Passing the gleaming prefab husks of my favorite Manhattan diners these days brings a pang. The exaggerated nostalgia of neon signs and swooping stainless steel, of sprawling, manic menus, is now a sort of memorial to itself. I can practically smell the singed, watery coffee as I wander by. But until our favorite haunts return to their timeless, 24-hour routine, we can take advantage of their absence to make some diner classics better—let’s face it—than we could ever find on a foldout menu.
That brings us to one of the great pillars of diner fare—home fries. At their best, home fries are a perfect union of crisped potatoes, browned onions, and grilled peppers. They should be ordered extra crispy, to avoid the tragedy of the steamed, crunchy potato, and should always be topped with a dash or two of hot sauce. We can argue knife skills and varietals—my ideal home fries involve quartered new potatoes, whereas my brother likes a diced russet—but we can all agree that, alongside a diner omelet, with a cup of weak coffee and some good company, this is the perfect breakfast food. And until I can order them at my favorite diners again, I’ll be making them at home.
Step 1: The Parboil
The secret to great home fries is crispness, and the secret to crisped potatoes is parboiling. Normally, when I want my food crispy, I stay away from water like a rabid house cat. But when I want crispy potatoes, it’s into the boiling water they go. Potatoes, you see, are filled with starch granules, which expand and burst as they cook. The result is a layer of gelatinized starch on the outside of the potato pieces that, as soon as it hits hot oil, will start to crisp. That, along with the extra insurance against the risk of raw potato pieces, makes parboiling a no-brainer.
Salt the water well to season the potatoes throughout. And if you’re using russets or cutting your potatoes particularly fine, follow in J. Kenji López-Alt’s footsteps and add some vinegar. This inhibits the breakdown of pectin, keeping the potatoes structurally sound as they simmer. Test the potato pieces with a knife for doneness: As soon as the knife tip slides into the potato without resistance, they’re ready. Drain the water and let the pieces cool slightly (this results in starch retrogradation on the surface, aiding browning) before you move on.
Step 2: The Crisp
Take those parboiled potatoes and fry them in a skillet with plenty of fat. Now for me, frying in butter is a matter of dogma. But in the name of tolerance I’ll accept that some people fry potatoes in olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat, or schmaltz. None of these offend me too much.
What really makes my blood run cold is the sight of a dry pan. If you’re going to be frying, you had better not be skimping on the fat. So long as you don’t stray from the light on this critical point, the only temptation you might face is to rush the process. Potatoes take a while to crisp, and denying this will get you nowhere fast. If you flip and toss the potatoes before each side has crisped, you’ll find bits of potato sticking to the pan. If you pull the potatoes before they’re browned and crunchy, then, well, what are you even doing here? Expect to spend about 20 minutes on a full pan of potatoes.
Step 3: Onions & Peppers
True home fries, I contend, have onions and red bell peppers in them. And these onions and peppers should be cubed, so that they end up around the same size as the potato pieces. When the potatoes are done, cook the onions and peppers together. Here I’d advise a high-smoke-point fat, like sunflower or canola oil, or even ghee. Get a skillet screaming hot, add the fat, and, just when it looks like it’s about to spontaneously combust, toss in the cubed onion and pepper. Sauté, stirring frequently, until tender and browned.
Step 4: Home Fries
Return the potatoes to the pan and stir, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Then plate them up, maybe with a bit of curly-leaf parsley or an orange slice, and take a bite. If you close your eyes, you might just be able to smell the diner coffee.