Latkes, which are wonderfully crisp potato pancakes, are the specialty of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. Every year, my dad would fry latkes (pronounced LOT-kuz) in a skillet of hot oil, but it bothered him that his batter of grated potatoes would turn gray so quickly from exposure to the air.
My father was an engineer with chemist envy, and there wasn’t anything he couldn’t figure out with a little trial and error, so he decided to solve this latke problem once and for all.
He tried many things over the years, including grating the potatoes by hand into a bowl of grated onions. But when the food processor came along, he found his solution.
He finally settled on this approach: He would mix all the raw potatoes along with some onion in a food processor until the mixture was very smooth and pulpy. He already knew that onion helped keep the potatoes from graying; this worked even better.
Then he would wrap the potato-onion mixture into a kitchen towel and squeeze out as much moisture as he could to make the mixture as dry as possible – this helps the latkes crisp. Then he added eggs, flour, and seasonings, and quickly fried the latkes.
These fried latkes are more like latkes you get at Jewish delis, probably because those places also often use this method. They are a little like mashed potatoes in texture, but with a crispy outside.
To this day, I still make latkes using his method, with just a few small changes. I squeeze the potato-onion mixture in cheesecloth instead of a kitchen towel, since you can just discard the cheesecloth afterwards. (It’s so much easier.)
I also add one hand-grated potato to the mixture. This adds some appealing texture to the otherwise smooth and creamy latkes, and I love the combination.
Even with this method, potatoes can start to turn gray if they’re left exposed to the air for too long. Be sure to submerge peeled potatoes in water until you’re ready to use them, and then after you’ve squeezed the potato-onion mixture in the cheesecloth, leave it bundled up in the cheesecloth until you’re ready to mix the final latke batter.
Another tip: You only need a thin layer of oil in the pan to fry the latkes, but it needs to be very hot. Not sure if it’s hot enough? A crust of bread should brown in 10 seconds. Add the latke batter by the spoonful and let the bottoms brown nicely before turning them.
Every latke-loving family has stories about everyone standing around the kitchen pestering the cook for bites of hot, crisp pancakes, not waiting for them to cool. Don’t send them away. It’s the best way to eat latkes!
Why eat latkes at Hanukkah? It’s actually the oil, not the potatoes, that is significant for the holiday. As the tale goes, ancient Jews used the small amount of oil they had to rededicate their Temple in Jerusalem and the oil lasted for eight days, which is why Jews light candles for eight nights.
Add a bowl of sour cream for dipping, and some applesauce too, if you like. Pass the napkins.
- 1 1/2 half pounds russet potatoes (3 to 4 medium potatoes)
- 1/2 medium onion
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- About 1/4 cup canola oil, or more if needed
- 1 cup sour cream, for serving
- Food processor
- Box grater
- 10-inch or 12-inch cast iron or nonstick skillet
1 Make the potato-onion mixture: Peel the potatoes and place them in a bowl of cold water until needed (this helps prevent graying as well). Chop 3 of the potatoes and the onion into 1-inch chunks; leave the last potato in the water.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the chopped potatoes and onion. Pulse the mixture until it forms a pulp-like puree, scraping down the sides of the work bowl once or twice.
2 Squeeze the potato-onion mixture: Fold a large square of cheesecloth on itself until you have 4 layers and a roughly 12-inch square. Line a colander with the cheesecloth. Tip the potato-onion mixture into the colander.
Gather the corners of the cheesecloth around the potato-onion mixture and begin twisting. Keep twisting the top and squeezing the ball of potatoes and onions with your hands to squeeze out as much liquid as possible (you may get up to a cup of liquid). Leave the potato mixture in the cloth once squeezed to reduce exposure to air (which can start to turn the potatoes gray).
3 Grate the last potato: On the coarse side of a box grater, grate the potato.
4 Make the batter: Transfer the potato mixture from the cheesecloth to a bowl. Add the grated potato, flour, eggs, salt, and pepper. Stir well.
5 Fry the latkes: In a large cast iron or non-stick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. When it is shimmering (a crust of bread will brown in 10 seconds), add large, generous spoonfuls of the batter to the pan (about 1/4 cup of batter) — you will probably fit in 4 or 5 mounds. Use the bottom of the spoon to flatten the mounds.
Cook for 3 minutes, or until brown on the bottom. Flip and cook until the other side is also browned, about 3 minutes more.
Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and briefly drain them of any excess grease. Continue cooking the rest of the latkes in batches, adding more oil to the pan as needed.
6 Serve right away. Serve immediately while hot, with sour cream or applesauce, or transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in 250°F oven until ready to serve.