By now you're well-versed in fractitious Jewish food debates, and finally, in time for Chanukah, we arrive at one of the great classics, potato latkes. Some people will swear you should use starchy Russet potatoes, the big guys that American French fries are made from. Others will insist on starchy yellow potatoes, like Yukon Gold. There are flour people and matzah meal people, and of each there are many factions, more or less of the binder, add starch, don't add starch, add baking powder, don't. There are the devotees of deli-style latkes, which are more of a pancake, and those sworn to the eternal love of lacy, crispy homestyle latkes that are more on the hash brown side of the continuum. I think it's a both/and issue, and I'm calling these classic potato latkes because they are straddle the line, with crispy exteriors and soft insides.
Oh, but we haven't even discussed toppings, ever the great divide. Are you sugar people, with the applesauce? Are you savory people, sour cream or die? I am heritage-bound to consider applesauce heretical, but I have to admit, it's pretty amazing.
A few latke tips before getting started
- Potatoes brown quickly once they're grated, so you have to work relatively quickly with latkes. This is why I grate the onion first, then the potatoes. Once you peel your potatoes, get ready to work fast. Set up two big, clean kitchen towels on your work surface before you start. Have all your other batter ingredients measured out by your mixing bowl. Start heating the oil in the skillet as soon as you're done making the batter.
- You can use either Russet potatoes or yellow potatoes, depending on your preference. Russet potatoes are crisper and yellow potatoes more flavorful. A single Russet makes a lot of latkes, so you'll need about double the amount of yellow potoatoes.
- The drier you can get your potatoes and onions, the crispier your latkes will be. If you don't like latkes that are soft on the inside, omit the potato starch. (Or if you don't have any on hand, skip it.)
- Latkes are a hands-on project. They work best when you mix the batter by hand and shape the latkes by hand. You can mix the batter with a spoon and use a scoop to form the latkes, but they really are better with the human touch. Some people insist that grating by hand is better as well, but I and my knuckles have not found this to be the case.
- To avoid greasy latkes, make sure your oil is hot, around 350F / 180C, before putting the batter in the frying pan. When the oil is hot, the latkes won't absorb much oil. I use olive oil, because it's traditional and we like the taste. If you're making latkes to serve with a meat meal, schmaltz is also great.
- Drain your latkes on a cooling rack (like for cookies) set over some paper towels. If you put the latkes directly on paper towels, that generates moisture and they might get a bit soggy.
How to make classic potato latkes
Grate and wring out the potatoes and onions
The biggest deal in latke-making is really just wringing the water out of the potatoes and onions. You can accomplish this in various ways, and if you have a favorite method, full speed ahead. My way is to wring them out together, twice, using kitchen towels. I plop the onion-potato mixture from the food processor directly onto the first kitchen towel. Here's what it looks like before any wringing out:
And here's what the potato-onion mixture looks like after a second wringing-out in another, dry towel:
Mixing the latke batter
After all that wringing out business, it's just a matter of mixing in the remaining ingredients to bind the onions and potatoes together. Here there are more contentious debates, but I've settled on all-purpose flour, 3 tablespoons of it, to be precise, along with the optional 1 tablespoon of potato starch. There's a whole old-school thing about soaking the potatoes and using the starch that settles on the bottom of the soaking bowl, but I don't hold that way. It doesn't make sense to me to put potatoes in water when we're trying to get as much water out of them as possible. As I mentioned above in the tips, I think the mixing is best done by hand, so everything gets really evenly distributed.
Shape and fry the latkes
Again here, I like using my hands to shape the batter into balls, which I then flatten into discs. You can press down on them some more once you get them in the pan, so they're a little flatter and cook evenly. Once again, I can't recommend a cookie spatula enough for the flattening and flipping.
It's counterintuitive, but using a bunch of oil and heating it through actually results in non-greasy latkes. It's also non-frustrating, because the latkes flip easily and come out almost effortlessly golden. I like frying latkes in olive oil, but you can use pretty much any oil you like and are familiar with for frying. If your oil is clear after frying the latkes, you can actually leave it to reuse again, which, if it's Chanukah, will doubtlessly be put to good use.
Don't be tempted to place your just-fried latkes on paper towels, which tend to make them soggy. As I mentioned above in the tips, set yourself off with a cooling rack set over paper towels instead:
If frying makes you cranky, and I hear you, you can oven-fry latkes on baking sheets with a thin layer of oil poured onto them. I'm going to do a post on that technique as well. Today, we're going the traditional route and frying our latkes half-deep in olive oil in a drying pan. Open the windows, turn on your fan to the max setting, and let's do it.
Classic Potato Latkes (parve)
- Food processor with coarse grating disc
- 2 absorbent kitchen towels you don't mind getting dirty
- Large frying pan or skillet - cast iron works especially well
- Cooling rack, like you use for cookies
- 2 Russet potatoes - or 4 medium yellow potatoes
- 1 small onion
- 2 eggs - beaten with a fork
- 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour - 25 g
- 1 Tbsp potato starch - omit it if you don't have
- 2 tsp salt
- pinch white or black pepper
- ⅓ cup olive oil, for frying - or more, to cover the entire bottom of your frying pan
- sour cream
Grate and wring out the potatoes and onions:
- Peel the onion and process using the coarse grating disc of your food processor.
- Peel your potatoes and cut them as needed for your food processor's feed tube. (Mine has a wide option, so I only have to cut my Russets in half.) Process the potatoes using the same coarse grating disc. If your food processor is large enough, you need not take the onion out before grating the potatoes.
- Dump the grated potatoes and onions out onto the first kitchen towel. Gather up the four corners of the towel and, working over the sink, wring out as firmly as you can.
- When the towel is saturated, transfer the potatoes and onions to the second towel and wring out again, until no more water drains. Place the potato-onion misture into a mixing bowl. (At this point, I usually rinse off the towels under running water in the sink and put them in the washing machine.)
Make the latke batter:
- To the mixing bowl, add the beaten eggs, flour, potato starch (if using), salt, and pepper.
- With your hands, knead the ingredients together thoroughly.
Fry the latkes:
- Heat the oil over medium heat until hot, but not smoking. When hot, form the batter into balls about 3" / 7-8cm in diameter) using your hands, then flatten slightly. Place directly in the hot oil.
- Fry 3-4 minutes on the first side, until medium to deep gold but not browned. Using a flexible spatula, carefully flip the latkes and cook until golden on the second side, 2-3 minutes.
- Serve hot with your favorite toppings - sour cream and applesauce are traditional.