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Tomorrow is the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights—and aside from the dreidel-playing, gelt-eating, and chanukiah-lighting, one of the most common (and most tasty) modes of observation is to fry, fry, fry. It's the miracle of oil, after all.
But don't let the next eight days be eight days of soggy (or scorched, or cold) latkes: Find yourself in these common latke problems—and then remedy them, making sure your latkes are living their best life.
Problem: Potatoes are boring.
First of all, give the little guys another chance! Choose the right potato: Most people go for Yukon Gold potatoes, russet Burbanks, or a mix of the two. And second of all, latkes are so much more than grated potato. "Grated onion is a must," advises Micki Balder, one of our junior software engineers. Nearly any allium will do—go for onions, or leeks, chives, or scallions. Garlic’s a good add, too. Think about adding one onion or 2 leeks for every two large potatoes.
But don't just stop there! Switch it up by using sweet potatoes—or mix in grated persimmons! Make them with parsnips or carrots! Add spices like coarsely ground white peppercorns (like in this recipe); season generously with of salt. Or go crazy and add a little nutmeg, cumin, or paprika. While you're at it, add cheese! (Micki likes a little Parmesan in hers.)
And charlotte massik swears by not peeling the potatoes—the peels are where the flavor is, she says!
The oil you fry in will also affect the flavor: Choose canola if you want the potato flavor to shine, or coconut if you want a little sweetness (this is especially good with sweet potato latkes). Aargesi fries them in duck fat. And save a little bit of the previous batch’s oil to fry the next night’s latkes in—“Fresh oil doesn’t have the same depth of flavor or browning quality,” says Will Burbidge.
Problem: I don’t want to go through the business of grating.
You can use a food processor instead of a box grater (though many, including our own Sarah Jampel, say that latkes just aren't the same without a little bit of your blood and/or knuckles in the grated potato mix). Or use mashed potatoes. They’re not quite the same as latkes, but if you’re really against grating, it’s a good way to achieve something similarly starchy and oily and delicious.
Problem: I have never fried anything besides an egg and I am terrified.
You've got this. Use a heavy-bottomed pot or pan—like a wide pot (like a cocotte or Dutch oven) or a cast iron pan. Vessels with deeper sides will do you well, but aren't necessary. Tie on an apron to combat oil splatters. Ready your tongs and a plate or cooling rack lined with paper towels or newspaper (this is where you'll put the latkes when you pull them from the oil). And choose an oil with a high smoke point! Canola oil, peanut oil, or even coconut oil are great places to start—but you could also go for schmaltz or duck fat.
And you don't need that much oil—we're not deep-frying, here (save that for the sufganiyot!). An even coating of oil on the bottom of the pan is just right. Then, says louisez, wait until the edges of the latkes are brown until you flip them—and then flip them only once. (This will keep them from getting soggy.)
Problem: My latkes are falling apart! They aren’t getting crispy! Help!
There could be a few issues at hand:
- If they're falling apart while you're shaping them, they either need a little more flour to hold them together (QueenSashy recommends saving the potato starch that gathers at the bottom of the liquid you squeeze out of the grated potatoes and mixing that back into the potato mix) or they're too wet and need to be wrung out again.
- Your latke mixture needs to have as little moisture in it as possible. This is crucially important. Too wet, and your latkes won’t hold their shape, won’t crisp up, and you won’t get that toasty brown exterior. Squeeze out as much as you can—twice, even: once after grating the potatoes and once as you’re forming the latkes. Here's how Niki does it: She lines her “salad spinner with paper towels or flour sack tea towel, dump[s] in the grated potatoes, and spin[s] away. Dry as a bone."
- Shape them well! First, use your hands to mix all the ingredients together—this will keep them fluffy (it helps get air in there and makes sure they're not too packed down)! Then use a tablespoon to make sure each latke is the same size; drop a tablespoon heaped with the potato mix into the hot oil and flatten it slightly. A too-thick latke will steam instead of getting crispy, and flattening will prevent this.
- Your oil needs to be hot! hot! hot! So make sure it is. You'll know it's ready when it's shimmering in the pan. Hot oil = crispy latkes.
Problem: I did all of that already, and they're still not as crispy as I want them to be.
Fair enough. Get them reeeeally crispy by adding matzo meal or, even better (though less traditional), panko bread crumbs, like in this recipe.
Kamileon recommends adding “a tiny dash of baking soda (like, 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon for the whole batch)” to promote more browning (and extra toasty, crunchy bits)!
Problem: I have a billion latkes to fry. How will they stay warm?
Just pop 'em in a 200° F or so oven while you make the rest. Try to keep them in one layer so that they’ll stay crispy.
Problem: I want to make them ahead of time—like, way ahead of time.
Fry up your latkes, then freeze them in one layer (you can store them in a plastic zip-top bag once they’re frozen). Twenty minutes before you’re ready to serve them, take them out of the freezer and reheat on a cookie sheet in the oven at 425° F oven until hot and crispy.
Problem: I can’t just eat latkes.
Why not?! Well, actually, we like ours with lots of toppings, too: Start with the classics, sour cream and applesauce, and then up the ante. Spice the sour cream with chives, dill, or something spicy, like harissa, horseradish, curry powder or paste, or sriracha. Serve a pear sauce or apple butter in addition to applesauce. Set out smoked fish, caviar (!), and pickles (and not just cucumber ones—pickled shallots or beets would rock). A fried egg never did any harm, either.
What are your latke musts (and mustn'ts)? Share your wisdom in the comments.