We're nearing Hanukkah again, which means it's time to start arguing about whether it's early or late this year, moaning, "I can't believe you threw away the pupik!", and defending your choice to not go to grad school so you can sit and blab about food on the internet.
Okay, so maybe I'm projecting a bit. Forgive me. It's a stressful time of year.
But amidst the nudging, nagging, and nebbishing of the Hanukkah season lies something that mends all wounds and brings us all together. I'm talking about latkes, the perfect party food. And when you get the hang of them, they're a cinch to make.
That said, there are a lot of ways latkes can go wrong. If you're looking to step up your latke game, this guide has everything you need to know, from ingredients to equipment to technique.
What Makes a Perfect Latke?
A lot of the problems in latke-craft stem from a misunderstanding of what a latke is. To start, it's not a potato pancake. Potato pancakes have a creamy, almost mashed-potato-like center, with a thin, golden, crisp exterior. Latkes, on the other hand, should have a deeply browned crust, with wispy, lacy edges.
Latkes also aren't hash browns. Hash browns are all about crispy, burnished crust, with just enough potato-y center to gain a third dimension and a little give. A latke's interior should be plump and slightly cakey, but yielding, with recognizably rustic strands of potato intertwined with onion.
To put it in burger terms, a latke should combine a pub burger's heft with a smash burger's crust—the best of all possible potato worlds.
I'm going to ask that you bear with me on this definition. If you prefer your latkes extra thin and crispy or with creamy centers, try these and see if they change your mind. If they don't, I'm not going to say that what you've lovingly made for your family isn't a latke, but we're going to have to agree to disagree.
A latke has three main elements: potato, onion, and a binder. The potato part is easy. Don't get anything fancy—russet potatoes are all you need. Russets, often called Idaho potatoes, brown the best and produce tender interiors, thanks to their high starch content. Some people peel their potatoes for latkes, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why. Potato peels add pleasant texture and honest potato-y flavor. (Plus, peeling is a lot of work.) Just give your potatoes a good scrubbing under warm water, and they'll be ready to go.
As for the onion, I find that globe-shaped Spanish yellow varieties are the best. They have some seriously funky allium flavor to jazz up the mild potatoes.
The binder merits more contemplation. I use a combination of three binders: eggs, matzo meal, and potato starch. Eggs add wholesome flavor and fat and act as spackle, sucking together ingredients of different shapes and sizes into a single mass. But eggs aren't enough to keep latkes bound together. Before and during frying, the potatoes and onions will give up a fair amount of moisture, and if you use only eggs as a binder, your neatly packed latkes will become a mess of eggy, oily hash browns. They'll fall apart before you're able to flip them.
Starch sucks up moisture like nothing else, and my favorite for latkes is matzo meal, which is nothing more than ground-up matzo (often, beguilingly, not kosher for Passover, the holiday matzo is made for). Matzo doesn't win any contests for flavor, but to me, a latke just isn't a latke without that slight cracker-y taste that matzo meal provides. And it's far less likely to turn your latkes' insides into a gluey mess than, say, flour. Of course, potatoes have plenty of starch themselves, and we can liberate that starch to help bind the latkes. More on that below.
Oh, and a note on oil. While it's not really an ingredient in latkes, oil matters. First and foremost, don't be afraid to use a lot of it; the latkes will cook faster and more evenly that way. (And no, they won't be too greasy.) If you use too little oil, the exteriors will burn before the insides are cooked through. Second, as lovely as olive oil is, leave it out—it can't handle the heat for latke-frying. Stick to canola or peanut oil, which both have high enough smoke points to fry up a mess of latkes. (Update: With further testing and research, we've changed our stance on frying in olive oil. It's perfectly fine to use olive oil for frying—in fact, it's a millennia-old tradition among the Roman Jews. But, for frying latkes, you'll probably still want to avoid olive oil, since the flavor isn't quite right in that context.)
While our grandmothers probably fried up latkes with whatever tools they had on hand, we have the luxury of options. When it comes to tools for shredding and frying your latkes, luxury is good.
I'm a fan of cast iron for frying latkes because it retains heat so well, which translates into less fussing with temperatures once you start frying. I've fried latkes side by side in cast iron and stainless steel pans, and cast iron produces a deeper, more burnished crust that I love. In my experience, stainless steel requires continuous adjustment to both the stove and the latkes, and the results are never as pretty.
I also consider a food processor essential, and not just because it's so much easier than grating by hand. A hand grater produces thin, flimsy strands of potato that clump together and make for dense, gummy latkes. The food processor's grating disk—and if you use it only once a year for latkes, that's okay—yields larger, firmer, shoestring-like threads that give the latke heft and gorgeously lacy edges. That Acme grater may be more traditional, but a food processor makes a latke you can really sink your teeth into.
