Thursday, December 10, 2009

The absolute best latke recipe

Hanukah starts tomorrow, so nobody should miss out on what I think is the absolute best latke recipe in the world, which is based on one that comes from, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine. (I may have some problems with the movement, but they do publish a good magazine, not like the dreck that United Synagogue produces for the Conservative movement.) The original recipe is by Tina Wasserman, and my version is fartaytscht und farbessert in some significant ways, but she deserves a lot of credit for making her method known to the world.

This is the only really good recipe that I have found using a food processor rather than a hand grater. Even most of today's hand graters don't work all that well -- the holes are too coarse or too fine. My grandmother used to use something that looked like a piece of wire fence, though I haven't seen anything like it in years. So save your knuckles, and try these.  Be aware that latkes, like pizza, bagels and chopped liver, are very personal foods.  They have to be just right (how your better-cook grandmother made them) or they won't quite do.  Some people like only coarse shreds so the latkes practically fall apart.  I think that they are crazy but who am I to argue.  Others like it much more onion-y.  I have even been told that my latkes lack tam (flavor).  Again, though I generally go for strongly flavored foods, I like my latkes with a whiff of onion and would prefer not to taste it all
night.  But if you swing differently, by all means use two onions instead of one. 

I recently made a double batch of these latkes  with six pounds of potatoes to freeze for a party.  It yielded about 60  latkes and took 90 minutes including cleanup.  Plan accordingly.

  1. Peel 6 large Yukon Gold potatoes, about 3 pounds. Put in cold water.
  2. Grate the potatoes in a food processor on the shredding blade. Immediately run under cold water and squeeze dry.
  3. Change the blade on the processor to the usual grinding blade and grind an onion to a coarse puree. Add about 1/4 of the grated potatoes and puree these as well. Add salt (lots, about a tablespoon of kosher salt) some pepper, and 2-3 eggs, and mix briefly.
  4. Stir all of this into the rest of the grated potatoes.
  5. Mix in about 1/4 cup of flour, though you will need more later. (Most recipes call for matzah meal, but after much experimentation, I think that flour works best here.)
  6. Heat fat in a skillet. We usually haul down my mother-in-law's old electric skillet for this one. Stainless or cast iron would also work, but non-stick is a waste here. For the fat, we usually use Crisco. You're frying latkes and you're going to worry about transfats? It should be at least 3/4 inch deep. The more fat, the less it cools when you put the latkes in, the crisper and less greasy they will be.
  7. If using an electric skillet, heat it to 375; otherwise, heat it on medium high and test the fat with a piece of bread. If it bubbles, it is ready. Use a frying thermometer if you have one.
  8. Put large tablespoons of the potato batter in the fat, but don't press them down. Fry about 3 minutes on a side. The later batches tend to cook quicker than the earlier ones. Try one latke first. If it looks to liquid (you will know that it is if it disintegrates in the skillet) add more flour. If it just spreads out into a pancake and holds together, you are good to go.
  9. Drain the latkes on crumpled paper towel on top of a paper bag. Serve as hot and as fresh as you can.
  10. As the batter sits, some of the juices will separate. Drain them out, and add about a tablespoon more flour at a time until the batter isn't liquidy. Also, you will probably need to skim out some of the solids so they don't burn and add more fat to the pan.  Just be sure to bring it back up to cooking temperature before adding more batter. 
Accompaniments? Some people like applesauce. (I think homemade is wasted here, but I am willing to be proven wrong.) I like sour cream, especially with a little smoked salmon on top. I think my mother-in-law said that when she was young, they would just sprinkle them with sugar. Before he had to worry about hypertension, my father liked them plain with some coarse salt.

How many does it serve?  Who knows?  The three pounds of potatoes will make about 25-30 latkes, which I would say serves 4-6 as the main event of the dinner.  But, a lot depends on what else you are serving.  With brisket?  Figure 2 each.  With sour cream and applesauce, maybe following a mushroom barley soup or tuna salad?   Figure 5 each.  Now that everyone is watching their carbs, it may go further.  If there are teen boys present, all bets are off.

Can I make them in advance? No, not really. But if you have a life and a large number of guests, say anything more than 3, you may want to. You can make them earlier in the day, drain them on toweling, and then leave them at room temperature for a few hours. Reheat in a 350 oven in a single layer on baking sheets. You can also freeze them, on sheets in a single layer, and then store them once frozen in a bag. Reheat them the same way, just a bit longer. For some reason, they tend to get gluey if refrigerated.

