Not all poutines are created equal, so here’s how I judge them.
Perfect Fries – score/30
The ideal fry is crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. The Belgian twice-fried method produces the best results: uncooked potato slices are first dipped in cold water to remove excess starch, fried once, then fried again at a higher temperature for added crispiness. The type of oil used, and its age, will affect the quality of the fry, as will the quantity of salt. Fries are always better if they are made with real potatoes, but a crispy fry made of reconstituted dehydrated potatoes will get higher marks than limp soggy potato sticks dripping with old grease. Traditional poutines aren’t foofy enough to have skin on the fries, but this is a matter of personal preference; I find that some varieties of Idaho or Russet have a thick brown skin that lend an overly earthy taste to the fries, whereas bintje or yellow-skinned potatoes have lighter skin that can add a bit of tasty crunch when fried.
Perfect Gravy – score/50
Gravy can make or break a poutine. Although it is the most important element, it should not lord over the other ingredients. Its temperature should not be too high, causing the fries to sog up and the cheese to disintegrate. It should not drown out the other ingredients in a soupy mess. The gravy should be a humble servant to the other ingredients, a smooth and velvety liaising element between the fries and the cheese. Gravy shoudn’t be too salty or too sweet, too subtle or too harsh, too watery or too thick. Meat-based or vegetable-based matters little, as long as the taste is balanced enough to complement the other ingredients. Barbecue sauce, however, is always wrong – this macho, pungent, sweet, overpowering condiment is meant for steak, and can kill the delicately subtle feminine saveur of a cheese curd. This article has further tips on achieving the perfect gravy.
Perfect Cheese – score/20
A classic poutine is made with squeaky cheddar cheese curds. These are always best at room temperature, and lose their squeak fast when kept in the fridge. This is why the best poutines use cheese made on the same day. A good curd keeps its squeak even after being smothered in gravy. The average curd diameter in your poutine should be at least 1cm. Curds should be evenly distributed throughout the poutine, not just on top. It is okay for the curd to melt a little on the outside – some people prefer a bit of melting – but it should never disintegrate into the gravy. There should be enough curds in a poutine so that you are not left staring at a large bowl of gravy & fries and wanting more – you shouldn’t ever need to ask for “extra fromage.” Other types of cheese may produce good results in designer poutines, but any such substitution should be clearly indicated on the menu.
Having said all this, I am not a poutine fascist. Many restaurants now serve novelty poutines made with foie gras, gnocchi, or home fries. Red wine, cream, or pepper are sometimes used to good effect in designer gravy. Interesting ingredients and cooking methods should always be reasonably accommodated, no matter what culture they come from, thereby allowing poutine to flourish and develop. However, it should be remembered that some cultural practices are repugnant to this nation’s culinary values (such as the “poutine” I had in Newfoundland that replaced cheese curds with sliced shards of Kraft singles).