I Tried 5 Latke Recipes and This Is What I Learned

updated Dec 22, 2020
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Fried potato latkes are synonymous with the celebration of Hanukkah. To commemorate the miracle where a small vessel of oil lit the Holy Temple for eight nights, fried foods are at the center of the table. Disguised as a simple dish, with potatoes, onion, and oil as key players, every latke cook has a different take on what ingredients to add, equipment to use, and technique to employ.

In my quest to find the simplest, easiest latke recipe, I tested five published recipes from well-respected sources with very specific latke criteria in mind.

The Latke Criteria

So, what makes a good latke? For most, the goal is to crunch into a lacy, crisp exterior that reveals a light, almost creamy center. Latkes should be savory and well-seasoned — full of potato flavor with a hint of onion throughout. Although none of the five recipes tested were the perfect recipe on their own, I learned from each of them. I took those tips and techniques and incorporated them into Kitchn’s no-fail latke recipe simple enough for any home cook for their holiday table.

The 5 Latke Recipes I Tried

1. “Adam & Maxine’s Famous Latkes” by Adam Rapoport, Bon Appetit

Recipe overview: The first recipe I tried was “Adam and Maxine’s Famous Latkes Recipe” published in Bon Appetit Magazine. From the recipes headnotes, the promise was “More potato, and a crunchy (not cakey) texture.” This recipe specifically calls for russet potatoes, which is a type of baking potato. Since this variety of potato is high in starch, compared to the waxy potatoes that you would use for potato salad, the authors chose not to include flour, although it did ask for the addition of breadcrumbs and baking powder.

The method: I started by grating peeled potatoes and onion with the shredding disk of a food processor. I loved the result: even shards of potato and onion in seconds. Because it was done so quickly, there was no sign of discoloration. Next, I piled the shreds onto a clean kitchen towel, gathered the corners and twisted the ball to squeeze out excess liquid. The towel was quickly saturated with water and although I repeated the process two times, I still felt like there was a good amount of liquid in the potatoes and onion that I just was not getting to.

With no instruction to save that liquid, down the drain it went. I set that tater-soaked towel aside and whisked the eggs, breadcrumbs, salt, baking powder, and pepper together before using my hands to toss the potato and onion with the batter. Next, I added enough oil to measure 1/8-inch depth in the pan. From here I dropped a heaping tablespoon of the latke batter into the hot oil and flattened it with the back of my spoon. Once golden-brown, I flipped and continued to cook before removing them from the oil and draining on paper towels.

The results: These were the smallest and flattest latkes of the bunch, despite the addition of baking powder. I did not have any issue with the latkes breaking apart in the oil at first, although I did find that I had to add additional oil to the pan as I got close to the end of my batch or else the potato particles scattered. The amount of frying oil called for was barely adequate for a small latke and would not be sufficient for anything larger — especially since I had to add additional oil at the end. That said, they were well-seasoned with a crunchy exterior and a tender, creamy interior.

The takeaways: The gem of this recipe was the use of schmaltz as a portion of the frying oil. It added a savory depth of flavor to the potato pancake that vegetable oil alone could not provide.

  • Takeaway 1: Grate baking potatoes and onion in the food processor.
  • Takeaway 2: Chicken schmaltz and neutral oil for frying.

2. “Old-Fashioned Latkes” by Max Falkowitz, Serious Eats

Recipe overview: Next up were Max Falkowitz’s “Old-Fashioned Latkes” from Serious Eats. This recipe was intriguing because it employed ingredient preparations, tools, and techniques that I did not see anywhere else.

The method: To begin, I shredded the unpeeled potatoes with the grating disk of my food processor, but this time the onions were diced. Instead of wrapping the potatoes in a kitchen towel, Falkowitz proceeds with instruction to assemble a tourniquet using a double layer of cheesecloth wrapped around the potatoes and then tied around the handle of a wooden spoon. I squeezed the bundle, as instructed, over a large bowl, until no more water could be expressed. Wow! What a revelation. The amount of liquid flowing through the cheesecloth was significantly more than I had seen in my first test, plus the aid of the wooden spoon allowed me to squeeze even harder than if I had used my hands alone.

