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Like every red-blooded American, I love hash browns. I mean, what's not to adore about a heaping plate of golden brown and extra crispy potatoes? The answer is nothing. Seriously, I've yet to encounter anyone who truly hates hash browns, and if I ever run into such a person, I will let you all know (and properly scold them, too). Hash browns are a staple of basically all worthy American breakfast menus, from barebones diners and fast food joints to lavish breakfast buffets and continental spreads.
Now that the awesomeness of hash browns is settled, I have to point out that not everyone agrees on what hash browns are. While potatoes are a must, how those spuds are cut varies wildly. For some, hash browns are a collection of precisely cubed potatoes, while others prefer oddly shaped wedges. Many diners like to slice potatoes into 1/2-inch thick slices, while some fussy joints prefer to julienne the potatoes.
As for me, I always thought hash browns were made with shredded potatoes. When fried, the jumble of tangled strands form an intricate lattice of crispy golden brown potato. There is a trade-off. This method seems to maximize crunch at the expensive of pillowy interiors. I'll take it.
While this is the style I grew up eating, I never ate it much at home. Like most people, I usually left the hard hash brown work to the pros behind the griddles. Fortunately, shredded hash browns are relatively simple to make at home.
In fact, if time is your only concern, a decent version can be cooked with a minimum of fuss. Just grate a potato on the big holes of a cheese grater, toss it in a skillet with some fat, and cook until golden. They won't be great—they'll brown unevenly and won't stay crisp for long—but they will get the job done.
Which raises the question: how do you make great shredded hash browns?
First, you have to start with the right potato. I knew I didn't want waxy potatoes, because they don't crisp up very well. Since crispiness is the name of the game with shredded potato hash browns, I went with the good ole' Russet potato, which just loves to form crackly crusts. From there, I had a few ideas, which I needed to test.
Idea 1: Squeeze the Potatoes
Most recipes for shredded hash browns advise squeezing the potatoes to release as much liquid as possible before they are cooked. This makes sense. Potatoes are loaded with moisture, which makes browning difficult. By getting rid of excess water, the potatoes should brown more evenly and quickly. In his guide to great latkes (which aren't exactly hash browns, but definitely in the same shredded-potato family), Max mentions that "moisture is the enemy of a crisp latke," and it makes sense that the same would apply to hash browns.
What's the best way to expel water? The most common method is to wrap the shredded potatoes in a kitchen towel, and squeeze to release as much liquid as you can. But that's just one way to get it done. Simply Recipes calls for tossing the strands in a potato ricer and clamping down. Max had a lot of luck bundling the shredded potatoes in cheesecloth, and then threading in a wooden spoon to create sort of a vise to help squeeze. I was out of cheesecloth at the time, so I went with the towel method, which does take some effort, but gets the job done.
Idea 2: Cook the Potatoes
If I'm making any other version of hash browns, especially the cubed or sliced version, I start by cooking the potatoes first and then crisping them up in the skillet. I always thought that this is just a way of speeding up the process, but as Kenji explained in his post about making the best potato hash, this initial cooking process is actual crucial for crisp potatoes. I'll let him explain:
By par-cooking chunks of potatoes, you help create a thick layer of gelatinized starch around their exterior that, upon frying, subsequently dehydrates and browns. It's this dehydrated layer of gelatinized starch that gives potatoes a lasting crispness."
He recommends boiling cubed potatoes for his recipe, but the idea of boiling shredded potatoes sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. How would I know when each of those little strands was properly cooked, but not overly so? Plus with all that surface area, wouldn't they get waterlogged? Fortunately, Kenji also mentions that microwaving is a great option. That sounded like the better route here.
Idea 3: Rinse the Potatoes
Would it help if I rinsed the potatoes after shredding? After all, many recipes, including Kenji's one for ultra-crispy roast potatoes, call for rinsing potatoes after you cut them. But did I really want to rinse off the excess starch or would I need it to help bond the hash browns together?
The only thing left to do was buy a big bag of potatoes and get to work. For each one, I cooked an 8-ounce potato in 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil in a non-stick skillet. Here are the six different versions I tried.
- Shred potatoes and cook in skillet.
- Shred potatoes, squeeze dry, and cook in skillet.
- Shred potatoes, rinse under water, squeeze dry, and cook in skillet.
- Shred potatoes, par-cook in microwave for 2 minutes, and cook in skillet.
- Shred potatoes, squeeze dry, par-cook for 2 minutes in microwave, and cook in skillet.
- Shred potatoes, squeeze dry, par-cook for 4 minutes in microwave, and cook in skillet.
As I briefly mentioned above, you'll end up with some surprisingly solid shredded hash browns if you just grate them and go. But, for the most part, the adjustments do make noticeable improvements.
The only bust was rinsing the potatoes. This made the strands too distinct, so when I tried to flip the hash browns, they just collapsed into a mess of different pieces, making it nearly impossible to cook them evenly. This suggests that you really do need some surface starch to help them stick together.
Squeezing the potatoes helped in a number of ways: The potatoes cooked more evenly and developed a more consistent golden brown crust. The squeezed potatoes also maintained their crispy exterior for longer. Even after twenty minutes, they had a good crust.
Cooking the shredded potatoes in the microwave for 2 minutes helped with the cooking time. They browned very quickly in the skillet, making it much easier to get a beautiful golden brown crust with softer insides. That said, cooking for 4 minutes dried the strands out too much.
Combining the two methods left me with my ideal shredded hash browns. They had an even golden hue, a crispy and crackly exterior that stayed that way for a long time, and were lighter and airier inside. This is definitely the way to go.