The truth about In-N-Out fries

In-N-Out Burger is a huge success story. It's been around for 72 years and counting, and even though it hasn't ever expanded out of a six-state western area, being limited to California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, and Oregon, still, just about everybody in the other 44 states has heard of the chain and somehow feels they're missing out if they've never had the In-N-Out experience. This chain has numerous fans, even famous foodies like Gordon Ramsay and the late Anthony Bourdain (via QSR), and has captured a bunch of accolades as well. Restaurant Business named In-N-Out as the top chain restaurant for families, Sandelman Restaurant Market Intelligence gave them an "Award of Excellence" as one of 2019's top restaurants for food, value and customer satisfaction, and The Harris Poll found In-N-Out to be 2019's Burger Restaurant of the year.

Burger restaurant being the operative words — note that all of the accolades In-N-Out receives are for their delicious burgers. In-N-Out has one dirty little secret they'd rather not go public with: while everybody loves their burgers, their fries are quite a different matter. Unfortunately, In-N-Out seems to be one of those chains that does one thing really, really well, but drops the ball — HARD — on something almost equally important. What's a burger without a side of fries, after all? A burger you're better off with, at least if you're eating at In-N-Out, since their fries — let's be honest — are actually kind of awful.

The critics hate In-N-Out fries

One food critic with SFGate is an admitted In-N-Out fanboy, having taken his prom date to In-N-Out and even dined on their burgers with his bride on their wedding day. While he can't get enough of their justifiably famous burgers, when asked if he'd like fries with that, he always declines the offer. His reason? "In-N-Out fries are indeed terrible. They're soggy, sickly beige, under-salted, wilted, and unworthy of being called a fry at all. More like potatoes boiled in oil until submission." He does admit that they succeed in tasting fresh, that is, "fresh, in the sort of 'just out of the ground, slightly dirty taste' that fresh vegetables often have."

Thrillist remarked upon In-N-Out fries' unfortunate contrast to the beloved burgers they accompany, as they sit on the plate "piled haphazardly to the side like a blooper reel of stubby, talentless starch." Even though they are hand-cut and freshly-fried, these sad spuds still have "insides [that] are stiff and cold and devoid of the lush, velvety texture of [their] craveable contemporaries." The critic pronounced these fries as being unworthy of even such a basic condiment as ketchup, and agreed with the SFGate reviewer that, while "ordering a burger without fries spits in the face of American culinary tradition," when it comes to In-N-Out, going fry-less is really the only sensible choice.

The internet hates In-N-Out fries

In-N-Out fry hate spans social media. Ok, so people aren't Instagramming pics of the In-N-Out fries they're not eating, nor are they creating Pinterest boards dedicated to the diss. On Facebook, however, a question posed by LAist asking how people felt about these fries drew such comments as: "Taste like salted cardboard to me," "The texture is like cold fries, even when they're hot," "I think they're terrible!", "They are wrong. In every way possible," "HATE THEM HATE THEM HATE THEM," and a succinct, yet heartfelt "YUK."

A Twitter thread on fast food fries included remarks regarding In-N-Out's contribution to the field such as "They may be fresh, but the texture is terrible," "In-N-Out fries are back ally cardboard bum condos put through a paper shredder and fried in dumpster juice," "I've always thought InNOut fries were total trash (I actually trash them whole)," and "In-N-Out Fries are fucking awful!" Even the scriptwriter for The Vampire Diaries and The Witcher tweeted: "In n Out fries are trash and I'm glad people are finally talking about that very true fact."

David Chang hates In-N-Out fries

There's no denying that David Chang — celebrity chef, restaurateur, TV star — knows a thing or two about food. Despite the fact that some of his own culinary creations — including his amazing ramen and legendary pork buns — are seen as the pinnacle of their respective food niches, Chang is no food snob. He readily admits to eating fast food, including having a surprising passion for Domino's (bacon, onion, and Alfredo sauce on thin crust is his go-to pizza). One thing he won't touch, however, is In-N-Out's fries. He agrees with the rest of the world that these fries are "total garbage," and what's more, he revealed to Vulture his theory as to why this is so.

Chang blames In-N-Out's bad fries on the fact that the chain makes such a big deal out of using fresh ingredients. He says that potatoes have their peak season of freshness, but that at other times of the year, they're not going to be as good. Because In-N-Out refuses to use frozen potatoes, this means that inevitably many of those fresh potatoes they're using are going to be out of season and thus not too tasty. Still, he says, he kind of admires the chain for their commitment to quality, despite the fact that it results in their having this one substandard product. As Chang puts it, "I think it's amazing that they can take a loss right off the bat because they're priming you for the whole experience."

