You can keep your jelly doughnuts, Hanukkah gelt, and Hanukkah cookies. For me, there is no Hanukkah food — nay, holiday food — that even comes close to a plateful of lacy-edged, crispy latkes with sour cream, apple sauce, and maybe a little smoked salmon. They are a miracle (both because they are delicious and because it is a custom to eat foods cooked in oil on Hanukkah to celebrate the miracle of the day's worth of oil that lasted for eight days). But for every toothsome, crisp-exterior/tender-interior, golden-brown potato pancake served this Hanukkah, there are dozens of burned, overcooked potato pucks or, worse, underdone, raw-middled, oily disasters. Perhaps saddest of all is the inevitable batch of perfectly cooked latkes that are improperly drained, stacked on top of one another, rendering them sad and limp before they even get a chance to go wading in a river of sour cream.
Through research and trial and error (so many failed batches of latkes), I have finally found the path laid down by so many latke-makers before me. What follows is all you need to know to achieve latke bliss.
Dry = Crispy This applies both to the type of potatoes you choose (drier varieties like Russet and Yukon Gold are my preference for traditional laktes) and to how you treat your grated potatoes and onions. The idea is to remove as much moisture as possible, so it is absolutely crucial not to skip wringing the hell out them. This is easy to do (and a great way to release any holiday-related stress): Simply place the grated potatoes and onions in three- to four-cup batches on a clean dish towel. Salt lightly, and let sit for about ten minutes, then gather up the edges to form a sack and twist, twist, twist over the sink until you remove as much liquid as will come out.
Don't Bother Peeling the Potatoes This one is controversial, but I feel strongly about it. As long as your potatoes are scrubbed clean, the peel will only add depth of flavor and texture.
Use the Right Kind of Oil, Plenty of It, and Make Sure It's Hot You want something with a high-ish smoke point (my preferences are safflower and grapeseed oil, and occasionally refined coconut oil if I'm making sweet-potato latkes — more on that later). Also, this is not the time to go light on the oil — you need plenty of it in your frying pan to properly cook the latkes (about half an inch). Finally, be sure that the oil is very hot before you add the potato batter, since too-cool oil will seep too deeply into the potatoes without properly cooking the exterior, leaving them pale and floppy.
Do Not Attempt to Rush the Process There is no such thing as great latkes in a hurry. Really good ones take time and need to be left alone while they cook. Don't crank up the heat while they cook, and don't flip them before each side has finished cooking.
Drain Them Really Well Draining is the final step that increases the crispiness of latkes, so don't skip it! It's important to draw out any excess oil so the latkes stay crispy. Drain your latkes on paper towels, and spread them in a single layer (don't pile them on top of each other — it defeats the purpose and makes them soggy). If you are cooking a large batch of latkes, arrange them on a rimmed baking sheet (or, better yet, on a rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet) and keep them warm in a 200°F oven for up to an hour.
Have fun With Flavors It's important to adhere to proper latke-making technique, but as long as you have that covered, feel free to go crazy with add-ins and toppings. I'm crazy for sweet-potato laktes with curry powder and sriracha mixed into the batter, and adore potato latkes with everything-bagel spice mix — they taste like the love child of my two favorite carbs. Need to make them gluten-free? No problem: subbing white-rice flour for the usual all-purpose flour results in perfectly crisp, light latkes. Latke-making should be fun, so if you want to stray from tradition, have at it. Here's my favorite basic latke recipe, with some swap-in suggestions below. Happy Hanukkah!
4 pounds Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (about 6 medium potatoes), scrubbed clean and towel-dried
2 medium onions, peeled, ends removed
2 tablespoons salt, plus more for finishing the latkes
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
Safflower oil (or other high-smoke-point oil, like peanut or canola), for frying
1. Preheat the oven to 200°F.
2. Use a food processor or hand grater to grate the potatoes and onions (it's fine to mix them together).
3. Divide the potato-and-onion mixture between a few clean dish towels (you'll likely need two or three).
4. Sprinkle with the salt, and let sit for 10 minutes.
5. Gather up the corners of a dish towel, hold it over the sink, and twist to squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potatoes. Repeat with the remaining dish towels and potatoes.
6. Transfer the wrung-out potato-and-onion mixture to a mixing bowl.
7. Stir in the eggs and mix well.
8. Stir in the flour and mix well.
9. Cover a large baking sheet with paper towels and set it near the stove.
10. Pour 1/2 inch of oil into a large nonstick or cast-iron frying pan (or 2, if you are cooking a large batch and want to speed things up). I know it seems like a lot, but you'll need it.
11. Heat the oil over medium heat until it reaches 350°F (if you don't have a thermometer, let the oil heat up until you think it's hot enough, then make a little test latke. If it browns nicely, it's ready).
12. Wet your hands with cool water, then pick up about 2 tablespoons' worth of latke batter.
13. Gently drop it into the sizzling oil, being careful not to splatter.
14. Working in small batches (you don't want to overcrowd the pan), repeat with the remaining batter. Depending on the size of your pan, you'll likely cook 5 to 6 latkes at a time.
15. Cook the latkes for 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until they are golden-brown and crispy. Don't be tempted to turn up the heat and rush the process — you'll get latkes that are burned on the outside and raw inside. Add more oil as necessary.
16. Once the latkes have finished cooking, transfer them with a spatula to the prepared baking sheets and sprinkle lightly with salt.
17. Once the paper-towel-lined sheet has filled up, transfer the cooked latkes to clean rimmed baking sheets and keep in the oven for up to an hour before serving.
18. Serve the latkes hot with applesauce, sour cream, and/or lox.
Makes about 30 small latkes.
A Few Variations
Spicy Curried Sweet-Potato Latkes
Use red garnet yams in place of the regular potatoes, and add 1 tablespoon curry powder and 2 tablespoons sriracha to the batter. Cook in refined coconut oil. Serve with sour cream with a little lime juice stirred in, and applesauce with a touch of cardamom.
Combine a tablespoon each of dried onion, dried granulated garlic, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds, plus 2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt. Set aside. Cook the latkes per the directions, but sprinkle their tops with the everything-bagel spice mixture as soon as they come out of the pan. Serve them topped with sour cream and a small slice of lox.
In place of the eggs, use 3/4 cup quick-cooking rolled oats prepared according to the package directions. Let cool until warm (but not hot) to the touch. Stir in where the eggs are called for in the directions. I know it sounds crazy, but it works.
Replace the all-purpose flour with an equal amount of white-rice flour.
Replace half the potatoes called for with a mixture of any or all of the following: red garnet yams, peeled parsnips, peeled carrots, and peeled beets. Continue as directed.
Gabi Moskowitz is the editor in chief of the nationally acclaimed blog BrokeAss Gourmet and author of The BrokeAss Gourmet Cookbook; Pizza Dough: 100 Delicious, Unexpected Recipes; and a forthcoming book, Hot Mess Kitchen. Currently, she is a producer of Young & Hungry, a Freeform comedy now in its fourth season inspired by her life and writing.