Ask ten Jewish mothers the proper way to make latkes, and you’ll get fourteen different opinions. So this post comes with a disclaimer: all latke-related opinions are my own, and not necessarily your bubbe’s.
Additionally, I must also disclose that I am relatively new to the tribe, having converted to Judaism in 2013. So I am what you might call a latke novice. But from the feedback I’ve received – mostly in the form of satisfied grunts and crunching noises – I’m doing alright.
Latkes, one of the traditional fried foods served at Chanukah, are a personal holiday tradition for us. They are one of the first traditional Jewish foods I learned to make, and I look forward to making them once (or twice… if I’m lucky!) during the season.
I grew up with potato pancakes, not latkes – and there IS a difference. Potato pancakes are more like a traditional pancake – soft and flat. Latkes differentiate themselves by using shredded potatoes and grated onion, along with eggs as a binder, and salt. The best latkes, in my opinion, have lacy edges formed by lots of crisp strands of potato shreds, and soft, fluffy centers inside. The proportion of crispy to soft parts is key, and I think I lean toward more crunch. Stacked up to cool on a towel-lined plate, they look like a collection of little birds’ nests.
At their most simplistic, latkes are composed of shredded or grated white potatoes (I use russet), grated onion, eggs, and salt. From this basic potato-onion-egg base, opinions seem to vary wildly on every aspect of latke cooking, starting with how you shred or grate the potatoes. Some people still knuckle down and grate their potatoes by hand, while others (myself included) save time by shredding them with a food processor. Not only does the food processor save time, but it also produces longer strands of potato that give my latkes those shoestring-potato-like edges we love.
In addition to eggs, most recipes call for some sort of an added starch for additional binding. This can be a small amount of flour, potato starch, or matzo meal (if you want to keep them kosher.) The recipe I use calls for flour, and I’ve adjusted the amount to suit my family’s tastes.
Some people add spices – anything from a simple grind of fresh pepper, to fresh-chopped herbs. I like my latkes to be neutrally seasoned, and served alongside sweet homemade applesauce or savory sour cream; or Greek yogurt, which is surprisingly good for a fraction of the calories. To me, latkes are all about texture and technique.
If you want to get creative though, latkes can also be made with shredded root vegetables, like these Cumin-Scented Beet Latkes from Epicurious.) Or, try them with sweet potatoes, like these Spiralized Sweet Potato Latkes from Skinnytaste. And although they are also delicious, cheese latkes are another thing entirely. In my opinion, they’re not latkes, and they should be called what they are: ricotta pancakes.
A traditional flavor for latkes that I haven’t experimented with, but intend to someday, is schmaltz. According to the website of food historian, Jewish cooking expert, and fellow convert Tori Avey, “Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe and immigrants to America typically fried their latkes in schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat, until more healthy oil alternatives were introduced.” Her recipe for latkes calls for just a bit of schmaltz added to the oil, just to add flavor.
When it comes to the best oil for frying latkes, I prefer peanut oil, but canola oil would make a good substitute. Both peanut and canola oils have high smoke points, allowing them to stand up to the high heat of pan-frying and not break down. Sephardic Jews (from areas in the Middle East) have traditionally fried their latkes in olive oil, but I can’t recommend this as an oil for frying.
So you’ve mixed your latkes, your oil is heated up, and you’re ready to fry. Keep in mind these tips for making sure your latkes are crispy, salty and irresistible:
- Latkes fry relatively quickly, and are best eaten HOT, right out of the pan. Make sure you have side dishes and toppings like sour cream and/or applesauce set out and ready before you start frying.
- Before you start, set up a space for draining the latkes. I drain mine on paper towels, but you could also use a wire rack. Whatever keeps them crunchy.
- When I’m forming latkes in my hands, I try not to press the potatoes together too firmly. I press gently to make something vaguely patty-shaped, with a lot of strands sticking out along the edges. Then I slide it down my fingers and into the pan. It takes some practice. It might look like there’s no way the mixture will hold together, but if you let it get crispy enough on the first side, you’ll be able to flip it easily.
- Wait to turn the latkes until they are medium to deep golden brown. They will hold together better. I like to use the thinnest, flattest spatula I have (a fish spatula works well.) Try not to turn them more than once.
- To keep the latkes warm while you’re cooking more batches – if they last that long – place them on a wire rack on a sheet pan in a warm oven.
My best advice for latke novices? Try a few recipes and see what you like. Ask a Jewish grandmother for her recipe. Or, do like I did and find an old spiral-bound cookbook from the ladies’ circle of a Jewish temple. My own recipe is based on Binky Read Cohen’s recipe from “Historically Cooking: 200 Years of Good Eating” published by the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Sisterhood in Charleston, South Carolina, 1980.
As they say in the foreword, “We are an old people, yet ever new.” I hope you find your own favorite way to make latkes. Let me know what great ideas you come up with!
- 4 russet baking potatoes shredded
- 1 small onion grated
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 2 eggs beaten
- 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
- peanut and/or canola oil for frying
- kosher salt to taste
Scrub potatoes and shred with your preferred method, either a food processor or hand-grater. (If you want to peel the potatoes, that's ok, but I like the flavor that the skins add.)
Place shredded potatoes in a large colander and rinse well with cold water, moving the potatoes around to make sure all surfaces are rinsed. The water should run clear. Set potatoes aside to drain.
In a large mixing bowl, beat 2 eggs. Add salt and baking powder.
Press the drained potatoes firmly with paper towels, or a clean dishtowel, to remove as much water as you can. The drier the strands of potato, the better.
Add potatoes to egg mixture in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with flour. Stir until well combined.
In a cast-iron skillet, heat peanut and/or canola oil over medium heat. Prepare a wire rack or paper towels on which to drain the latkes. The oil is hot enough to start frying when a single strand of potato dropped in the oil sizzles actively and browns within one minute.
Make loose patties of the potato mixture with your hands, using approximately 3 tbsp of the latke mixture. Slide them into the hot oil. Cook for 3-4 minutes on the first side, until golden brown and crisp.
Flip latkes, and fry an additional 2-3 minutes until second side is also brown and crisp.
Remove from pan at once and sprinkle with kosher salt.
Eat immediately with applesauce and sour cream or plain Greek yogurt. Makes about 16 latkes.