Looking to take your latkes from ordinary potatoes to something truly amazing for Hanukkah this year? Leah Koenig, the Jewish culinary maven and cookbook author, has you covered. I recently had a lovely conversation with her via Zoom where she shared her very best latke secrets. Trust me, you're going to want to follow these simple but effective tips.
1. Don’t Be a Hero! Use Your Food Processor
For classic potato latkes, Koenig’s number one tip is to not be a hero and try to grate your potatoes by hand. “If you only have a standard box grater, you can absolutely make great potato latkes that way. But it takes a long time to grate the number of potatoes and onions that you need. And there's always the risk of nicking your knuckle in the process,” Koenig explains. “There are all these jokes that your latkes don't taste right unless there's a little bit of knuckle in there. But that's gross! I don't abide by that.”
What does she recommend you use instead? A food processor. “Most standard food processors come with the shred blade, and it really makes short work of grating the potatoes,” she explains. Not only is this an easier method, it’s also just plain faster. "When time is of the essence and you're trying to get your holiday dinner on the table, you might as well cut that step,” Koenig says.
2. Squeeze the Liquid Out of Your Potatoes (More! No, Even More!)
Once you’re finished grating your potatoes, it’s time to squeeze out all of the liquid. “Wrap the potatoes in a clean dish towel and literally wring them out,” explains Koenig. “That adage about oil and water not mixing is true. You'll get much less splatter if you really squeeze the potatoes and the onions out.” The solution? Squeeze the potatoes twice. “Once you've squeezed them and you think you've gotten all the liquid out, do it again,” says Koenig. “You will be surprised that there's still more left to squeeze out.”
3. Potato Starch Is Liquid Gold (Don’t Throw it Out!)
Don’t get rid of that starchy liquid after squeezing out those potatoes! It’s a secret ingredient for adding more flavor to your latkes. “When you squeeze the potatoes, squeeze them into a bowl as opposed to over the sink. Then, let that liquid sit for 10 to 15 minutes,“ suggests Koenig. “What you'll notice is that the heavier potato starch falls to the bottom, and the liquid floats to the top. So, if you pour off the liquid, you're left with this really great potato starch.”
According to Koenig, adding a little bit of the potato starch back into the latke mixture imbues texture and flavor, and also works as a binder. “It really helps to crisp things up in the pan, and you can notice a difference in flavor,” she explains. “It also helps keep the latke together. Sure, you're putting eggs in to bind them; that really is what keeps them together. But usually you put in some kind of flour or matzo meal or potato starch, too. So, it does augment or take the place of the flour.”
4. Choose the Right Oil and Temperature for the Job
The type of oil you use for frying alongside the temperature of the oil is incredibly important. Koenig suggests using a neutral oil with a high smoking point. “I love sunflower oil. It has that Eastern European vibe. So, that's my favorite.” Koenig explains. She also recommends grapeseed oil and safflower oil. She doesn’t recommend using extra virgin olive oil because it has a low smoke point. And she doesn’t particularly like canola oil “It has almost a fishy smell when it heats up too high.”
As for the temperature, Koenig says for deep or shallow frying you want the oil to be between about 350 and 360°F. “If it's too low, the food doesn't form the protective crust you need to stop the oil from leaching into whatever you're cooking. So, you end up with a very soggy, heavy potato latke,” she explains. “If it's too hot, then you risk burning the outside before the inside has had a chance to bind and cook.” Koenig suggests investing in a thermometer to ensure the right temperature for your oil.
Koenig also says you should avoid crowding the pan with too many latkes, because this will lower the temperature of the oil too quickly. “ You want to cook maybe batches of five or six at the most depending on the size of your pan,” she says.
5. Latkes Aren’t Just for Potatoes
Did you know that the original latkes were actually not made out of potato? They were made out of cheese, and after that they were made out of buckwheat. It was only in the 19th century when potatoes were used enough in Eastern Europe that they become the star of the Hanukkah meal. This means you should feel free to play around with your ingredients. Koenig recommends trying to make latkes with shredded beets and carrots, zucchini, and sweet potatoes. “I have a recipe for shredded meat and carrot latkes in my book that I love,” she says. “As long as you're frying, you're doing it right. It doesn't even matter what you're frying exactly. “ In fact, Koenig’s kids don’t even like potato latkes. So, she goes with something brinier. “I make fried pickles and olives for them.”
If you do want to stick with potato for your latkes, Koenig recommends using Russet potatoes because they’re very starchy. "I find that they make a really good potato latke,” she explains.
Bonus Tip! How to Deal With Messes and Smells.
There’s a lot of oil splatter when you make latkes, so Koenig recommends you invest in a splatter screen. “It’s really helpful for keeping everything contained,” she explains. As for the lingering smells, Koenig suggests an old wives’ tip: “Try boiling some cinnamon sticks and citrus in a little water while you're making the latkes or shortly after, sort of perfuming the air. I do that sometimes, but generally I don't. I don't mind the smell of latkes in the air. To me, it smells like the holidays.”