Setting Up (and Introducing the Greatest Latke Trick of All Time)
Now your ingredients are assembled, and your gear is ready to go. When you're frying, organization and technique are your best friends, so set up as much as you can beforehand. Once you start mixing up latkes, your hands will become covered with starch, and dried-up matzo meal is murder to get off cabinet handles.
Pre-chop your onions and set them aside. (You can grate them if you prefer, but make sure you drain them thoroughly to drive away excess moisture. I prefer bigger chunks of onion anyway, as they brown better.) Put together a draining rig—mine is a sheet pan layered with paper towels—next to a serving platter. Get those eggs out of the fridge, so your fingers don't freeze come mixing time. And premeasure your matzo meal, keeping in mind that it's easier to return extra to the container when your hands are clean than to pour out more with your elbows.
Shredded potatoes brown fast, so make the shredding your last step. After you've run two or three potatoes through the food processor, open it up and dump the shreds into a bowl lined with a couple layers of cheesecloth. Why cheesecloth? Remember when we talked about liberating starch from potatoes, and how excess moisture is the enemy of a crisp latke? Well, here's the solution: The Greatest Latke Trick of All Time.
When I first was learning how to make latkes, I was taught to press the potato shreds against a colander to draw excess moisture out into a bowl below. The starch collects at the bottom of the bowl and, after the water is drained off, can be added to the latke mix. It's a neat trick.*
Except that pressing water out of potatoes by hand is reminiscent of Moses being asked to summon forth water from a stone. But where Moses had a staff and god on his side, I just have two pasty arms and weak biceps. Draining by hand takes forever, and when you're done, it feels like you've lost an arm-wrestling match to a potato.
Cheesecloth and a little physics hold the answer: Bundle the potato shreds in the cheesecloth, and wrap the corners around the handle of a wooden spoon. Then, holding the corners around the spoon, twist the bundle tightly. As you twist, pressure will force water out of the potatoes with ease. Collect this water in a bowl, then transfer your dry, ready-to-crisp potato shreds into another mixing bowl, and toss them with chopped onions.
* Okay, so The Greatest Latke Trick of All Time is more of a corollary. But who's keeping score?
After a couple of minutes, the drained water will separate into a brown murky pool over a bed of pale, already-hydrated potato starch. Drain off the water and add the starch to your potatoes and onions, along with eggs, a hefty dose of salt, and just enough matzo meal to give the mix body. The mixture should be firm enough to form patties that you can pass from hand to hand.
I set up two skillets at a time, with enough oil to come halfway up the latkes. You want to fry them fairly hot; there's little risk of overcooking. I don't bother taking the oil's temperature, but I heat it on medium-high for several minutes before I begin frying. Put a stray shred of potato in the oil. If it bubbles vigorously within a second, your oil is ready to go.
But before you begin frying, make a tiny test latke to check for seasoning. There's nothing more disappointing than an underseasoned latke, and while you can make your latke mix by sight and feel, proper salting can only come from a taste. You probably need more salt than you think, and this test latke will help keep hungry mouths at bay.
Size is a matter of debate in the latke-making community. I like mine the size of a good burger: about four inches in diameter and one inch thick. Two or three of those can take care of any famished diner as a main course. If you're serving latkes as sides or appetizers, smaller and thinner may be the way to go; you'll get lacier edges that way. This batter works great for both versions.
Give your latkes space, so that they don't form a giant pancake, and fry them, turning them every once in a while to balance out hot spots in the pan, until they develop a golden crust on the bottom. Flipping is best done with a slotted spatula and a fork for balance. Your latkes are ready when both sides are a deep brown and the crust is thick. But keep in mind that they will darken as they cool, and there is such a thing as too crispy (i.e., burnt).
For reasons that escape me, many latke purveyors and eaters feel that the addition of applesauce or sour cream is an either/or proposition. My best guess is a lacuna between people of German descent and those of Slavic heritage, the former preferring sweet fruit sauces with their savory dishes and the latter considering sour cream to be a main course in and of itself. I say we breach the Teutonic/Slavic divide and use both, and plenty of them. When they're used together, a latke needs nothing else to be a meal all on its own.
I also beg you to make your own applesauce. It takes all of 20 minutes, is stupidly easy, and will taste better than anything from a jar. Good apples need only a pinch of salt and some time to soften and make great applesauce. Incidentally, applesauce is a fantastic next-day cure for greasy-stomach-from-too-many-latkes-itis.
Now that you've mastered your latkes, you may start wondering about variations. How about potato-apple-turnip latkes? Sweet potato latkes? Ginger-garlic taro latkes? The internet is full of suggestions for ways to jazz up and "modernize" the humble latke.
I'll tell you exactly what your grandmother would say. It's all mishegas. Some perfect things need no improvement. Go forth and fry with the courage of your convictions, and have a happy, latke-stuffed Hanukkah.
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