During the frosty Montreal winters of my childhood, I’d often come home to find my mother at the stove frying up a batch of potato pancakes. The aromas and gentle sizzling sounds rising from the pan were always familiar and soothing. These pancakes, which some of you might know as “latkes,” are a traditional food for Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. After years of trial and error, our family recipe has been perfected and lovingly passed along from generation to generation. The pancakes are easy to make—you whip up a batter with grated potatoes and a few other ingredients and then pan-fry it in spoonfuls. When properly prepared, the finished pancakes are crisp around the edges and soft and chewy in the center, and eating them is sheer pleasure. But there are a few tricks to getting them right, so if you’ve never made potato pancakes before, look to the following guidelines to help get you started.
Use starchy potatoes, like russets.
The starch acts like glue, helping hold the pancakes together. Plus, starchy potatoes have a lower water content than waxy potatoes—and less water means a crispier pancake.
Grate the potatoes in a food processor.
Before food processors were invented, cooks grated the potatoes on a box grater. This was tedious and often caused unpleasant knuckle scraping. Fortunately, a food processor can do the grating much faster. Next, you’ll salt the potatoes, which both seasons and draws water from them (this helps the pancakes brown when frying). Then return the potatoes to the food processor, process them until finely minced, and combine them with a few other ingredients to create a batter: egg and flour, which are both good binders, baking powder for lightness, a little oil for richness, and salt and pepper to season.
Pan-frying these pancakes is a snap, but a few helpful tips can ensure the best—and crispiest—results.
- For an even, golden color, add enough oil to maintain a 1/8-inch depth before cooking each new batch, and wait a minute for it to come up to temperature
- Don’t crowd the pancakes in the pan, or they’ll run together. Limit the number of pancakes in the pan to three or four, so you can turn them quickly as soon as they’re golden. Also, too much batter in the pan will drop the oil’s temperature. As you finish each batch, transfer the pancakes to a baking sheet in a low oven while you fry the rest.
- For extra-crisp pancakes, press on them with a spatula several times during cooking. You’ll get thinner pancakes with less-chewy insides. I like to use a flexible slotted metal spatula for turning the pancakes, because it slides under them easily and lets the oil drain from them.
- After a few batches, you’ll see bits of potato batter accumulating in the oil. If they look like they’re burning, clean the oil by passing it through a strainer into a clean bowl. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel and return the clean oil to the skillet
Give Potato Pancakes a Twist
Once you’ve got the basic technique, you can create your own flavor or size variations. Such variations are by no means traditional, but potatoes are so versatile that it’s fun to give the pancakes a twist. One of my favorite ways to vary the classic recipe is to “stuff” the pancakes with different fillings, as in my recipe for Potato Pancakes Stuffed with Duxelles (shown at right). Here are some other ideas:
- Serve oversize stuffed potato pancakes with a salad for a terrific lunch. Follow the stuffed potato pancake recipe, but form larger pancakes.
- Using the stuffed pancake recipe, try other stuffings in place of the duxelles, like shredded Gruyère and caramelized onions, goat cheese and fresh herbs, prosciutto and shredded Fontina, or ratatouille.
- Add chopped fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary, tarragon, chives, or dill (or a mix) to the potato mixture before frying (2 to 3 Tbs. per recipe). Add the herbs toward the end of processing the potatoes; too much chopping can mute the herbs’ flavor.
- Spice them up. Add 1/2 tsp. curry or chili powder, 1 clove of finely minced garlic, or 1/2 tsp. caraway, fennel, or celery seed to the potato batter before frying. Top the pancakes with a finishing touch. I love them topped with smoked salmon or salmon caviar with a dollop of sour cream and sliced chives.
- Make them mini and serve them as a passed hors d’oeuvre, along with sour cream and applesauce.