In-N-Out fries put the "rank" in fry rankings

In 2019 a Los Angeles Times food columnist put together what he called the official French fry power rankings, compiling a chart which ranked the fries from 19 different fast food chains. Fast food, for the purposes of this survey, was defined as chains without table service (so no Red Robin) and ones where there are several hundred (or more) locations. And also, one presumes, chains that actually have locations in Los Angeles, so no Culver's, White Castle, or Whataburger. Fries were judged, and placed on the chart, according to two criteria: texture and taste. The overall best of the best, tops for taste and a respectable #4 for texture, were Five Guys fries, with McDonald's famous fries coming in at #2. All the way at the opposite end, however, was In-N-Out, whose fries ranked dead last in taste and second-to-last for texture (only Sonic's were judged to be worse).

So why, the LA Times critic asked, is In-N-Out unable to make a better fry? His theory differed from David Chang's in that he put it down to sheer laziness. In-N-Out, in his opinion, has gotten used to coasting on its reputation of having a burger that everybody loves, more for its iconic status as being oh-so-California, than its actual taste. With its reputation firmly cemented in everyone's consciousness, the chain simply doesn't feel it needs to work at making an edible french fry.

Possible reasons why In-N-Out fries suck

Chang may well be correct that In-N-Out doesn't mind putting out terrible fries as a kind of loss-leader proof of its commitment to freshness, and the LA Times critic may be right in thinking that In-N-Out simply doesn't want to bother, but these simply speak to the motivation, or rather, lack thereof, that has kept In-N-Out fries substandard for years. As to the actual reasons why these fries are so awful, compared to other fast-food chains, it seems to come down to ingredients and preparation.

Several Quora users weighed in on what makes In-N-Out fries so terrible. Several of them mentioned the fact that In-N-Out uses something called the Kennebec potato, which is not available in grocery stores, and is actually a different type of potato than the starchy Russets used by most other restaurant chains, so may not be something most of us are used to eating. While familiarity is said to breed contempt, when it comes to food preferences, unfamiliarity is more likely to breed dislike. Some spoke of the fact that In-N-Outs also tend to use cottonseed oil, which isn't as tasty as canola or some other oils, while others seemed to feel that the fries being prepared in-store means that their quality is dependent in a large part upon the skill and the experience level of the fry cook, who is likely to be a new, barely-trained, minimum wage-earning teenager.

In-N-Out fries are not being cooked the right way

Maybe it's the fault of the potatoes, the oil, or the fry cook, but there's one more reason why In-N-Out's fries may be as bad as they are. Chef Steve Samson, owner of Los Angeles eateries Rossoblu, Sotto, and Superfine Pizza, told LAist that by slicing the potatoes and then tossing them immediately in the fryer, In-N-Out is making a big mistake — potatoes should be soaked in water prior to being fried, as this helps ensure that the fries are properly cooked and can achieve a slightly crunchy exterior while remaining soft inside. 

Perhaps the biggest goof that In-N-Out makes with its fry preparation, however, is in failing to double-fry them, which is a technique most other fast-food chains employ to ensure the crispiest fries. As Samson explains, "The only way to make a really good french fry is to cook it at least twice, if not three times," but In-N-Out fries are only cooked once.

There's a sort-of workaround for this — if you ask for your fries "well done," In-N-Out will not cook them twice, but will keep them in the fryer for a bit longer. While this won't make In-N-Out's offering the platonic ideal of what french fries should be — or even something in the marginal/middling range like, say, Wendy's fries — it will, according to LAist, make them taste like Potato Stix. Well, that is an improvement of sorts, at least if you like Potato Stix.

Know your In-N-Out fry varieties

In-N-Out actually offers several different versions of the fry experience — none of them can really transform the fries into anything really memorable (at least not in a good way), but they do provide a certain variation on the overall fry mediocrity. In addition to the basic (and basically uninspiring) fries, there are different ways you can special order them. FoodBeast characterizes In-N-Out's custom-cooked fry terminology as follows: "light" or soft and terrible, "light well" is a little crispier than the basic version, "well done" is darker and crispier (or, as previously mentioned, Potato Stix-esque), and "extra well done" is almost burnt and inedible.

