When I was growing up we weren’t big latke-makers in our family. My childhood memories of potato pancake-eating are blurry — a soggy, cold latke on a plastic plate after my school’s Hannuka concert, a mini-latke here or there at a synagogue event. To be honest, I did not begin making my own latkes until 5 or 6 years ago and quickly discovered that there were actually many more options than the usual potato-onion-and-salt- meet-hot-oil, varitety. After several years I felt confident that I had made up for my lack of latke-practice in my youth and was confidently and cluelessly serving up mediocre latkes to family and friends, without much thought. Until now.
This Hannuka, working at the cafe, I’ve gotten the chance to participate in a great deal more latke-making than in all my past years combined and have seen what goes into getting a consistent product that our customers are pretty crazy about. I’m not saying that makes me an expert, but I have learned some useful tips that I thought I’d share:
1. You will never manage to squeeze all the moisture out of your potatoes, so just do the best you can and move on. In past years, I’ve squeezed, wrung, and used a half roll of paper towels trying to dry my grated potatoes — and the darn latkes still didn’t always stick together in the end. Give your grated potatoes a squeeze before you add them to mixing bowl, and then again, right before they go into the frying pan. If you follow the rest of these rules, that oughta do it.
2. Ignore the no-flour rule. Some of my go-to cookbooks are just dead wrong when they say that adding flour to your latkes will make them dense or heavy. A little flour (half a cup per 6 or so potatoes) adds body and helps soak up some of that excess moisture. Obviously you can make latkes without flour as well, but it certainly won’t harm them, and may make it a little easier to get a uniform product.
3. Salt is not optional. Potatoes are bland. Try biting into one and you’ll see. Latkes in their original form have just three or four ingredients. Without salt, you’ve got yourself an oily, golden paperweight.
4. FINELY grate your potatoes, onions and whatever other vegetables you put into your latkes. The large holes on your grater are going to give you pieces of potato that are too big to distribute evenly throughout the latke mixture. Using a food processor or the small holes of a box grater will give you the size you need.
5. If you are not using eggs, use another binding agent. Cornstarch works great.
6. OIL, oil, oil, oil. The foods we eat on Hannuka are fried because we are celebrating the oil in the temple burning for 8 days and nights. Latkes will not fry up properly in a pan coated with pan-spray or a shallow layer of canola. You need inches of oil here and it needs to be hot. Latkes should take a couple of minutes to become golden brown, on each side. Test one to see if your oil is the right temp, and don’t forget to squeeze ’em right before sliding them into the pan.
7. Drain on paper bags. As with all fried foods, you will maintain the latkes’ crispiness if you let paper bags, as opposed to paper towels, soak up the oil after frying.
Happy Hannuka and happy frying!