It doesn’t get more delicious than fried potatoes — and latkes, the fried potato pancakes traditionally eaten during the celebration of Hanukkah, are the ultimate in crispy goodness. As it turns out, the association between latkes and this Jewish holiday goes back centuries. The reason latkes are fried isn’t just because it makes them taste great — it’s also deeply symbolic: Frying the latkes in oil commemorates the ancient Jews, who reclaimed their temple from oppressors and found that a small amount of oil kept their temple candles burning for eight miraculous days. Lighting the menorah (the candle-holder used during Hanukkah) is a way of paying tribute to this story of perseverance — and so, too, are the yummy latkes. According to a Kosher.com article written by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, “The custom to eat fried foods on Hanukkah was cited in the 12th century by Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef… and it was already a long-established practice in his day.”
Hanukkah celebrations begin on December 18 this year, but I could eat this comfort food in any season. Though latkes are already versatile and easy to make, there are a handful of cooking hacks to simplify preparation and enhance flavor and texture even more. To help you make the best latkes possible, Hadar Cohen Aviram, latke aficionado and McCormick Executive Chef, follows four rules.
1. Drain your potatoes for maximum crispiness.
There are crispy latkes made from shredded potatoes and there are more cakey, chewy latkes made from potatoes that have been mixed in a blender or food processor. Which version you prefer is, as Chef Hadar puts it, “the one million dollar latke question.” (Personally, I’m team crispy and shredded.) If you’re making latkes on the stovetop and trying to achieve the perfect crisp, Chef Hadar says the process starts before you begin cooking. “The crispiness is determined by how much moisture is in the mixture and the amount of heat the potatoes get from the cooking medium,” she explains. “My main tips would be to ensure you’re properly draining or squeezing the potatoes of excess liquid before mixing any other ingredients, and having your oil (or air fryer!) set to the right temperature.” As she puts it, “the oil should be hot but not fuming.” This means between 350 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit if you have a thermometer. And if you’re making your latkes in the air fryer, Chef Hadar suggests setting it between 375 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit, as this temperature will “cook the patties long enough to crisp without burning.”
2. Speed up the process by shredding potatoes unpeeled.
Latke recipes aren’t complicated, but the prep is labor-intensive. (Those potatoes don’t shred themselves!) Chef Hadar says “the most time-consuming portion is peeling and shredding the potatoes” — but, as it turns out, peeling the potatoes isn’t necessary. “I like to shred the potatoes unpeeled to give the latkes added color,” Hadar shares. Shredding the potatoes is also tedious, especially if you’re making latkes for a large group. To forgo the shredding entirely, Chef Hadar recommends using finely-shredded frozen hash browns instead of whole potatoes — just be sure to thaw and drain them thoroughly before you start.
3. Look to your family members for latke hacks.
Latke recipes are often passed down through generations, and as with any comfort food, there’s a tendency to prefer the version prepared by your own family. Chef Hadar is no exception, saying her grandmother’s latkes are “engraved in my memory.” As she recalls, her grandmother “wasn’t a fancy cook,” but her latke trick — adding a teaspoon of baking powder — made them “pillowy, airy, and super crisp.” (A teaspoon of baking powder also makes mashed potatoes extra fluffy!)
Similarly, my own mother’s latkes are my favorite. She always adds sweet potatoes to the mix (three sweet potatoes and five regular potatoes for four dozen latkes total, to be exact), and grates them by hand, leaving bits of skin on. She says the sweet potato gives the latkes a “piquant flavor and toothsome texture.” My mom also adds dried onion flakes from the pantry to her latke mix — not only do they bring flavor and texture to the latkes, but they simultaneously absorb some of the extra water from the grated spuds.
4. Have fun changing up the flavors.
Even if you’re following a beloved family recipe, don’t be afraid to switch it up! Chef Hadar suggests adding 2 tablespoons of hot sauce to your potatoes for “a delicious savory note, some heat, and a lovely red hue.” You can also add a mix of 1 teaspoon each of garlic powder, onion powder, and dried basil, dill, or parsley leaves for “a super flavorful latke.” For a decadent latke, add ¼ cup sour cream to the latke mix.
Plant-based latkes are possible, too. Simply replace the eggs in your latke recipe and use chickpea flour as a binding agent instead — Chef Hadar suggests a 1 tablespoon per egg ratio. She also enjoys mixing up the texture of her latkes using a combination of shredded and pureed potatoes as a binder in place of eggs. “You get the benefit of a truly plant-based latke and still enjoy those crunchy, crispy edges,” she explains.
Latkes are traditionally topped with sour cream or applesauce (sometimes I like to mix them or alternate bites) — but don’t limit yourself. “I like to think of latkes as mini savory pancakes, similar to a blini” says Chef Hadar. So, go wild with the toppings! She also suggests caviar and chives for “a New Year’s Eve-worthy latke” or a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar for “a savory-sweet dessert.”
Whether you grew up with a family latke recipe or are learning how to make them for the first time, there are plenty of ways to make this classic dish your own. I know I’ll be enjoying latkes this year… and for many years to come.