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Hanukkah begins tomorrow, which for me means one thing: fried potatoes for dinner.
In my house, latkes don't play second fiddle to brisket. They're the main event. As far as I'm concerned, they're the best part of the holiday, and I have 2,000 words for you on why. That article goes into exacting detail on every possible variable you need to know to make great latkes. But if you're barreling down the grocery store aisles right now, shopping to get your Hanukkah dinner going, here's a handy cheat sheet on the big points that busts some latke myths along the way.
1. Russets Brown Best
You may be tempted to use some fancy spuds for your latkes, but if you're after great browning, Russet/Idaho potatoes are your best bet. Their high starch content translates into extra crispy edges and soft, fluffy centers.
2. Food Processor > Hand Grater
A subset of militant latke traditionalists will tell you that grating your latkes by hand, and scraping your knuckles across the grater in the process, is the only true way to make latkes. Well, at the risk of getting called a schmuck [again], let me say: they are wrong.
A grater produces thin, flimsy sheets of potatoes that form weighty clumps. A food processor, by comparison, forms tiny matchsticks that separate more easily and stay intact. That shape difference makes for a slightly lighter, more delicate latke rather than a dense one, and of course a food processor takes a fraction of the time that hand-grating would.
You won't miss the blood.
3. Use Cheesecloth for the Crispiest Potatoes
Moisture is the enemy of crispy potatoes, which is why many latke recipes call for squeezing and draining your spuds. Squeezing with your hands, what most of those recipes call for, is slow and painful. I prefer cheesecloth with an assist from physics. Place a couple handfuls of potatoes in the center of a cheesecloth square, tie the corners around a wooden spoon, and twist until the water floods out. It's more effective than any hand-wringing.
4. Save Your Potato Starch!
When you do wring out that water, you'll find it separates into a layer of brown water floating on a bed of tan potato starch. Toss the water, but save the starch! It's one of the best binders for your batter.
The Other Ingredients
5. Chopped Onions = Sweeter Onions
Some people grate their onions to better integrate the chunks with the potatoes. And, they argue, since you're rupturing more of the onions' cells by grating them, your latkes will taste more onion-y.
I haven't found this to be the case. Grated onions do disperse more evenly, but they also release more moisture into latke batter, even after straining, which means they don't brown as well. Larger pieces of chopped onion release less moisture and take on a sweeter caramelized flavor as they fry. The onion taste comes in pops instead of being diffused throughout, but when you get a chunk, it's more powerful.
6. Matzo Meal > Flour
Many latke recipes call for flour as a binder, but flour makes for a dense, pancake-like batter that can turn greasy when fried. Matzo meal binds potatoes without weighing them down as much, and it adds a subtle toasted-cracker flavor to the latkes.
7. Add Your Salt Right Before Frying
You can make your latke batter a little in advance, but don't add the salt until you're ready to fry. Otherwise you risk the salt watering down your batter like bad coleslaw, which makes for heavy, lifeless latkes that don't fry as well.
8. But Go Heavy on It
Latkes need a lot of salt, more than you might think they'd need, so go bold. The only way to test your seasoning is to make a tiny test latke before you start frying. Even after years of latke-making, I usually have to make a second tester after adding more salt before proceeding with the rest of the batter.
9. Don't Sweat Exact Ingredient Amounts
My latke recipe does give ingredient amounts, but most of the time I wing it when it comes to exact proportions. The moisture content of your potatoes and onions will determine how much egg and matzo meal you need to add, and that amount changes every time. So don't worry about slavishly following a recipe! Add as much or little onion as you like. Slowly add binder, alternating egg and matzo meal, until you can form patties in your hand that just hold together. And always add salt to taste.
10. It's Worth Making Your Own Applesauce
If you're going through the trouble of making your own latkes, set aside 20 minutes of mostly inactive time to make some applesauce, too. Good apples need nothing more than water and some salt to become great applesauce, and the result will taste better than anything from a jar.
11. Use the Right Oil
Even over high heat, frying latkes takes a lot of time, which means you need an oil with a high enough smoke point that it won't turn bitter on you mid-fry. So nix the olive oil and stick to fats like canola or peanut oil.
12. And a Lot of It
Now is not the time for getting namby-pamby about your fat intake. Frying latkes over a thin film of oil makes for uneven black spots and crusts that burn before the interiors cook through. Latkes need to shallow fry; the pancake should be half-submerged in oil to cook evenly.
13. Fry Hot
Once you add salt to your latke batter, the clock is ticking, so the faster you can fry your first batches, the better your last batches will be. As long as you use enough oil, there's little risk of a latke overcooking, so frying hot over medium-high heat is the way to go, especially considering the dark brown crusts you'll get.