Let’s get one thing straight: A latke is not a potato pancake.
“Potato pancake” can mean something different depending on who you ask, but as Joshua Resnick, lead chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, sees it, there are generally two categories. “The first one is a flaky potato starch that’s almost a mashed potato that gets seared into a pan,” he tells Inverse.
The second popular type of potato pancake, Resnick says, resembles a hashbrown. The hashbrown is often finely shredded and crispy on the outside — it presents “more of the look of a latke” — but it’s missing onion, which is one of the prime ingredients that qualifies a latke as a latke.
A perfect latke is crispy, textured, and tender. According to the experts Inverse spoke to — as well as the author’s strong-held beliefs and unwavering ancestral food rituals — the perfect potato latke boasts a duality: It has “almost custard-soft centers and super crisp and lacy edges,” Leah Koenig, author of Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen, tells Inverse.
The perfect slice
To achieve this duality, russet potatoes are the pick for latkes. They are some of the starchiest and driest potatoes, qualities that render the desired crispy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside composition. (More on starch soon.)
Perfect latkes get their distinct, piecey texture from how the potatoes are sliced. Resnick, who describes the best part of the latke as “the crispy potato pieces that form that almost make it look like a spiderweb,” hand grates the potatoes with a box grater for this effect.
Shannon Sarna, author of Modern Jewish Comfort Food, says she too will hand-grate for a small batch of latkes. This method is a labor of love, and it is truly work. Whether to save time, arthritic pangs, or the skin on their hands, many cooks will use a food processor for quick, uniform slices. (You definitely don’t want to over-pulse because this will yield too-small potato pieces that will ultimately render to mush.)
The step immediately after grating is crucial. The shredded potatoes need to be kept from browning — an oxidation reaction that happens when the potatoes’ enzymes are exposed to air. Most cooks will prevent this by placing their spud strands in a bowl of water.
Water slows down the enzymatic browning process, but it’s an imperfect method, according to Resnick, because it adds moisture back into the spuds. “The less moisture from the initial batch of potato, the crispier, more efficiently they’re gonna cook,” he says.
Instead of water, Resnick keeps the potato shreds in a bowl of pureed onion, which will prevent the potato from oxidizing while including the qualifying ingredient. Onions have been found to slow the browning process in all kinds of foods. Luckily, their flavor only adds to the taste of the latke.
Once all of the spuds are shredded and submerged in the pureed onions, Resnick wraps the mixture in a kitchen towel and squeezes out the liquid. Critically, Resnick reserves this liquid to go back into the batter later. “When you let that water mixture sit, inside of that mixture is natural potato starch,” he says. The starch, heavier than the water inside the potato, will sink to the bottom of the vessel you’ve squeezed the juices into. By the time you need that starch again, it will have fully sunk, and you can simply pour off the top, which will be mostly water.
Starch is key because it holds the latkes together in the pan. It absorbs water, and then, when heated, its granules swell and release even more scratch molecules in any remaining liquid, thickening the dish. Many resort to flour or matzo meal for this process, but Resnick opts for the natural potato starch: Beyond being utilitarian, the potato’s natural starches keep the latke gluten-free, making it more inclusive for dinner guests, Resnick says.
Now squeezed dry, the potato and onion mixture is put back in the mixing bowl. Before adding the reserved starch water, pour off the top and crack an egg into the liquid. “The protein [from the egg], when it works with the potato starch, provides a nice binder that holds the latke together.” Using a fork, whisk the egg and starch together to create a “pasty egg consistency.” Now, pour this binding paste into the potato mixture and prepare to fry.
“Latkes have to be fried, and if they’re not, you’re doing it wrong,” Resnick says.
There are plenty of options when it comes to the type of oil used for frying — the most common ones are vegetable or canola, which work well because they have high smoke points. “You put them in the pan, and you shouldn’t have to worry too much about your oil degrading very quickly,” Resnick says.
A smoke point is the temperature at which an oil starts to smoke. The smoke is a sign that the fat in the oil is about to break down (or oxidize). When it does, it releases acrolein, a chemical compound with a burnt, bitter taste that will compromise the food’s flavor. High smoke points are critical for frying since the high cooking temperatures are what help make the food crispy.
Resnick prefers to cook with rendered duck or chicken fat — also known as schmaltz. “The nice thing about them is that you’re not going to reach the smoke point, and they will impart a nice, richer flavor into the potato latke,” he says. Peanut oil is also an option that’ll give the latke some final oomph. It’s got a high smoke point, and while it won’t make the pancakes taste like peanuts, “it provides a little more richness to the food.”
Now you’re ready to fry. Shape your batter atop a perforated spoon, pressing to push any excess moisture through the holes of the spoon. Then, slide them into the hot oil. To keep track of how long each patty has been on the pan, Resnick starts by plopping the first latke in the pan’s 12 o’clock position and works his way around. Watch those latkes like a hawk, and when they’re perfectly golden, flip them over to cook on the other side.
Once each side of the latke is golden brown, carefully transfer it to a plate. Briefly blot with a paper towel and then sit the latkes on a roasting rack atop a baking pan so any excess oil can drip down into the pan. Resting the latkes on a paper towel for too long will saturate the towel in oil, rendering your latkes greasy. The roasting rack method will keep each side of the latke nice and crispy.
While there’s certainly a science to the most perfectly cooked latke, the best one of all is the one that makes you feel most at home — even if it is a glorified seared mashed potato. Research suggests we covet the foods we were served in childhood by the people who took care of us, so it makes sense that your perfect latke is the one most similar to the kind you ate growing up.
“Food at its core is something that’s comforting and nourishing,” Sarna says. “You have these memories of how something is supposed to taste and smell that takes you back. It’s consistent. That’s why we crave comfort foods when things are hard — you crave something you can count on.”