Perfecting the Potato Pancake

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If you've been to your local market lately, you may have noticed the sudden appearance of the Chanukah shelf—that jumble of Judeo-packaged foods that appears out of nowhere around Christmas and Easter. It often includes boxes of matzo ball mix, potato pancake mix, beets in purple liquid doing their best impersonation of borscht, syrupy kosher wine, and jars of gefilte fish in dubious-looking jelly. In December, the Jewish shelf at the market signals the arrival of Chanukah, the festival of lights (and of matzo balls, apparently). The Jewish festival of lights is also a celebration of all things fried, symbolically marking the legend of the tiny vial of sacred olive oil that miraculously fueled the light of the menorah in the Jewish temple for eight days and eight nights.

The latke, or fried potato pancake, is the Ashkenazi contribution to the panoply of fried foods traditionally prepared for Chanukah. Latkes are typically eaten with apple sauce or sour cream (or both). But small potato pancakes dolloped with crème fraîche and topped with salted salmon roe and chives might be just the right appetizer for a New Year’s Eve party. Or not, if your body still remembers stuffing itself silly with the things just a couple of weeks earlier. Either way, the following notes on latke-making technique should come in handy.

Perfect Latkes

Here are my tips on latke-making technique, in order to form a more perfect pancake:

  • Oil: Having experimented with different oils and fats, I’ve found that the cleanest burning oils with the highest smoking point are grape seed, sunflower, and safflower oils. Cold-pressed grape seed oil—a very viscous oil that smells of grapes and a little like chardonnay—could work. Goose schmaltz might be tasty, but I haven’t used it to cook latkes. Other animal fats have proven unsatisfactory, as has clarified butter. Whatever oil you use, be sure it has a relatively high smoking point. An oil with a high smoking point can be heated to a given temperature—say, 425°F—without smoking. Here’s a useful chart that lists cooking oils in order of smoking points. [Note: I now use palm oil to fry my latkes, specifically, this palm oil shortening which is ethically sourced. The shortening is created by removing most of the unsaturated fats from ordinary palm oil, resulting in a colorless shortening without trans fats or hydrogenated oils. This palm oil has a high smoking point and cooks cleanly.]
  • Potatoes: Choose a starchy potato with a relatively low moisture content, such as the reliable Russet or Idaho potato. Soggy latke batter will yield soggy pancakes. Similarly, low moisture, high-starch batter will produce a more crispy cake.
  • Grating or processing: Does an authentic latke require bloody knuckles, or will the modern ease of a food processor suffice? Ask any latke enthusiast and you’ll likely get a thirty minute lecture on the topic. Having tried both methods, I prefer the texture of hand grated potato pancakes to that of processed. My favorite grater is the Kyocera julienne slicer, a ceramic mandolin that retails at around twenty five US dollars. The julienne mandolin produces thinly grated potato strings that cook quickly without remaining raw in the middle. They crisp up nicely as well. But I’m no pedant, nor a glutton for torture. If you’re cooking for twenty, by all means, use a food processor.
  • Getting the potatoes to stick together: I’m a purist. I like my latkes without any eggs. Why ruin the crunch of a good latke with fluffy eggs? Serve them on the side if you like, but there’s really no need to include eggs in your latkes. The trick to latkes that stick together without falling apart is, once again, low moisture and high starch content. After grating your potatoes and onion, squeeze out as much liquid as possible by placing the batter in a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl. Squeeze and knead out the liquid through the sieve, but retain the water in the bowl. By the time you’ve squeezed out all the liquid and seasoned your potato mixture, you should have a thick layer of potato starch sediment at the bottom of your bowl. Carefully pour off the water, but keep the sediment. Use a spoon to scoop up some of the potato starch and mix it back into your potato mixture. The dampened starch binds the potato and onion like glue, and the starchy coating helps the pancakes brown and crisp in the pan. As you form the pancakes, keep squeezing out liquid. Mix in more potato starch if the batter looks raggedy.
  • Preventing discoloration: Alternately grate the potato and onion. Mix the batter between gratings. The onion juices prevent the potatoes from turning odd shades of gray. You can also add a small pinch of baking soda to do the same.

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