Why are these the absolute best latkes in the world? Coarsely shredded potato latkes fall apart and get too greasy. Latkes made from processed, pureed potatoes are just boring. This recipe gives you the texture of the shredding, the body of the ground potato and no bloody knuckles. Beyond this, there are many keys to latke success:  salting well, plenty of fat, frying soon after the mixture is prepared and adding flour or draining water as the mixture sits. Several factors keep the latkes from discoloring: rinsing and draining potatoes and shreds, working relatively fast so that the batter doesn't discolor, and using a light colored potato. There are few things as unappetizing as a gray latke.

To peel or not to peel? This is very controversial. If you use a light skinned potato and rinse quickly and properly, you should be OK. Don't even dream of trying this with russets (baking potatoes). Some people swear that the skins give incomparable texture and flavor. However, I think that the real reason that I peel is to make Bengali potato skins (potato skins sauteed in mustard oil with white poppy seeds, chick pea flour, and a touch of chili). Peeling potatoes for latkes makes Hanukah a great time to accumulate enough skins to make this dish, which is probably my daughter's favorite. She is coming home this weekend, so we will be prepared.

Why Crisco? I don't know. This is what my mother-in-law used so it is what I use. My grandfather said that in Pruzhane they would fry them in goose fat. I wonder if the fat could have gotten hot enough to crisp them, but they must have tasted delicious. There must be something about the crystalline structure of solid fats that contributes to the texture. And there is a certain visual poetry generally denied to Jews who don't cook with lard of seeing a vast amount of Crisco melt in a skillet. But use oil if you must.


  1. ok Alan - so here's my first comment ever. I use a latke recipe from Cooks Illustrated that I found years ago. Have you had mine? Remember they have a green tint? I add parsley, which really contributes to the flavor. I agree about partially grated in the processor and partially fine grind. Creamy middle and crispy around the edges .... yummm !!
    Happy Hanukkah. Sorry we won't see you tomorrow.

  2. I did have yours once and enjoyed them, but I am a bit of a purist with these things and would be suspicious of green things in my latkes. If I ate them frequently, ok, but when you have it so rarely, my inclination is to revert to form.

  3. So the goosefat means that you can't use sour cream. Any idea of the condiment for that? I always think of hanukkah as a dairy holiday because of the sour cream....

  4. Kosher salt passed as a condiment (and almost ad a veg too). For fleishigs applesauce, chunky cranberry sauce or chutney.

  5. Alan-

    I don't get the latke love. I make them, but if I never ate another, my life would be complete.

    I do sometimes make sweet potato latkes and served with home made cranberry sauce they are amazing

    One Pesach I began making cottage cheese latkes , just slightly sweet and flavored with fresh orange or lemon peel. Jed can eat an entire batch on his own ( made with 1 lb of cottage cheese)..and this is a kid who can for get to eat a few meals a day.

  6. Oy. Latkes are my real love.

    I went to University of Chicago where every December the Hillel sponsored a Latke-Hamentaschen debate. Though I was otherwise very active, I never went once. The superficial reason was that it invariably came during crunch time in the trimester and I never seemed to have the time to go. The main reason was that I think that latkes are so far superior to hamentaschen that I didn't think there were any grounds for debate. Salt and fat definitely make my world go around. (I have been known to order french fries with garlic for dessert.) While still an important food group, sweets have always been secondary to me.

  7. Hi Alan,

    Hi from Bordeaux! I've tried lots of different recipes, but not yours, yet. I hope to do so sometime this week. In general, I've found that any recipe works well if you are really vigilant about keeping the batter dry. Water is the enemy, leading to loss of crunch and increase of greasiness. (Thus I have found that matzah meeal works well if you can let the batter sit long enough for it to absorb the water, otherwise you're better with flour or potato or corn starch.) Happy Hanukah!


  8. These Latkes are also delicious with a little avocado or guacamole on top


  9. Hi Alan- Wish me luck. The most "un balabuschicke" person is going to make and serve these to twenty of her closest friends. It s all on you! BAB

  10. Add a question... Why Yukon Gold instead of a Russet Burbank. The Yukon Gold, heavily promoted as not needing butter with its yellow flesh is really just a medium starch/solids potato that has more moisture than a typical Russet Burbank. Try them side by side.

    1. A lot of my reason for Yukon or other yellow potato is in fact the color. to me, the creamy color is an important part of the experience, and I find that Russets and high starch potatoes oxidyze very quickly, and that it is much easier to use yukons, squeeze well , and add a bit of flour. I think some of my russet aversion goes back to eating too many dark grey latkes that an aunt made when I was young.