If you think that hiding unpalatable fries under a mess of toppings makes them tastier (instead of just messier), you can also try the cheese fries, in which the fries are draped with a few slices of cheese which then melt into goo, or you can go all-out and order the notorious animal-style fries. Animal style includes cheese, grilled onions, and a "special sauce" that closely resembles thousand island dressing. What makes these fries so notorious? Forgetting to order them cooked well done before asking for extra toppings pretty much guarantees you'll get a nasty, gloppy mess. In-N-Out's standard fries, after all, are way too limp to hold up under anything much heavier than ketchup.

In-N-Out fry hacks

FoodBeast suggests that In-N-Out fries can be somewhat improved by making creative use of In-N-Out's condiments or other offerings to create your own "secret menu." Lemon pepper fries can be made by sprinkling on a generous amount of black pepper from the condiment station and then squeezing on a few of the fresh lemon wedges meant for iced tea. Peppered ketchup is a quick and easy upgrade that just involves mixing pepper with your ketchup. Chopped chiles are a burger topping that can also be ordered for your fries — be forewarned, though, that while chiles are free if you get them on a burger, asking for them as a fry topping will incur an additional fee.

You can also try marrying your In-N-Out fries with another item from the menu. FoodBeast suggests something they call a "Monkey Style" burger, one which may remind many East Coasters of a Primanti Bros. sandwich as it involves sticking your fries inside your burger's bun. Yet another menu mashup is the "shake fries" — yep, you just dip your fries into a milkshake for a sweet'n'salty taste sensation in which the fries' substandard texture won't really matter so much.

Finally, if you want a lighter, less messy version of animal-style fries, you can simply ask for a few packets of "spread" (aka the special sauce). That way, you can just dip your fries in the condiment without having to overwhelm these poor fragile little tubers.

You can DIY better In-N-Out fries

If you're intrigued by the sound of animal-style fries, but don't want to deal with In-N-Out's disappointing fries, one way to get around this is to DIY your own animal-style fries at home. The internet has numerous In-N-Out copycat recipes such as the one provided by the Dinner Then Dessert food blog. If you're brave enough to do as many bloggers suggest and take charge of your own deep frying (don't laugh, grease fires are a serious kitchen hazard), then you can double or even triple-cook your fries to crispy perfection — not forgetting the chef-recommended trick of soaking them in cold water first. If you'd rather skip this step, though, you can always heat up a bag of frozen fries (still better than In-N-Out's) or even substitute fries from McDonald's (we'll never tell).

Once your fries are good to go, the next step is to caramelize the sliced onions. Saute these in salted butter, adding a little water from time to time so they do not dry out. When the onions are done, mix up the In-N-Out-style special sauce or "spread," using mayo, ketchup, and sweet pickle relish plus a sprinkle of sugar and a splash of distilled vinegar. At this point check your fries, reheating if necessary, since they'll need to be warm for the next step — covering them with a few slices of American cheese. Top the cheese with the onions, finish off with the sauce, and scarf the whole mess down before it's cold.

What In-N-Out does better than fries

Even though In-N-Out may well be offering some of the worst fries on the planet, they're still one of the nation's most popular fast food chains. Fortune, writing about a 2018 poll naming In-N-Out America's best-beloved quick service restaurant, noted its 76 percent customer loyalty rating — higher than that earned by any other restaurant in any category, despite In-N-Out's small six-state footprint. So why all this love and loyalty for a restaurant with such lousy fries? To paraphrase the old real estate maxim: 'There are three things that matter in fast food: burgers, burgers, burgers.' And when it comes to this particular criterion, In-N-Out's offering is indisputably epic.

No less of a food expert than Anthony Bourdain, a man who traveled the world and enjoyed some of its greatest delicacies, revealed in an interview with Eater that one of the reasons he enjoyed visiting Los Angeles was that the first thing he'd do would be to "hit the airport In-N-Out." He thought the burgers were close to perfection, as they managed to achieve "maximum areas of meat surface to the papills of the tongue." His go-to order? A Double-Double, animal-style. 

Bourdain wasn't the only celebrity chef feeling the In-N-Out love — Eater published a lengthy list of high-profile California restaurateurs who are all secret — or not-so-secret — In-N-Out burger fans. Ok, yeah, so it's too bad about those fries, but you know what's the best side dish to accompany an In-N-Out burger? Another In-N-Out burger!