If you like your latkes to be more than just a vehicle for grease, author Andrea Chesman says it’s time to do away with vegetable oil.
Break out the latkes: Hanukkah is coming. For most people, said latkes — grayish, greasy potato pancakes slathered with sour cream and applesauce — are beloved just because they are reminders of home and childhood. But what if your latkes didn’t have to be mere vehicles for oil and nostalgia? What if they could be brown on the outside, snowy white on the inside, and not at all greasy? I’m here to help you make your latkes perfect.
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — the festival of lights — falls on December 12 this year and is observed for eight nights. It commemorates and celebrates the miracle that occurred after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the flame of the eternal lamp burned for eight days, even though there was only enough oil to last one day. The holiday is traditional celebrated with candle lighting, games, gifts, and eating fried foods.
Back in the old country, geese were the poultry of choice, prized for their down, rich meat, and copious amounts of fat. They were also practical birds to raise in Eastern Europe because they could thrive on forage and didn’t need shelter from the cold weather. This was the time of year when a goose would be slaughtered to provide the cooking oil, and the hope was that the goose fat would last long enough to make matzoh balls for the Passover celebration in the spring.
These days, most Americans fry their potato pancakes in vegetable oil, even though chicken fat (schmaltz) or lard is readily available. This recipe change happened sometime in the 1900s, when polyunsaturated vegetable seed oils were touted as “heart healthy.” This myth is more than adequately debunked by Nina Teicholz in The Big Fat Surprise, among others.
Not only are the health claims untrue, but vegetable oil has a way of being absorbed into the potatoes, giving latkes that heavy greasiness, in a way that animal fat doesn’t.
So scratch the idea that vegetable oil frying is better for you than frying in animal fat. This year, fry your potato pancakes in any rendered animal fat you can get your hands on. (You can find information on how to render fat in my book The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How or in this blog post I wrote for Mother Earth News. And making the interior of the latke snowy white is as simple as could be. Before forming your pancakes, put the grated potatoes in a bowl of acidulated water (1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to 4 cups water) and give them a swish to wash away the starch, which causes browning. Drain well.
Here’s my recipe for perfect latkes, adapted slightly from Serving Up the Harvest.
Latkes are often mistreated in the kitchen, and the result is a greasy pancake, gray on the inside, soggy throughout. The perfect latke is crisp on the outside, tender and snowy white on the inside. There are a few extra steps in my recipe as part of my never-ending quest to get this dish right.
- 3 pounds russet or baking potatoes, peeled
- 1 large onion
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Any rendered animal fat, for frying
- Applesauce and sour cream, to serve
- Coarsely grate the potatoes by hand or in a food processor.
- Transfer grated potatoes to a large bowl filled with acidulated water (1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar to 4 cups water). Swish around by hand for 1 minute. Pour into a strainer and drain well. Place a clean kitchen towel on the counter. Dump the potatoes onto the towel and pat dry. This step will keep the potatoes from turning pink, then gray, as they are exposed to air.
- In the food processor, grate the onion. Add half the grated potatoes to the food processor, replace the grating blade with the regular steel blade, and pulse until finely chopped but not quite puréed.
- Transfer the potato and onion mixture and the remaining grated potatoes to a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, salt, and pepper, and mix well.
- Preheat the oven to 300° F.
- Heat 1 inch of any animal fat in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Drop the potato batter, ¼ cup at a time, into the pan and fry until golden on the bottom, 1½ to 2 minutes. Turn and fry on the other side, about 1½ minutes. Drain on wire racks.
- Keep the latkes warm in the oven while cooking the remaining batter, but serve as soon as possible. Pass the applesauce and sour cream at the table.