same balance of tender and crispy? And can I reproduce the rich, potato flavor? I set out to find the answer. But it would not come directly from the source. Thrasher’s is part of the Bayshore Development Corporation which also owns the Jolly Roger amusement parks. My attempts to reach someone at Bayshore willing to talk about Thrashers Fries were unsuccessful. Buddy Jenkins, chair of the board of the Bayshore Development Corporation, has always been secretive about the magic of these fries. According to a 2004 Washington Post article, Jenkins said, “We have a process that I certainly don’t intend to divulge,” but that the secret involves a “recipe and cooking times.”

Well, a recipe and cooking times were just what I set out to develop. I knew that part of what makes boardwalk fries, boardwalk fries is that they are soaked in a brine solution before they are fried twice, so I knew that I would try brining the potatoes as part of the solution. But how hot should the oil be? How long should the fries, well, fry? To find some answers, I turned to The Food Lab at SeriousEats.com. In May, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt set out to determine what makes a McDonald’s french fry so darn good and I have applied some of his learnings to this project. But Thrasher’s French Fries are not like McDonad’s French Fries. They’re thicker for one thing, and they’re served in buckets; they’re never frozen, and, must I say it again? They’re eaten with vinegar, not ketchup. But, they do need to come out with a crispy exterior and a fluffy, fully-cooked interior and that is where the “recipe and cooking times” come in. In his article, Lopez-Alt discovers that McDonald’s actually blanches its fries in nearly-boiling water before frying them, so I decided to add this step to my process as well. Blanching them at 170˚F rinses off excess sugars and starch which in turn prevents over-browning later. It also strengthens the cell walls of the potato so it doesn’t completely lose its structure during the frying process. Again, Lopez-Alt explains all of this really well here.

Following the multi-step process of brining, blanching, frying, cooling, frying meant that I could enjoy something approaching a bucket of Thrasher’s French Fries without having to leave the state of California. And that, my friends, is worth a day’s effort. Are you with me on this one? If you are, read on for the complete recipe.

Homemade French Fries

My best attempt at recreating
Thrasher’s French Fries at Home
Serves 2 (or one, really)

Ingredients

4 Russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 3/4-inch thick slices
Peanut Oil, enough for fries to be submerged
Sea Salt
Apple Cider Vinegar (or malt vinegar, if you prefer)

For the brine
2 quarts water
1 cup salt

Tools
I don’t have a lot of deep-frying tools in my kitchen. No wire basket, no electric fryer. But the one instrument that is indispensable for this recipe is a Candy/Deep Fry Thermometer, like the one pictured here:

Russet Potatoes

Method

1. Mix the water and salt in a large glass bowl. Stir to dissolve salt. Add potato slices and allow to sit for 30 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse.

2. In a large stock pot over medium heat, bring a bath of water to 170˚F. Remember, the boiling point of water is 212˚F, so you don’t want to let it boil. There will just be a few bubbles. Add the potatoes and let them sit in this warm bath for 17 minutes. Continue to check the temperature periodically to ensure that you are spot on. Remove potato slices to a paper towel-lined cutting board or cookie sheet and allow them to dry. They must be completely dry before submerging them in the hot oil, so do what you need to do to ensure that they are dry.

3. In a dutch oven or heavy-bottom pot, heat the peanut oil to a whopping 400˚F. Beware. Hot oil is hot. Wear protective clothing and make sure you do not allow any drop of water to fall into the hot oil bath. It will splatter and burn you. Don’t ask me how I know this. Carefully lower about 1/3 of the potato slices into the oil and allow them to fry for 80 seconds. Make sure they are not sticking to each other during this process. If you notice them starting to turn brown, remove them immediately. During this stage of the process, they should only just begin to take on a golden color. Remove them to a paper-towel lined surface and repeat with two more batches. Allow the oil to come back to the proper temperature between batches. This is what they look like after the first frying session:

After the first fry

4. Allow the fries to cool for at least 30 minutes. Then, bring the oil back up to a temperature of 375˚F. Again, in batches, allow the fries to cook for 3 – 4 minutes. Watch carefully so that they don’t get too brown. Remove them to a paper-toweled lined surface and salt immediately. They can be kept warm in a 200˚F oven on a parchment-lined cookie sheet while you are frying the other batches, but I found it wasn’t necessary because everything moved so fast.

5. Serve in paper-lined cups (I used tall coffee cups) and sprinkle with salt and, of course, cider vinegar! Enjoy immediately.

Perfect French Fries at Home

What are your memories of Thrasher’s French Fries? What tips do you have for making the best fries at home? What boardwalk food do you love the best? Share your memories, tips and opinions in the comment section below.

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For great cooking videos like this one introducing you to French fry techniques, check out Rouxbe.com:

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23 Responses to “Thrasher’s French Fries: Best Fries on the Boardwalk? My Attempt to Make Them at Home”

  1. August 20th, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Kath says:

    Looks like you did a great job. I have never tried making real homemade French fries. You make it look pretty easy!

  2. August 21st, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Sue Nolan says:

    I love anyone that takes on an establishment. I cannot wait to try these fries. Thank you.

  3. August 21st, 2010 at 8:09 am

    StreamingGourmet says:

    Right on!

  4. August 21st, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Peter Vader says:

    What an interesting story, thank you. How did you arrive at 400° to blanch? I have some modest experience with french fry-only businesses and have always seen the first fry being at 75-100° below the finishing temp.

    Your fries look amazing.

