As those of you who read my recent article for BlogHer.com know, I celebrated my first Hanukkah eight years ago. This was back before I converted to Judaism when I was really and truly a shiksa (aka a non-Jewish woman). I had studied Judaism in college, but I didn’t have any practical experience when it came to Jewish food or holiday traditions. Meanwhile, my fiancé is as Jewish as they come. He was born and raised in Israel, the birthplace of Judaism, by two Jewish parents and a rabbi grandfather. He grew up spinning dreidels and eating sufganiyot (Hanukkah jelly doughnuts). I grew up singing Christmas carols and hanging stockings by the chimney with care. As the article describes, my first attempt at cooking latkes was a minor disaster. Luckily, I’ve learned a thing or two since then.
If you’re looking for a really amazing latke recipe, check out my Potato Latke recipe here.
Here are a few facts about latkes, along with some foolproof tips that will make your latkes successful… no matter which recipe you choose to make!
- Latkes are traditionally cooked on Hanukkah, along with other fried foods, to commemorate the miracle of the menorah oil in the Jewish Temple (see my Hanukkah blog for more details).
- Latkes are made from shredded potatoes, eggs, onions and salt. Often matzo meal is added to help bind the ingredients together. Spices and herbs like parsley and chives can be added to give a more unique flavor.
- Latkes can be served with applesauce or sour cream, or both. The flavor is greatly enhanced by these condiments. Some folks top their latkes with smoked salmon or caviar. Often non-dairy sour cream is used to avoid mixing dairy and meat at a meat meal. Try serving latkes with Greek yogurt for a healthier alternative– but if you’re keeping kosher, make sure your latke recipe is parve (no animal-based oil or schmaltz)!
- Sephardic Jews traditionally fry their latkes in olive oil because Hanukkah occurs at the end of the olive-pressing season. Olive oil was also treasured in Biblical times, so using it to fry latkes gives the dish a deeper significance. Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe and immigrants to America typically fried their latkes in schmaltz, or rendered poultry fat, until more healthy oil alternatives were introduced.
- Chremslach (singular: chremsel) is the Yiddish word for a fried pancake. Potato chremslach are often mistaken for latkes. They are similar to latkes, with one major difference. Instead of shredding the potatoes, as we do with latkes, the potatoes are mashed and made into a thick batter before frying. Chremslach often appear on deli menus as “potato pancakes,” and can easily be mistaken for latkes. While latkes are thinner and crisper due to the shredded texture of the potatoes, chremslach are thicker and fluffier.
- Latkes are traditionally made from potatoes because they were plentiful and easy to obtain for Eastern European Jewish cooks. However, there is no law that says latkes have to be made from potatoes. They can also be made using shredded vegetables like zucchini and carrots, sweet potatoes or yams, or even cheese!
LATKE COOKING TIPS
- Shred your potatoes with either a hand grater or a food processor with a grating attachment. Some Jewish cooks swear by the hand grater, saying it makes a big difference in taste. Others revel in the convenience of the food processor. Neither method is “correct,” it’s simply a matter of preference. Using a food processor will cut your prep time dramatically, and will also be easier on your arms and shoulders. For a super easy (non-kosher) alternative, you can use Simply Potatoes hash brown shreds found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Unfortunately last time I checked the product does not have a kosher hechsher, so if you’re keeping things kosher you’ll need to shred the potatoes yourself.
- Some cooks prefer using large shreds of potatoes, while some prefer a finer shred. I personally prefer the fine shreds, but you can choose whatever texture works best for you!
- After shredding your potatoes, immerse them in cold water to keep them from discoloring. If you’re using a hand grater, you can shred them directly into the bowl of water.
- When you’re ready to prepare your latke mix, drain the potatoes and get rid of as much moisture as possible by squeezing them in a colander or wringing them out in cheesecloth. The less moisture the potatoes have in them, the better result you’ll get.
- When you’re ready to fry, place the bowl of potato mixture next to the frying pan, then place another empty bowl beside that. The empty bowl is used for wringing out excess moisture from the latkes just before you put them in the hot oil. You can squeeze out the moisture from each patty using a slotted spoon, or simply squeeze the potato mixture in your hand to wring it out before forming the patty.
- Fry the latkes in small batches. 4-5 at a time in a large skillet works best. Trying to cook too many at one time crowds the pan and makes the temperature of the oil drop, which can result in soggy latkes.
- While olive oil and schmaltz historically authentic oils used to cook latkes, they are not necessarily the best choice for modern cooks. Olive oil has a relatively low smoke point, which means the oil will burn and discolor when kept at a high frying temperature for a long period of time. Schmaltz is delicious, but it’s full of fat and cholesterol. I prefer to cook my latkes in peanut or grapeseed oil, both of which have higher smoke points. Grapeseed is a healthier oil with no cholesterol, while peanut oil is great for frying and adds flavor to the latkes. No matter which oil I use, I like to add a little schmaltz to the mix for that distinctly Jewish flavor. You can purchase schmaltz or make your own – click here for the recipe.
- The ideal temperature to fry a latke is between 360 and 375 degrees F. The best way to monitor the temperature is to use a deep fry or candy thermometer. If you don’t have one of those, here are two simple methods to test the oil’s temperature:
Drop a small piece of bread into the oil. If it takes 60 seconds to brown, the oil temperature is perfect for frying.
Place a kernel of unpopped popcorn into the oil. When the kernel pops, the oil is hot enough to begin frying.
- After frying, place latkes on a rack to dry, or place them on a single layer on top of paper towels and allow to drain. Do not stack layers of latkes on top of each other or they’ll end up soggy.
- Always serve latkes hot and fresh. The longer they sit, the less crisp they’ll be.