A Latkes Recipe For Those Who Are Comfortable In Front Of A Pan Of Oil
WLRN editorial director Alicia Zuckerman shares her favorite latkes (potato pancakes) recipe with us.
I've only attempted making latkes from scratch a few times. I'm always afraid to cook with that much oil.
My mom used to make latkes from scratch. She loved to feed lots of people. She was a teacher and a busy person; she was a marvel in the kitchen and worked quickly, and I never stopped her to say, "Hey Ma, teach me how to make those latkes."
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After my friends Jenni and Chaim had a Hanukkah party where they churned out batch after batch of delicious homemade latkes, I decided it was worth taking a shot at grating potatoes and trying to make my peace with all that oil. They're just so satisfying.
The Melissa Clark recipe from The New York Times gets held up as a reliable, classic latke recipe, with good reason. But years ago I'd been given a book called "Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food: An Opinionated History and More Than 100 Legendary Recipes," and had yet to cook anything from it.
Last December, I looked up latkes in the index, which led me to a section called "The Jews," and another recipe.
Comparing these two very similar recipes, what I found was rife with metaphor. Clark's recipe offered the admonition "Working quickly, transfer the mixture to a large bowl." I could feel my breath start to get shallow. "Why? Why ‘working quickly’?"
I like to cook and I love to bake, but I am not my mom. I do not work quickly in the kitchen.
Then, the "New York City Food" recipe informed me, “If the pancake starts frying furiously, the heat is too high. If the fat doesn’t sizzle immediately, that fat is not hot enough. If the pancake breaks up, or is too thin, or is too lacey at the edges, add more flour …” Got it, got it. Basically nothing you do is good enough.
After accepting a large amount of anxiety into my kitchen, I got to work grating the potatoes, cracking the eggs, heating up the oil (deep breaths) and dropping them into the pan. I’m sure I burned myself a couple times.
It worked. I made my own latkes from scratch, and they were delicious. The frying-in-progress you see in the photo above is from my friend Brett Rothfeld’s kitchen last year. Brett is my go-to cooking consultant. We’ve known each other since I was three, and that's him in the audio above, coaching me through this year's latke-making.
Like lots of fried food, you either want to eat these right away — in which case only one or two people get to eat them at a time, which seems fine for this particular mess of a year — or find a way to keep them warm while you make more. About 200 or 250 degrees in the oven should do it. Reheat at around 300. Serve them with sour cream or applesauce.
Happy Hanukkah. Chag sameach.
A few details have been updated after making this year's latkes with Brett Rothfeld, safely distanced in our kitchens all the way across the country from each other. Hit the play button up top to listen to that.
Makes about 8-10 latkes, depending on size
-1 pound Russet potatoes. Clark says this is about 2 large potatoes. Don’t peel them. Wash well. (My friend Lisa tells me this is extremely controversial. Peel them if you want to. I tried it both ways and determined peeling is unnecessary.) Cut into large chunks.
-1 medium or large onion. Cut into quarters.
-2 large eggs
-½ cup flour
-½ teaspoon baking powder (Clark says 1 tsp; New York City Food says ½ – and I like to go with a slightly lower sodium option, but either is fine.)
-2 teaspoons salt if using coarse kosher salt, which is good here. Otherwise, 1 tsp of a finer salt, like regular sea salt or table salt. I probably used a little less.
-½ teaspoon pepper (black or white pepper; the foodies want you to use freshly ground, which is preferable, sure, but if you don’t have that, that’s fine, maybe just use less)
-And now for the oil - approximately ¾ cup vegetable oil (This year I used sunflower oil. Brett used soybean oil. See the schmaltz note from New York City Food; I have never cooked with schmaltz, and it’s hard to imagine I ever will, but if you really want to taste an Old World version of this recipe, I suppose it’s an option. However, for anyone who keeps kosher, serving latkes made in schmaltz with sour cream would render them un-kosher because it's mixing meat and dairy. So applesauce would be the option. Skipping the schmaltz gives you more options.)
- Grate the potatoes coarsely. A food processor makes life easier, but you can do it by hand with a grater. Put them in a bowl. The New York City Food recipe says to do this about a third at a time if you’re using a food processor.
- Finely chop or process the onions. Put them in with the potatoes. Clark’s recipe says you can grate the potatoes and onion at the same time in a food processor, which I think is what I did, as opposed to this third-at-a-time business.
- In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and mix them into the potatoes and onions, along with the baking powder, salt, pepper and flour. This is the part Clark says “working quickly” about. I don’t know why. If you do, let us know. (A bunch of you weighed in here, including Brett's Aunt Marsha – one of my mom's closest friends: "You don't want the potatoes to oxidize and turn brown ... It's a race against time to to get them into the frying pan!")
- I took more of Clark’s advice and put the mixture into a dish towel to squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible. I assume this makes for crispier latkes. (*There’s a piece in The Nosher yelling at us never to make classic latke mistakes, one of which is this step. They say not to “wring out all the liquid” and this gets you crispier, creamier latkes. Shocking that there are so many opinions.)
- Breathe. We’re about to get to the frying.
- A medium heavy-bottom pan is advisable. Cast iron is great, but I think I used stainless steel or maybe my nonstick, I’m not totally sure. It was a year ago, and a lot has happened since then. (This year I used cast iron and was happy with that decision.)
- Heat between ⅛ and ¼ inch of oil on medium high (In the audio above, Brett says to use an "oil slick – a puddle of oil.") New York City Food recommends making a “test latke.” You know – because so many things can go wrong, remember?
- Once the oil is hot, scoop up a big chunk of batter with a tablespoon, a serving spoon, or an ice cream or cookie scoop and drop it into the pan. This is the part where you’re on the lookout for everything that can go wrong and try to fix it using the techniques recommended above from the New York City Food recipe.
- Use a spatula to flatten a bit. Latkes are not supposed to be pancake thin, you’re just shaping them into discs with this step.
- Flip once the edges start to brown. Clark says about 5 minutes. I think they cook faster on the other side, though Clark says it’s another 5 minutes. You’re looking for the sweet spot, where the oil is hot enough to cook it through, but not so hot that it burns on the outside and doesn’t cook enough on the inside.
- Lay out on a plate with paper towels to drain or pat off some of the oil on each side.
- For one last element of stress, New York City Food says, “Serve immediately. Potato pancakes do not hold well.” (See note above about only serving a couple people at a time.) Another option though is to keep them warm in the oven at about 200-250 degrees while you make more batches. And if you have leftovers, you can reheat them at around 300 degrees.
- Serve with sour cream or applesauce. (Or lox or eggs, or Brett likes them the next day with ketchup, which I think is a little bit of a shanda.)
*The piece from The Nosher, “Never Make These Classic Mistakes with Latkes.”
If you want another opinion, check out the recipe over at my favorite food blog, Smitten Kitchen.