  5. August 21st, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    StreamingGourmet says:

    I was transfixed by an article on replicating McDonald’s fries in which they discovered that McDonald’s actually does a high-heat oil blanch first, so I thought I’d try it that way. Here’s a quote from that article from The Food Lab on SeriousEats:
    “So McDonald’s does indeed use a double fry method, but it’s far from the traditional one. Rather than a slow low temperature fry for the first round, the fries get dunked into very hot oil for only 50 seconds (the second fry is then carried out at the actual location). In addition to this, the potatoes get a pre-fry blanching step in hot water.”

  6. August 21st, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Peter Vader says:

    Ha, fascinating. Brining also seems like such a logical step, but it never crossed my mind.

  7. August 22nd, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Carol Egbert says:

    Thanks for the Trasher’s reminder. Yummy fries.

  8. August 22nd, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Sommer @ A Spicy Perspective says:

    Really great fries can be tricky! Looks like you’ve got it!

  9. August 25th, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Michelle Beitman says:

    Thank you for the walk down memory lane. My family would spend every summer in OC. I would be at Thrasher’s every day. Still love vinegar on my fries.

  10. September 23rd, 2010 at 2:16 am

    Matt W says:

    What do you mean it survived Reaganomics???? You mean it survived despite it’s taxed being lowered?? I’m confused.

  11. September 27th, 2010 at 8:33 am

    StreamingGourmet says:

    Point taken. I was thinking of the early eighties recession when “Frankie Say RELAX” t-shirts flooded the boardwalk. Many would say Reaganomics dug us out of that hole.

  12. February 1st, 2011 at 9:29 am

    PATSY521 says:

    THANKS, I CAN’T WAIT TO TRY THIS RECIPE IN 5 HOURS. YES I’M COUNTING DOWN THE HOURS. I LOVE THRASHER FRIES!! I LOVE THEM SO MUCH I MAKE THEM AT HOME, TOO. JUST A LITTLE DIFFRENT, I USE (HALF BAKED) BAKED POTATOS. LET THEM COOL, CUT THEM (I DON’T PEEL, THRASHER LEAVES SKIN ON)AND FRY 375-400 DEGREES. THE TURN OUT SOFT ON THE INSIDE AND CRISPY ON THE OUT SIDE. A TRUE TRASHER FRY, NO BUT CLOSE ENOUGH FOR ME.

  13. August 10th, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Tammi says:

    Just a reminder, Thrashers are ‘natural cut’ so you can take peeling them off the steps. Just scrub the skin really well and cut off any bad spots. ;)

  14. August 21st, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    J Thrasher says:

    You have a couple of bad errors in your receipe. The potatoes need to be under refrigeration for several days to convert the starch to sugar so they will brown and have a sweet taste and do not use a salty brine. The salt will immediately kill the oil’s ability to transfer heat to the potatoes.

  15. December 20th, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Herman Munster says:

    Remember this: The potato itself and the starch/sugar condition of that potato is the most IMPORTANT element in the “quest” for the perfect fry.
    The high specific gravity french fry processors employ is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to find in the supermarket.
    Once in a while you’ll get lucky and find an outstanding russet potato. I am working on a bag that is perfect in every way except one — the stem end has some black spots, most likely these potatoes were rejected because of the black spots by a processor, the farm them packaged them and sold the to the fresh market.

    There is no such thing as a fool-proof procedure for producing perfect fries at home, it’s a hit and miss proposition due to the unavailability of a french fry capable potato.
    All the geeky techniques in the world won’t make a decent fry.

  16. April 23rd, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Kathy says:

    I LOVE Thrasher’s french fries doused liberally with malt vinegar. I used to work as a PSA for OCPD and would have Thrasher’s for lunch most every day. That was 17 years and 600 miles away though (I live in NH now) and I do miss them. Thanks for the recipe, I am going to make them tonight!

  17. May 12th, 2012 at 11:00 am

    david says:

    Well I miss Thrashers too but I can make the real deal at home!! You have not got it right at all, not even close to be exact….ex Thrasher for 5 years over 20 years ago. You will need to will need to go reasearch a bit more.

  18. September 2nd, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    john says:

    you r forgetting the most important ingredient. McCormics Old Bay!!!!

  19. February 6th, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Shack says:

    I’ve tried several times, without perfection, to obtain a true “Thrasher’s” fry.
    This recipe looks very promising. The one thing missing is the flavor obtained from the sea salt naturally wafting through the air and the subtle aromas from neighboring food stands that enhance the Thrasher’s experience. That being said, Thrasher’s French Fries with Cider Vinegar are the best tasting fries on the planet. If I were ever in the position to choose a last meal, Thrasher’s Fries, the original Tommy’s Sub (pre 2012), and 6 jumbo steamed blue crab from Oyster on the Bay Seafood would make my list.

  20. February 6th, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Shack says:

    I meant On the Bay Seafood for the crabs. I was thinking “oysters” because of all of the shells found behind their building.

  21. February 6th, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    StreamingGourmet says:

    Right on. I’m right there with ya.

  22. March 13th, 2013 at 11:09 am

    LP says:

    How can you peel those potatoes? A lot of the flavor is in those peels. Oh the humanity! From a Thrasher kid

  23. September 19th, 2013 at 9:39 am

    MagnumPEI says:

    Just an FYI, Russets are the preferred potato of most french fry manufacturers. One of the reasons besides width and length is they have a high dry mater to moisture ratio which makes for good frying 26-30 % dry mater to moisture as opposed to wet varieties which run 20-24 %). The blanching and partial frying for the fast food manufacturers is done by the factory who has the contract with them.

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