I don’t need a whole lot of incentive to expand my culinary horizons — that’s one of the reasons I went to cooking school at such an advanced age.  When my good friend Carmaine asked me to come cook with her Sociology class, who were exploring many cultures through food, she didn’t have to ask me twice.  Given the time of the year, I suggested we look at the Hanukkah classic, latkes.  I mean, how difficult could they be?  Kartoffelpuffer by a different name, right?  Well, I hadn’t made those either.  I would research some cultural background, knock out a trial batch, and we’d be good to go.  Right?  Just a few ingredients, a pretty simple method……

Well, not quite.

I suspect that successful latkes, like perogies or cabbage rolls, depend a great deal on your grandmother, and whether she was present to pass along her wisdom to you.  While the ingredients don’t vary much from source to source, there are potential tweaks in the methodology that left me with a kitchen full of dirty dishes, and some spectacular failures.  I longed for a wonderful Bubbe to correct my technique, but alas, my heritage is more of a mixed bag, none of it Jewish, and my guiding forebears long gone.  If you have a Bubbe, you probably don’t need to read this article.

So, in typical style (for me), I set about trying to reinvent the wheel.

All the Mistakes

First came the choice of potatoes.  Russets are recommended most often, with Yukon Golds coming in second.  Yukon Golds are a bit of a cross-over potato in that they mash well, but also hold their shape for things like potato salad.  I would try both, I thought.  That turned out to be a good idea.  Ever the creative cook, I peeled my Russets, and did not peel my yellow potatoes, as their skin was very thin.  I was a little suspicious that they were a little waxier than their packaging had suggested, but I forged ahead..

Next came the grating method.  I figured, as I was attempting a half-recipe in the “Single Serving” tradition, I would grate them by hand and leave my food processor in the cupboard.  Following the directions of almost all the recipes, I used the “larger” holes on my grater, comparing my shreds to those in photos.  I used quite a bit of elbow grease too, so the shreds were quite thick.

I know how quickly raw potatoes can brown when exposed to air, and for some reason (possibly my last gluey attempt at a pan-fried potato/egg frittata extravaganza) I thought it would be prudent to rinse off the surface starch, so I immediately placed the grated potatoes in water.  Big mistake #1.  First, rinsing off the surface starch is absolutely counter-intuitive (ie, wrong). Furthermore, the Russets seemed to soak up water, and later release it when mixed with the egg, flour and salt.  More on that later.

I squeezed my Russet shreds in a napkin, twisting hard to extract as much moisture as I could.  I got a little creative, however, in the “squeezing out the excess moisture” from my yellow potatoes, which seemed pretty dry after simply sitting in a sieve for five minutes.  I tried squeezing out their excess moisture with my potato ricer (an excellent method for removing excess moisture from crabmeat or cooked spinach) but there was very little liquid to remove by this method.  So I got a little lazy.  Mistake #2. I should have stuck with the napkin method.

Working with the Russets first, I added the egg, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of flour. Many recipes suggest you harvest the potato starch from the liquid you squeeze from your shreds.  I had diluted my liquid so much by soaking my shreds that this was a somewhat impossible task, so I chose to add a teaspoon of dry potato starch.  I don’t think this was a bad idea, actually.  It didn’t seem to do any harm.

I microplaned shallots into my mixture, rather than grating onion to the same size shreds as the potatoes. I’m not a fan of big bits of onion. It was a personal choice – the recipe standard would probably have worked very well.

Almost immediately, I noticed liquid pooling in the bottom of my mixing bowl.  Repeated stirring did nothing to keep this liquid distributed throughout the potato shreds, as I felt it should – in fact more and more liquid seemed to be appearing.  I would guess that my soaking, combined with the action of the salt on the shreds, caused this situation.  I hesitated to add more flour, thinking the results would be somewhat like shallow-fried library paste (which may or may not have been true), so I pushed ahead in my deluded fashion.

A note on cooking method.  When you put wet stuff into hot oil, you get the most spectacular spitting and splashing and bubbling and mess.  Latke mixture needs to be on the less-wet side, or you will spend a whole lot of time cleaning the floor, the stove, the counter, and searching for burn cream …..

Many recipes suggest the use of ¼ cup of oil for frying, but don’t necessarily specify a pan size.  Turns out that you’re not so much shallow frying as pan-frying in a little extra oil.  I certainly went overboard in the amount of oil I needed (Mistake #3, without question).

With a most dramatic “whoosh” as the very wet batter hit the too-deep oil, my first attempt produced something that one might generously call “lacy” – the shreds were quite spiky and resisted being assembled into anything like a “cake”.  My first latke was thin on the edges and thicker in the middle but, to my surprise, it held together quite well.  I adjusted the temperature of the oil a bit to slow down the browning process.  As things turned out, it actually was cooked through in the middle (more good luck than good management).  Hardly a success, though.

