When it comes to iconic Canadian dishes, few would deny that Poutine sits alone at the top of the pile. This French-Canadian favourite traditionally consists of a bed of crispy, thick-cut french fries smothered in hot gravy and topped with squeaky cheese curds. Simple as it may sound, the textures and flavours in an expertly made poutine come together to produce a savoury taste explosion far greater than the sum of its parts. Originally from Québec, poutine has long been a favourite of late-night crowds with salty cravings after a night on the town. Over the years, however, the humble poutine has moved beyond Québec’s snack bars to become a stand-out dish in restaurants across Canada and beyond.
As is often the case with beloved dishes that are closely tied to a region and culture, the origin of poutine is difficult to pin down. We can be sure that poutine first emerged in roadside snack bars, or casse-croûtes, in rural Québec sometime in the late 1950s, but that’s where the competing claims among rival restaurants begin. Whichever origin story you choose, by the late 1960s poutine had spread to restaurants in major cities across Québec and neighbouring Ontario, and by the 80s was being served at local fast-food chains, sending it well on its way to mainstream popularity.
The traditional poutine recipe
At its core, a traditional poutine is made up of a simple trio of ingredients: French fries, gravy and cheese curds. But it’s the quality of these ingredients and the overall execution that make the difference between a greasy, uninspiring mess and a portion of wonderfully indulgent comfort food.
First off, the French fries. As the starchy foundation of the whole dish, the ideal fries for poutine must be crispy and sturdy enough to withstand an onslaught of gravy and melting cheese, and still have that perfect crunch on the outside. As a result, thick-cut fries are the way to go; thinner fries absorb the gravy too quickly and will end up in a soggy pile. Also, remember that the secret to that crispy exterior in the perfect French fry lies in soaking the sliced potatoes ahead of time, and frying them not once, but twice.
Second, comes the gravy, which acts as the glue to hold this delicious concoction together. The proper gravy for poutine should have a rich texture and just the right amount of umami. Store-bought and canned gravies will do in a pinch, but it’s easy enough to make delicious gravy at home, and the result will be well worth the effort. Poutine connoisseurs often choose a blend of beef-based and chicken-based gravy for the ideal flavour profile and consistency.
Finally, the cheese curds, which give poutine its signature texture and an extra layer of salty goodness. Cheese curds are solidified pieces of curdled milk separated from the whey when producing cheese, usually cheddar, and are most common in Québec and the northern United States, which explains why they feature prominently in this québecois specialty. Only fresh curds have the sought-after “squeaky” sound that you hear as your teeth cut through the strands of cheese, so if you don’t happen to live where they are commonly produced, you can always learn how to make your own; the unmistakable texture and soft salty flavour are surprisingly addictive.
Variations on a classic dish
As poutine’s popularity has grown, so too has the list of expanded recipes that use fries, gravy and cheese as a springboard to new creations. Popular choices in poutine chains across Canada include using Montréal smoked meat or pulled pork as extra toppings for an added protein punch. Of course, Canada’s cosmopolitan major cities are also ideal breeding grounds for experimentation. Different cultures and communities substitute their own staple foods into the dish and end up with entirely novel combinations, sometimes resembling traditional poutine in name only. See for yourself how far some of these new variations go, including yucca poutine and pierogi poutine. Or, if you’re looking for a daily dose of food porn, check out some of these decadent poutines served up by creative chefs from across Canada.
Since cheese curds are a regional specialty, some of the most common variations on the classic French-Canadian poutine involve substituting the cheese curds for something more readily available. In New Jersey, “disco fries” are similar to poutine but use shredded mozzarella cheese instead of curds, and similar versions are popular in central Canada. But to best simulate the gooey texture of softened cheese curds, proper large chunks of full-fat mozzarella are the way to go. It may not squeak like cheese curds do, but it’s pretty close to the real thing.
Famous chefs’ take on poutine
By the 1990s, Montréal chefs had been experimenting with ways to elevate poutine to the level of haute cuisine, with some chefs trying out gourmet toppings like caviar, veal jus and Moroccan harissa. But of all the creative spins on poutine, there is one in particular that marked a key turning point, when poutine left behind its reputation as a late-night drunk food and landed on the menus of top-notch restaurants. In 2001, chef Martin Picard at the Montréal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon topped a pitch-perfect plate of poutine with foie gras, sending amazed customers to flavour nirvana. Realising poutine’s potential as a fabulous vehicle for more subtle, refined flavours, other Canadian chefs quickly developed their own gourmet poutines. At his restaurant Bymark in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, head chef Mark McEwan served up a buttery lobster poutine that sparked rave reviews. Meanwhile, chef Jamie Kennedy put a poutine with braised beef on the menu at his eponymous wine bar.
Other top chefs have decided to create their own, more modest interpretations of the classic recipe, such as chef Chuck Hughes, whose addition of ketchup, garlic, apple cider vinegar and Worcestershire sauce to the gravy give the dish an added tangy zip to balance out the grease from the fries.