Updated: Feb 5
If you want to try the most decadent, delicious, and wine-friendly potato dish in the known universe, google recipes for “Pommes de Terre au Gratin Dauphinois”
or some variation thereof in French, English, or a mixture of the two tongues. (You might want to specify “English” in your search.) Though this dish is perhaps centuries old, Julia Child did much to make it famous, and so we shall honor her efforts by using her nomenclature— “Potatoes au Gratin Dauphinois.”
This dish originated in the Dauphiné, a former province in southeastern France now part of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Dauphiné was in the mountainous eastern edge— the French Alps— where summer bicycle racing and winter skiing attract international attention. Grenoble, the area’s largest city, was host to the 1968 Winter Olympic Games, as was nearby Albertville in 1992 and Chamonix in 1924. Like most of France there are numerous vineyards here, although one must venture an hour or two downhill and west in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes to find world-class wine appellations such as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage.
Potatoes au Gratin Dauphinois could rightly be characterized as “winter mountain food,” perhaps the perfect après-ski cockle-warmer. I like to think of it as a grown-up version of tomato soup & grilled cheese after a childhood morning spent frolicking in the snow. Peruse several recipes (and of course the comment sections) and you will find considerable debate over nearly every aspect of this dish— What breed of potatoes? Should one rinse off the excess starch, or not? What type of baking dish? Should one use milk, heavy cream, or half & half? Nutmeg? Thyme? (And if so, fresh or dried?) How much garlic? In fact, you will probably find just two things they all agree upon— that this dish is freaking fabulous, and that one must use the right cheese.
French President General Charles de Gaulle once quipped, “How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” Well, the good denizens of Dauphiné must have felt the need for a 247th, because they reached across the nearby Swiss border for the Gruyère that puts this dish over the top. Though real Gruyère comes from Switzerland, credible domestic versions (from Wisconsin) are also available. The Swiss versions are more strongly flavored and are of course more expensive. Since the main ingredient (potatoes) is fairly cheap, top-quality Gruyère is worth the splurge. If you want to save a buck or three, buy chunks of it at your favorite wholesale club and grate it yourself.
After several iterations and near-misses, here is a fairly simple version with which I’ve enjoyed success. (We have my mother-in-law to thank for the addition of white onions.)
Potatoes au Gratin Dauphinois
4-5 Medium-Sized Baking (Russet) Potatoes, peeled & kept covered with water
6-7 oz. Chunk of Gruyere, trimmed and coarsely grated
1 Pint Heavy Cream (You won’t use it all)
1 White (NOT Yellow) Onion, halved & sliced as thinly as possible
2-3 Cloves of Garlic, finely minced (less if you don’t love garlic like I do)
• Preheat oven to 400º.
• Gently sauté the sliced onion in just enough butter until lightly colored.
• With similar gentleness, briefly cook the minced garlic in butter, taking care to
avoid browning it. When it appears about to change color, add 1 cup of the
cream to arrest further cooking, and remove from heat.
• Slice the potatoes (about 1/8” thick) as you cover the bottom of a 8” x 8”
Pyrex® baking dish with partially overlapping potato slices as if you were
dealing a deck of cards for solitaire. 1- 1.5 potatoes per layer should work.
• Top the layer of potatoes with a thin smattering of the onions, a tiny sprinkling
of thyme and nutmeg, and a layer of Gruyere about twice as generous as the
onions. Salt very lightly; grind a little pepper if desired.
• Repeat the process for 2 more layers. Add cream-garlic mixture to the dish,
then clean out the cream-garlic pan with just enough cream to raise the liquid
level in the dish to no more than halfway.
• Cover tightly with foil and cook for 45 minutes or so, or until potatoes are
• Remove foil, cook for 10 more minutes to lightly brown the top. Broil if
• Allow to rest for at least 1/2 hour before serving. Reheat if necessary in
microwave or hot oven.
Potatoes Gratin Dauphinois makes a great accompaniment to cold weather feasts that feature roasts such as pork (including ham), lamb, or beef. And it is substantial enough to be a meal in itself. Some recipes actually include meat.
As Julia used to say at the end of each installment, Bon Appetit!