perfecting the potato pancake

December 30th, 2009

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Now that Chanukah is over, and those who eat them have presumably had more than their fill of latkes, I’m very late or perhaps one year early in offering up some tips for the perfect pancake. Perhaps small potato pancakes dolloped with crème fraîche and topped with salted salmon roe and chives are 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 ago. Either way, these notes will eventually come in handy.

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. This year I used cold-pressed grape seed oil, a very viscous oil that smells of grapes and a little like chardonnay. 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. [Ed. note: I now use palm oil to fry my latkes, specifically, this palm oil shortening (which is also ethically sourced). Most of the unsaturated fats are removed 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.
  • Seasoning: I use about 1 heaping teaspoon of sea salt per 2 pounds of potatoes, and one medium or large onion. I use as much freshly ground white pepper as I feel like grinding in before my arm wants to fall off. If you’d like to put green stuff in your latkes, dill goes very nicely. But salt and pepper alone is classic and lovely.
  • Forming the pancakes: This is a bit tricky. You want to squeeze the batter before it hits the pan, as a last ditch effort to eliminate moisture and encourage potato cohesion. But you don’t want your latkes to be heavy and leaden, like your Aunt Mildred’s wayward matza balls. I like to flatten the pancake as much as possible after squeezing, then loosen it a bit so that it isn’t heavy. Don’t worry about creating a perfectly round latke. A more rustic pancake with unkempt potato hairs looks homier and boasts the coveted crisp, lacy edges.
  • Frying: A cast-iron pan is your naturally non-stick friend. It heats up slowly, but retains heat very well. Add more oil to the pan than you think you’ll need. You don’t want to deep fry your pancakes, but you don’t want the oil to be too shallow either. The pan should be at a constant medium-high heat. The oil is hot enough when it bubbles continually at the edges of your pancakes, it’s too hot when it begins to smoke. Monitor the oil and move the dial up or down to keep the pan at the right heat. Place the tip of each pancake in the pan using a spatula, then gently slide out the spatula so that the batter rests in the pan. This gradual slide into the oil does two things: the cool batter doesn’t lower the temperature of the hot oil and you’re less likely to sustain burns by inadvertently splashing yourself with very hot oil. Everybody wins.
  • Spacing the pancakes: The refrain I always heard from my dad whenever I helped him in the kitchen–don’t crowd the pan. Once more for emphasis, this time in all caps: DON’T CROWD THE PAN. Your pan should be large enough to fry as many latkes as you want to fry at once. To put it another way, only fry as many latkes as will comfortably fit in whatever size pan you use. In other words, the oil in the pan should stay hot enough to bubble and brown the edges of your pancakes. If your latkes start steaming, looking soggy or limp, or absorbing vast quantities of oil without browning, you’ve crowded the pan. Keep some space around each pancake. How much space and how many pancakes? When in doubt, just cook fewer latkes at a time. Alternatively, keep two pans going on two different burners.
  • Browning and crisping: A good, crisp latke just happens. No amount of checking, flipping, checking again will make your pancake brown faster. In fact, potchkeing with your pancakes will almost certainly guarantee a soft, wimpy latke. How will you know when it’s time to turn them over? They’ll be a medium-brown color around the edges. If a pancake is browned around the edges except for one area, you’ve got a cool spot on your burner. Gently turn the latke so that the soft edge is in the hotter area. When that part browns, carefully turn over the pancake. If the latke is merely golden and you want a little more browning, you can turn it over again after the flip side has browned.
  • Apple sauce: This traditional latke topping is very easy to prepare. Core and coarsely chop a few apples and place them in a pot. Squeeze over some lemon juice and add a little water. Heat on a low flame until it looks like apple sauce. Cool, serve. Really, that’s it. The apples reduce to about half their volume. If you’re serving a large crowd, chop as many apples as it takes to fill a medium to large pot. Conversely, for a small dinner, fill a small to medium pot with chopped apples. I don’t bother peeling the apples. You can remove the peels by pressing the resulting apple sauce through a large-holed sieve. The peel remains behind while the sauce goes right through. No need for sweetener, homemade apple sauce is quite nice on its own. Use a variety of tart and sweet apples for a more nuanced flavor. Season with a bit of ground cloves, cardamom, allspice and cinnamon, if you like.
  • Avoiding fried potato smells: Open a window and keep the fan on above your stovetop. There’s nothing worse than old fried potato smell, except perhaps old cabbage smell.

And remember, the first farkakte latke goes to the cook.

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