Latkes, a traditional holiday food, can inspire strong feelings. I remember a friend wringing her hands because she wanted to make her aunt’s latkes and was afraid they just wouldn’t be the same if she used a different oil for frying them. She wanted to adhere to her aunt’s recipe exactly as it was written, although I’m sure substituting vegetable oil for corn oil would have had an indiscernible effect on the flavor. And there may be associations with your boyfriend’s memories of latkes you may not be able to duplicate, but that’s always a risk when you’re trying to duplicate someone’s mom’s cooking!
While they may not exactly be Mom’s, however, you can still make good latkes with a few helpful suggestions. Let’s start with what latkes aren’t. They’re not potato pancakes. Nor are they hash browns, although they look similar. To me, potato pancakes are made of cooked mashed potatoes held together with a little egg and some flour to bind; ideally, they’re delicate and tender with a crispy exterior. Hash browns are made of either cooked or raw potato shreds which stick together under their own power, and they’re usually cooked as a large “cake” rather than individual portions. I know, I know; lots of people call latkes potato pancakes; but that’s how I categorize these things, so bear with me.
Classic traditional latkes are little disks made of raw grated potatoes seasoned with onion, bound with egg and starch, and fried in oil. There are plenty of riffs on the basics, including making them of sweet potatoes, adding parsley or other herbs to the mix, or adding other vegetables in with the potatoes, but let’s stick to the basics.
The best potatoes to use are a high starch variety like Russets. If you’re using organic, scrub them well and don’t bother peeling them unless you’re bothered by the little flecks of skin. I’d peel, though, if the potatoes aren’t organic. Shred them on the coarse side (large holes) of the grater. If the potatoes are large, cut them so that the shreds aren’t longer than 2 inches.
Immediately put the shreds in a clean dish towel and wring them as dry as possible to remove the moisture which will keep them from browning nicely. Collect the potato water in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. After 5 or 10 minutes, you’ll see the potato starch has settled at the bottom of the bowl. Carefully pour off the water, saving that starch.
If your grater is nice and sharp, use it to grate some yellow onion (not a sweeter variety like Vidalia.) If your grater is not that sharp, mince the onion with a knife. An onion mashed against a dull grater will guarantee tears! It will also release a lot of moisture from the onion, which you don’t want. Add the onion; a whole egg or two, depending on how many potatoes you’re using; the potato starch; and salt and pepper to the shredded potatoes and mix well.
At this point, evaluate the mixture. If it’s wet, something extra is required to absorb the moisture. Matzo meal is the ingredient of choice among Jewish cooks. Its bland flavor won’t detract from the potato essence; but equally suitable is potato starch. I think the last time I bought potato starch it came from an Asian market, of all places, but most grocery stores have it, especially around the holidays. Add a little of either one, bit by bit, until the potato mixture is no longer wet and holds together.
Heat about ¼” of a neutral oil in a large skillet (or better yet, an electric skillet, which will make it easy to maintain a constant temperature for frying) until it starts to shimmer. If using an electric skillet, set it to 350ºF. Add about 1/4 cup of the potato mixture in dollops around the pan, leaving some space between them because you’re going to flatten the latkes a bit so they’ll cook through. Fry them until the bottoms are nicely browned, being sure the oil is bubbling around the latkes; then turn and brown the other side. Drain on paper towels, and keep the finished latkes warm on a rack in a low oven until they’re all cooked.
Speaking of associations, my friend mentioned above has been known to make a big batch of latkes and serve them in an ornate family heirloom soup tureen. They look absolutely spectacular that way and she gets to enjoy using this special serving piece. Traditional accompaniments to latkes are applesauce and sour cream. Some say one or the other, but why choose? Serve both – especially if the applesauce is homemade.
Check out our recipe for homemade applesauce!