I drained the excess moisture off the russet batter, and experimented with a silicone egg-ring to curb the spreading.  While this seemed like a pretty good idea, I only own one ring, so cooking off the four latkes my half-recipe produced was going to take some time.  They were a bit unwieldy in the pan, seemingly lacking in “connective tissue”, which is when I figured out why all the recipes gave leeway in the amount of flour or matzo meal you could add – a little more is better than a little less, no matter what I thought I knew.

At this point I was ignoring the fact that NONE of the recipes I researched suggested the use of a ring mold.  After all, I went to cooking school….

Feeling a little more experienced, I turned to the yellow potato shreds.  In an attempt to avoid the weepy problems I had with the Russets, I chose to add only an egg yolk as the binder for this batch, thinking to reduce the total amount of moisture in the mix by leaving out the egg white. Big mistake #4.  Turns out all those recipes weren’t wrong – you really do need a whole egg to bind the mixture properly.  I used green onions in this batch, which I actually prefer for flavor.  I used gluten-free flour too (Red Mill).

The spiky shreds were even less cooperative than the Russets had been, so I popped my mixture into the food processor (sigh, more clean-up) and gave it a few pulses to chop them roughly in half.  This might have been a good idea if I hadn’t left out the egg white. The combination of the missing egg white and the gluten-free flour caused the latkes to be so fragile that flipping them proved to be impossible — they simply broke apart. The one I made in the egg-ring was more successful, but shattered like a sand-cake when cut.  Flavor good, texture no so much. Mess?  Huge.

Back to the drawing board, and I really mean “back”.  I searched for answers to my questions by scouring the internet, discovering my errors, one by one. Turns out my absent Bubbe was right there in the recipe after all – I just wasn’t listening very well. Humbling, to say the very least.

Latkes, My Way

Yield:  4 generous — the amount is predicated on the use of a whole egg.  If you have liquid eggs on hand, or keep beaten egg cubes in your freezer, you can halve the recipe, using the equivalent of half an egg (2 Tbsp).


  • ¼ – ½ cup (to taste) finely chopped or grated onion (or finely chopped shallot or green onions)
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 Tbsp flour (gluten-free flour works pretty well)
  • 1 tsp potato starch  (not strictly required, but a good idea)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 2 medium potatoes, Russets or Yukon Gold (or any
    potato deemed good for French Fries, like Kennebec)


Combine the egg, flour, potato starch, salt and pepper, and onions in a mixing bowl. Stir until smooth.  This effectively beats the egg, and combines all the ingredients so mixing them evenly through the shredded potatoes is more predictable.

Grate the potatoes right onto a napkin, square of cheesecloth, or super-strong paper towel.

I grated about a third on the fine holes to make a potato paste, and the rest on the larger holes with a light hand, to make nice flexible shreds.  I ended up with pretty dense latkes, so the fine grating was probably not as essential as I thought.

Squeeze the potatoes in the cloth or paper towel to extract as much moisture as possible.

Add them to the bowl with the egg mixture, and stir through thoroughly.  This takes a bit of time and attention.  The next time I do it, I’m stirring with my hand to make sure everything is fully combined.

Divide the mixture into four piles.

Heat ¼ cup of oil in a heavy skillet with at least a 10-inch diameter base.  Use medium-high heat, and be patient.  Both the pan and the oil must be very hot before you add your potatoes.  The oil should shimmer, and there might be just the beginning of a whiff of smoke rising.  If you have a point-and-shoot thermometer (and I don’t), you’re looking for about 350°F.  If your oil is actually smoking, it’s too hot.  Keep a snug-fitting lid and an open box of baking soda nearby — just a precaution.  You’ll be sorry if the whole thing catches fire and you aren’t prepared.

Add the potatoes to the hot pan and immediately flatten them to your desired thickness, using the back of a spoon.  Adding the batter will cool down the oil and the pan, but keep a watchful eye. Chances are good you’ll want to reduce the heat a little when it comes time to give them the flip.

Cook until well browned on the first side, adjusting the heat if required to prevent them browning too quickly. Flip carefully, perhaps using a flipper and a fork, to minimize the potential to splash oil during the process.

Cook on the second side until equally nicely browned. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, and immediately sprinkle with a little salt.

Garnish any way you want.  Applesauce and sour cream are traditional, but if you think they seem to be calling for ketchup, well, nobody’s watching.

If you’re cooking for a crowd, finished latkes can be held in a warm oven, uncovered, on a rack to retain their crispy goodness.  They make an excellent base for a breadless version of Eggs Benedict.

Latkes are at their absolute best when fresh out of the pan, so I wouldn’t recommend big batch cooking with an eye to keeping them on hand in the freezer.  They don’t reheat any better than french fries.  I have seen a recipe that recommend making a large number at once on a well-oiled baking sheet in a hot oven, but it seemed fraught with potential problems.  Quality over quantity, I say.  You probably don’t want to eat more than two anyway, so invite a friend over.

Just a note on the use of gluten-free flour:  make sure you let the latke mixture sit for 5 to 10 minutes so the starches can hydrate and soak up as much moisture as possible.  If you have some on hand, I would recommend adding just a pinch of Xanthan Gum.  My gluten-free batch was very successful, even without it!