This was also the first, although not the last, recipe that called for pouring off the potato water but keeping the starch that settled to the bottom. I used my hands to mix potato starch into the potatoes and onion before adding eggs, matzo meal, and salt. This was a larger volume of batter than in my first test. I heated 1/2-inch of oil in a cast iron skillet before sliding large, four-inch-wide and one-inch-thick patties into the pan. These took longer to cook, thanks to their large size, but after about six minutes per side they were “darker than golden” and ready to drain on paper towels.

The results: These latkes were crunchy with a thick, tender interior. They were quite large; you could serve one or two as the main part of your meal, rather than a simple side dish. The diced onion was distracting, mostly because it varied in shape from the shreds of onion, and because they were diced rather than shredded; the flavor did not disperse evenly, failing to deliver onion flavor in each bite. The large size of the latke was off-putting and the amount of oil was more than I found necessary.

The takeaways: The best part about this recipe was the squeezing technique using the cheesecloth and wooden spoon. The liquid flowed easily through the cloth and I felt like every drop of excess liquid was expelled with a fraction of elbow grease. I also appreciated the use of the potato starch from the squeezed liquid. Adding back the potato starch makes for a creamier center in the potato pancake and boosts the crispiness of the crust, while eliminating much of the potato’s moisture.

  • Takeaway 3: Cheesecloth and a wooden spoon for squeezing potatoes (and onion) dry.
  • Takeaway 4: Use the potato starch from the liquid squeezed from potato shreds.

3. “Classic Latkes” by Joan Nathan, Saveur

Recipe overview: Joan Nathan’s “Classic Latkes,” as published in Saveur magazine, was the third latke recipe I tested. This recipe begins, like the others, by grating the potato and onion.

The method: For grating the potatoes and onions we are instructed to use a box grater and to alternate between the potatoes and onion in order to keep the potatoes from darkening. Although it didn’t take long, it did take a few more minutes to grate by hand than to do it in the food processor and took some more elbow grease. Additionally, the onion was slippery and slightly difficult to grate, appearing to disintegrate rather than shred. After grating, Nathan says to salt the onions and potatoes to taste, with no indication of how much salt to use.

This is a tough place to put a novice latke cook in because the dish is not at the point where one is tasting for final seasoning, so it is difficult to determine how much salt is necessary. I checked the other recipes I was testing to get a range of salt amounts and ended up sprinkling 1 teaspoon of salt onto the potatoes and onion.

The salted mixture sits in a sieve over a bowl to drain before being squeezed by hand to remove excess liquid. Like the previous recipe, once the potato starch settled to the bottom of the bowl I drained off the liquid. From here I mixed the potato starch and grated potato and onion with the chives, matzo meal, eggs, salt, and pepper with my hands; the mixture was quite wet. Apparently my hands and the sieve had not squeezed out as much liquid as in other methods. I heated 1/4-inches of oil in my cast iron pan and fried 3- to 4-inch pancakes until golden-brown, then drained on paper towels.

The results: These latkes certainly live up to their classic designation. They were a deep golden-brown, with a crisp, lacy exterior and a creamy, thick interior. The oil amount was perfect and I had no issue with any of the latkes falling apart during frying. I liked using my hands for mixing, but for squeezing the liquid, I do not think they did the job. An unexpected benefit of using my fingers to mix the batter (aside from saving myself the effort of washing my whisk) was feeling intimately familiar with the wetness and texture of the batter.

The takeaways: This was the second recipe to call for matzo meal. Although not as essential to the celebration of Hanukkah as it is to the observance of Passover, matzo is often used as a binder in latkes. You could say it is an integral part of the Jewish pantry, thanks to its long shelf life and significance in important holiday celebrations. I did find that, although not instructed to let the batter sit, the interior texture of the latkes made at the end of frying were much more creamy than the first few.

  • Takeaway 5: Mix all ingredients with your hands.
  • Takeaway 6: Matzo meal and potato starch as binders.

4. “David (the Latke King) Firestone’s Latkes (in His Own Words)” by David Firestone, New York Cookbook by Molly O’Neill

Recipe overview: David Firestone, former editor at the New York Times and current managing editor at NBC News Digital, was famously named “the Latke King” in Molly O’Neill’s New York Cookbook. The latkes he fries for Hanukkah have deep familial roots; it is a recipe gleaned from his mother and grandmother and made his own.

