Au Gratin Potatoes: History And Origin

Au Gratin Potatoes might be the fanciest and most delectable way to prepare a potato that you’ll ever find. It’s very tasty for sure, but just where does it come from? When were they invented and what does the name mean?

Au gratin potatoes were first cited in 1788, where they were referred to as ‘gratin dauphinois’. Their origins lay in Le Delphiné, a former province of Southeastern France. 

We’ll let you know everything you might be curious about regarding this tasty food item, including a deep dive on the name and origins, but first… just what are they?

What Are Au Gratin Potatoes?

For the uninitiated, au gratin potatoes are a very popular dish, often used as a side and occasionally as the main course. As a side dish they are most frequently found sitting next to beef or chicken among other things. 

The dish consists of potatoes, naturally, sliced into very, very thin layers. No thicker than a penny, as the oldest recipe books on it say. They are layered as well with cheese, spices and milk before being baked into a very distinctive golden brown. 

Some US recipes refer to the dish as ‘scalloped potatoes’, however today we know scalloped and au gratin potatoes to be distinct dishes. 

Many dishes can be made au gratin style, which essentially refers to a dish with a baked crispy surface, one that replicates the flavor-rich scrapes left at the bottom of a pan after cooking. But of course, potatoes are the most popular dish to be prepared this way.

Gratin dishes unsurprisingly often call for the use of a gratin pan, though you may not be familiar with this kind of pan. A gratin pan is a very shallow, oven-safe one.

After cooking, these pans are traditionally placed right atop the table so that guests may serve themselves. Many such pans are decorative in their appearance, made from fine materials such as ceramics to give them that fanciful look.

What Is A Typical Recipe For Au Gratin Potatoes?

The exact recipe has a decent amount of variance, through either personal preference or by region. Invariably though they all start the exact same way, and that’s with very thinly-sliced potatoes, all of which are layered in a baking dish.

Usually grated or crumbled up cheese is then added to the mix. Butter, cream or milk are also common factors in the mixture. 

Some chefs might add in salt or pepper here for seasoning, while others will go to bacon instead to give it a much heartier and rich taste. 

Garlic and onions are additional traditional ingredients. And the distinctive look of au gratin potatoes is created by adding a top layer of cheese – often finely grated or shredded – as well as breadcrumbs and eggs. 

Where Did Au Gratin Potatoes Get Their Name From?

We know them in the West as Au Gratin Potatoes, but like many French foods they of course have a much fancier name over there. In this case, the original name was Gratin Dauphinois. Sometimes confused with pommes dauphine.

That name comes from its apparent place of origin, Le Dauphiné. Le Dauphiné was the name of a province in Southeastern France in the days of the Roman empire. It roughly encapsulates the regions of Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes today.

The word Dauphin itself translates to “unseated king”, and was a nickname ascribed to Guiges IV, Count of Albon. He was a nobleman in that region himself, leading to some speculation that the dish may have been invented around his time and could’ve been a favorite of his. 

If this were true, that would place its origins around the 11th century, however that doesn’t appear to be true.

Origin Of The Word ‘Gratin’

The best place to look for the definition of this is likely the book Larousse Gastronomique, which is essentially an encyclopedia of French cuisine. According to this manuscript of French eats, Gratin refers to the distinctive crust on the potatoes.

Gratin is evidently a French word used to describe the golden crust which forms on the dishes surface after it’s been broiled or after it’s been browned in an oven. The word comes from the French phrase ‘very gratter’, which means ‘to scrape’.

More specifically, gratin was first used to specifically describe the crust which was stuck to the cooking receptacle after baking. This crust would have to be scraped off, but was still frequently eaten. 

If we check the Oxford Companion to Food, we’ll see much the same in its entries for Gratin as well as its verb form, ‘Gratiner’. It says that the word ‘Gratin’ dates back to the 16th century and referred to the part of a cooked dish which stuck to the pot or pan.

It further states that around the 19th century, the meaning morphed into what we know today. That being the deliberate practice of cooking a dish so that the top of it is baked to a crisp. Stewing grated cheese or breadcrumbs atop a dish often creates this effect. 

This is why the term ‘au gratin’ is sometimes taken to mean, ‘with grated cheese’, though that’s often said to be incorrect. 

When Were Au Gratin Potatoes Invented?

As far as recorded history goes, it would appear that Au Gratin Potatoes were first made in the year 1788. There, they were introduced as a decadent French dish, sliced potatoes baked with grated cheese and cream. 

Supposedly the debut for this dish was made at a fanciful state dinner on July 12th of that year. It was served alongside ortolans at a dinner hosted by Charles-Henri. Charles was the Duke of Clermont-Tonnerre as well as the Lieutenant-general of the Dauphiné. 

Allegedly this included some gruyere cheese. However today au gratin purists might tell you that it’s only ‘correct ‘ – whatever that means – for au gratin potatoes to have no topping whatsoever and to come with no cheese. 

When Did Au Gratin Potatoes Become Popular In The US?

Their popularity rose in the US in the 50s and through the 70s as potatoes were grown at a massive scale. With time, older potato recipes began to be tossed aside to make room for things like scalloped potatoes and, of course, the au gratin variety.

It was almost certainly Betty Crocker’s recipe that did the most to popularize them in North America. The dish was delish, as well as quick and convenient to make, and didn’t break the bank either. 

During the 70s, eating together at home was still a big deal to families in the US, but became tougher to do as many families had both parents as part of the workforce.

Are Au Gratin Potatoes Healthy?

You might’ve noticed that there’s a high amount of fatty ingredients listed up there in the recipe section. Indeed, Au Gratin Potatoes are most frequently seen with a large concentration of cheese, milk, butter and cream.

That all comes together to make for a dish that is often very rich in fat and calories. As such it’s recommended as a dish best served in moderation. Thankfully it’s usually a side dish, meaning you can pair with a more nutritious main course.

However if you do want to indulge in this, there are variations on the recipe that can substantially trim down that fattiness. For example, some recipes might substitute the traditional cream and butter with water or skim milk.

Other such alternatives will use garlic and herbs for seasoning over salt and butter. And if you see Au Gratin Potatoes in a grocery store, they will typically come pre-manufactured in a box or peach that requires the addition of water or milk. 

These will invariably result in a lower-fat alternative to the usual homemade variety. 

In Conclusion…

Au gratin potatoes aren’t as ancient as some foods we discuss, but 1788 is still more than far enough back for some interesting traditions to have come about. 

The name seems to actually predate the food itself, as ‘gratin’ first referred to the baked, crumbly leftover that was later replicated atop the famous dish. 

The most typical recipe might be fatty and high in calories, but as an occasional treat it’s a divine choice for any meal. And it’s an easy way to feel like a sophisticated nobleman without burning a hole in your wallet to boot!