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It's not called the festival of light eating

Margaret Eby
December 06, 2018

While I am a goy myself, I have always loved Hanukkah. It's hard to be mad at a holiday that lasts multiple days and includes doughnuts and crispy potatos. This Saturday I have not one, but two Hanukkah parties to attend. For the first one, I'll be manning the frying pan and making the latkes myself for a friend who isn't a big fan of cooking. And after going through many rounds of cooking latkes, getting advice from anyone who'll give it to me about making latkes, scouring the internet, and having the fire department called to my parents' house once over a burned latke incident, I have gathered some best practices, and also lots of things to avoid. Frying latkes seems easy, but the result can be sub-par—burned on the outside, raw on the inside, soggy, and falling apart. Here are some common latke mistakes and how to avoid them.

You're Using the Wrong Oil

You want to look for an oil with a high smoke point, meaning that you can heat it to a high temperature without the oil smoking. Step away from the olive oil. We love olive oil, but it isn't the right way to go here because the smoke point is too low and the flavor can be off-putting in something like a latke. Plus it's expensive! Save your olive oil for when it can do more work for you, and use a nice neutral oil instead. Canola is great. Peanut is better but can be trouble if you have someone in your life with allergies. If you're feeling advanced you could also use duck fat or chicken fat. 

You're Using the Wrong Amount of Oil

This is a bit tricky, because oil is such a crucial element to the frying process. But basically, you want to shallow fry the pancakes, not deep fry them. That means a generous amount of oil, but you're not filling up a pot of it and lowering the latkes into it. Ideally, you want a good covering, so that the oil comes roughly halfway up the latkes. Don't skimp. Latkes are not health food. 

You're Using the Wrong Pan

Look for something that's heavy bottomed and heats evenly. You want it to be fairly large so you aren't frying a single latke every time. A cast iron skillet is great for this. A wide pot like a Dutch oven can also work well. Stainless steel works too, but if you aren't generous enough with the oil you might get some sticking. 

You're Using the Wrong Potatoes

Skip past fingerlings, new potatoes, and pretty purple guys. Those are lovely, but what we want here are good, old fashioned Russet potatoes. They're starchy, which will help them stick together and give you all that latke goodness. 

You're Grating the Potatoes By Hand

Can you grate potatoes by hand for latkes? Sure. Absolutely. You can also turn your 15-minute commute into an hour and a half commute if you want to walk to work. Especially if you're making latkes in quantity, it is so, so much easier to grate them in a food processor, or even with a KitchenAid grating attachment. A bonus of the food processor is it also produces the long even strands that we're hoping for in the latke, which hand grating does not. 

Your Potatoes Are Too Wet

If your latkes are falling apart, a lot of times the culprit is too much moisture in the potatoes. Moisture is the enemy of good latkes. After you shred the potatoes for the mixture, you want to dry them out really, really well. The easiest way to do that is to pile them into a big swath of cheesecloth and wring it out. Do it more than you think you have to. Dry them once when you're done grating them, and once as you're forming the mixture into pancakes. Promise, it's worth it. 

You're Throwing Away the Liquid from the Drained Potatoes

Sure, you could throw it down the drain. But if you keep the water that you drained from your potatoes, you'll notice that there will be a layer of white sludge-looking stuff settling at the bottom. This, my friends, is starch, and it is the binder that you need to make those pancakes stick together well. When the starch settles, pour off the liquid and use it to help bind together the potatoes and onions. 

You Forgot to Season Them

Potatoes love salt! Salt loves potatoes. Don't forget to add plenty of salt and pepper to your mixture. (You wouldn't want to disappoint Samin, would you?) You can try a little potato from the mix and then adjust accordingly.

Your Oil Is the Wrong Temperature

In frying, the oil temperature is crucial. Too cold, and it won't cook properly. Too hot, and you'll start a giant fire. Fires are bad! You want your oil to be about 375 degrees. Use a thermometer to check before you start frying. You can also put in a test strand of potato and see if it comes out to your liking. Remember that the temperature of the oil will lower when you add the latkes to the pan. Don't freak out, that's normal. But keep an eye on things to make sure it doesn't dip down too low. 

You're Crowding the Pan

You know what happens when you crowd a pan? Food steams instead of fries. Steamed latkes are an interesting concept but probably not what you're going for. Avoid adding too many latkes to the pan. Get two pans going at once if you want to do more quantity without worrying about crowding. 

You're Not Wearing an Apron

I mean, this is a personal preference, but it's true that frying is messy business. To avoid getting grease splotches on clothes you care about, wear an apron. Take it from someone who has definitely ruined a dress that way. 

You're Making Them to Order

If you're just making latkes for a small group, it makes sense to just fry up a batch when everyone is there. But if you're making them for a big group or a party, know that you don't need to be hunched over the frying pan for hours while everyone else is having fun. Nope! Latkes keep really well in a 200- to 250-degree oven on a wire rack. You can even make them way in advance and freeze them. When you're ready to serve them, just crisp them up in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. 

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