What to Eat in France: Authentic Gratin Dauphinois, or Real Gratin Potatoes with Cream and Garlic
Gratin dauphinois, which consists of thinly sliced potatoes cooked slowly with cream and garlic, seems a simple enough dish. Purists and traditionalists say there’s no cheese and no egg, despite the fact that Escoffier himself used them, and that’s what makes it difficult to achieve.
Michelin star chef Michel Rostang, who was born and raised in the region, doesn’t use them and claims that’s the only authentic way to make it. In fact, if you add cheese and nutmeg, it becomes a gratin savoyard. The real secret is in the choice of ingredients and the patience it takes to make it. A good gratin should melt in the mouth, yet the top should be crunchy.
The Dauphiné was an ancient province of France, located in the southeast, corresponding roughly to the départements of Isère, Drôme, and Hautes-Alpes plus a bit of the Rhône and the Italian Alps.
Where does the term gratin come from? The root word, gratter, means to scrape or scratch. Claudine Brécourt-Villars says the term originally appeared in the sixteenth century and was used to designate the food stuck to the sides of a cooking dish of any kind, food that could be scraped off later. It was in the nineteenth century that the term started being used for savory dishes covered with sauce, bread crumbs and grated cheese, the cooking of which was started on the stovetop and finished in the oven to form a golden crust on top, while maintaining a soft, moist interior.
In his book Cuisine traditionnelle des Alpes about the traditional cuisine of the Alps, Claude Muller recounts that gratin dauphinois was mentioned for the first time at a banquet in 1788, but that it was a peasant dish dating back centuries in the Savoy and Dauphiné, which started using potatoes much earlier than the French due to their close proximity to Switzerland. The Swiss started growing potatoes in the sixteenth century, long before Parmentier started promoting them in France in the eighteenth century.
About the Potatoes
In France, many chefs recommend Monalisa potatoes; others prefer Charlottes. Michel Rostang uses Samba. Elizabeth David said to use “firm, waxy varieties” such as Kipfler and Fir-apple Pink. In all cases, avoid the kind of potatoes one uses for mashed potatoes, the kind that mush up when cooked.
If you don’t have a mandoline, now’s the time to buy one, because much of the success of this dish depends on how thinly the potatoes are sliced.
Wash the potatoes before peeling them. Dry in a cloth or with paper towels.
Just as there are a thousand recipes for gratin dauphinois, there are a thousand ways to cook it. Some cook the potatoes before putting them in the oven, giving a soft texture to the final product, while others put the raw potatoes into the cream and cook it slowly in the oven the entire time. Some use thick cream; others use liquid cream or half milk and half cream.
What is to be avoided at all costs is for the fat to separate while baking. This ruins the texture and the taste. How does one avoid this? By baking slowly for an hour and a half or two hours at no higher than 275°F to 300°F. The idea is for the cream to slowly impregnate the potatoes so that they are soft and creamy.
The basic technique is always the same: Rub an earthenware baking dish with garlic, then butter it. For every pound of potatoes use about a pound of cream. Michel Rostang brings the potatoes to a boil on top of the stove before putting them into the baking dish, layer by layer, alternating with the cream, and adding salt and pepper. After an hour, he scrapes off the top crust and adds another half cup or so of cream, then mixes and puts back in the oven for another 45 minutes. He says this creates a nice golden crust that isn’t too thick, but leaves the potatoes soft to perfection.
Claude Muller says that in the countryside, people often prepare this dish the day before, which makes it even creamier and melt-in-your-mouth.
This is inspired from Michelin star chef Michel Rostang‘s simplified recipe. I can’t do better, unless it would be to add cream an hour into cooking, as he suggested above.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours
1 pound potatoes with firm flesh (Samba)
1 garlic clove
14 fluid ounces milk
1 pint single cream
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt
Pepper to taste
Earthenware baking dish
- Preheat the oven to 300°F.
- Rub the dish with garlic, both sides and bottom.
- Butter it.
- Wash the potatoes. Peel.
- Slice the potatoes extra thin with a mandoline slicer so that you can see through them.
- Beat the milk and the cream in the saucepan.
- Lightly salt and pepper.
- If your baking dish can be used on top of the stove, skip to step 10. If not, warm the milk over medium heat, then add the potatoes to the saucepan. Bring to a boil and remove from burner.
- Place a layer of potatoes in the baking dish. Cover with some of the milk and cream mixture.
- Continue forming layers in this manner until all the ingredients are used. Bring the baking dish to a boil on top of the stove.
- Cover the top of the mixture with knobs of butter.
- Bake until golden brown, about an hour and a half.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.
Thanks for the references in this Slate article.