The method: The ingredients were similar in proportion and preparation to several others that I tested, although one line stuck out to me: “Let sit for about 10 minutes.”

This reinforced the observation I made in the test of Joan Nathan’s latkes and confirmed in a conversation with culinary educator Tami Weiser: When using matzo meal, you “need to let the batter sit.” Give the matzo meal time to “hydrate, puff, and swell with the liquid,” just as you would in do for pancake batters, cookie doughs, and panades for meatloaf.

The results: Firestone instructs the cook to heat the oil to high and then lower to medium for the duration of cooking. I found that my latkes soaked up the oil and were on the greasy side when fried at this lower heat. These were the only latkes of the day that fell apart in the oil because they did not brown and crisp quickly, thus confirming my intuition that medium-high is the way to go.

The takeaways: I had a nagging feeling the entire time I fried Firestone’s latkes that there was some finesse or muscle memory that had been left out of the recipe. Just like when you open your grandmother’s recipe box only to find an index card with just the ingredients of your favorite dessert and little else, you need to be by their side to see the whole story. I would love to earn an invitation to his home over the holiday and watch each flick of the wrist to find what I was missing!

  • Takeaway 7: Rest the batter 10 minutes before frying.
  • Takeaway 8: Fry over medium-high heat and adjust heat as needed.

5. “Crispy Potato Latkes” by Nick Zukin and Michael Zusman in Artisan Jewish Deli at Home

Recipe overview: Nick Zukin and Michael Zusman’s recipe for “Crispy Potato Latkes” in the Artisan Jewish Deli at Home was one of the more unique ones of the bunch. Although most recipes start by grating potatoes and then squeezing dry, Zukin and Zusman add an additional step of an ice bath to prevent the potatoes from discoloring.

The method: This felt counterintuitive since drying the potatoes appeared to be one of the major tenets of making a crisp, crunchy latke. This batter was the wettest of the bunch, confirming that it simply did not make sense to introduce additional water with just a hand squeeze and salad spinner to dry. I applaud the creative thinking on this, but since the batter was exceptionally wet as a result, it missed the mark.

At this point in testing I had scooped, shaped, fried, and flipped dozens of latkes in the span of a few hours. It was in this recipe that I found the best way to measure, shape, and transfer the latke batter into the bubbling oil: Use a large ice cream scoop (or disher) to scoop the batter from the bowl! This makes it easy to divide the batter into equal portions. If you don’t have one of these, a dry measuring cup will certainly do the job.

I liked to scoop the batter out onto a fish spatula, which is thin and slotted, and shape it directly on the spatula with my fingers. A fish spatula is metal, so it will not melt when it hits hot oil and it is slotted so a pool of oil won’t gather on the utensil as it goes in and out of the pan. Nobody wants their fingers singed with hot oil on a holiday, so a fork is the perfect tool for nudging the potato pancakes off the spatula and into the pan.

The takeways: Upon testing each batch of latkes, I kept them warm in the oven. Right out of the pan these latkes are richly browned and crisp, and if kept in the oven longer than 30 minutes they take on a burned flavor. The authors here must have realized the same things, as they specify a half-hour as the max hold time in a low, 200°F oven.

  • Takeaway 9: Use a fish spatula, your fingers, and a fork to shape and then slide latkes into hot oil.
  • Takeaway 10: Keep warm in a 200°F oven for up to 30 minutes.

The Making of Our Best Latke Recipe

On the surface, most latke recipes appear alike. All have a short ingredient list and just a few instructions. Traditionalists may insist upon preparing the potatoes by hand, mixing with a certain binder, and frying in a certain type of oil. Others start with a goal in mind — dry, crisp potato pancakes — and develop unique techniques to reach that result.

Only by testing five classic recipes in tandem was I able to spot small yet significant variations and cull them down into Kitchn’s easiest, simplest method for classic latkes. Using the 10 takeaways from these five recipes, a holiday table set with crunchy potato pancakes will not be a miracle, rather it will be a gift to all who celebrate at your table!