What Makes a Legit Poutine, According to Montreal's Culinary Minds
Montreal is famous for a number of things, such as our delicious bagels and our notoriously wild strip clubs. But above all else, Montreal is the poutine capital of the world. We may not have many working roads or agree on one language, but we certainly know how to pour some gravy and cheese over our French fries.
Poutine isn't just a Montreal or a Quebec thing anymore. All over the globe, poutines have become one of the most popular new items to add to any menu. Hell, even in Cleveland, Ohio, there's an entire restaurant dedicated to the stuff. Are they doing it justice, though?
In order to get a definitive answer on what goes into a proper poutine, we reached out to some of the people who would know best.
"The curds should sound like two balloons making out."
According to Ryan Smolkin, CEO of Smoke's Poutinerie, a franchise restaurant specializing in some of the most eyebrow raising poutine-centric creations out there, "the traditional poutine starts with fresh hand-cut fries and is topped with squeaky cheese curds, followed by piping hot gravy. The curds should sound like two balloons making out. That's how you know they're true, authentic Quebec cheese curd."
Those three core ingredients are essential, Smolkin says. "Without them, you're definitely doing it wrong."
That said, adding to that trifecta isn't against the poutine rulebook, a move that Smoke’s is notorious for pulling. Smolkin notes that it loads the traditional poutine with "a limitless variation of toppings. We throw in everything, from chipotle pulled pork and double-smoked bacon to spicy Italian sausage and caramelized onions. We even throw on scrambled eggs, maple syrup, Tabasco sauce, and bacon."
Annie Barsalou, co-owner of La Banquise, a Montreal landmark restaurant famous for its poutines, local microbrews, and 24-hour service in the heart of the Plateau Downtown, can't stress the importance of the same three main ingredients enough.
According to Barsalou, "the three basic items are fries, cheese, and gravy. Of course, the classic would be with curd cheese, but is it the law? No way! You can do whatever you want as long as it is delicious." Poutine aficionados may disagree; many argue that the "squeaky" cheese is a necessity, but Barsalou is more lenient on the rules.
According to Dustin Gillman, who runs @FoodGuyMTL, the cheese is what makes all the difference. He explains that the potatoes and gravy are “pretty standard, and variations of each are generally OK, but the cheese can make all the difference between a good one and a wrong one.”
So what would those be? “Stay away from mozzarella, brie, or any other really melty cheese," Gillman says. "The curd is the one and only cheese for poutine.”
Gillman goes on to explain how the ideal poutine should be prepared, stating that the "fries must not disintegrate under the hot gravy. They must be crispy, not soggy. The cheese can melt a bit, but also not completely melt away. A sign of a good cheese curd is one that stays together from beginning to end. The gravy must be a rich, brown sauce.” It's all in the details.
Montreal's food guy is all for adding ingredients and trying specialty poutines, but he asserts that the only way to tell if a restaurant has a good one or not is to try a standard poutine first; it’s the only way to know for sure if the place knows what it's doing.
La Banquise definitely knows what it's doing, but it's also all about experimenting when it comes to ingredients. Barsalou stresses that you should never be afraid to “change the kind or the look of your potatoes, exchange the cheese for goat cheese, mozzarella, feta, or, as some of our new customers asked, vegetarian cheese with a vegetarian gravy."
One man who knows a few things about culinary creations is ex-Epic Meal Time Chef Josh Elkin (and, full disclosure, this writer's former colleague). The popular food engineer, responsible for some of the world’s biggest and greasiest concoctions on his YouTube channel, thinks that having at least any variation of the three staple ingredients is sufficiently, authentically poutine.
"A breakfast poutine that consists of breakfast potatoes, Swiss cheese, and hollandaise is still considered a poutine," Elkin says. "Or, an Italian poutine that has roasted potatoes, marinara sauce, and mozzarella,” would undeniably be a respectable poutine as well. When asked if there’s a wrong way to prepare a poutine, Elkin’s response was simple: “The only wrong way to make a poutine is to not make one at all.”
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Tyler Lemco is a writer from Montreal, Quebec. He enjoy burgers, rap music, cheeseburgers, basketball, and bacon cheeseburgers. Follow him on all social medias @tlemco