The liberated latke: Two chefs give two takes on the potato pancake

The skillet sizzles and pops, a culinary invitation for some shredded potatoes.

Ah, but what kind?

We know, your mom and grandmother and aunt and great-grandpa — who all had a knack for spuds — swore that the time-tested formula for a perfect latke depended upon choosing the right potato. And the right potato, they authoritatively decreed, was a russet.

Well, maybe.

Contemporary chefs agree that a flawless latke requires a high-starch, low-moisture potato that absorbs liquid and fat differently than low-starch potatoes. The russet boasts both qualities; a potato lacking these traits will produce a too soggy or too crumbly latke.

But potato growers today are continually introducing new varieties into the American market — Ivory Crisp, Alturas, Villetta Rose. As the potato selection continues to expand at grocery stores and farmers markets, some chefs say it’s time to rethink your russet allegiance.

“You can get really fancy these days,” said Bruce Mattel, associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “Purple flesh potatoes work great — they’re very starchy, but they’re a little freaky. Your latkes will be wacky and purple. But they’re tasty as hell.”

But Joyce Goldstein, a veteran San Francisco chef and cookbook author, is vehemently opposed to frying latkes with anything other than russets.

“You want a russet for latkes. Other potatoes are cute and nice for steaming, boiling or roasting, but not as a latke potato,” she said. “You’ve got to use the right potato or you won’t get results.”

That puts the two chefs — on opposite sides of the country — on opposite sides of the kitchen, at least when it comes to making the traditional Chanukah dish.

Mattel recommends russets, Yukon golds, and purple and red flesh potatoes. But he warns against making latkes with refrigerated potatoes because the cold converts the starch to sugars. (If you must refrigerate potatoes, leaving them out at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours turns the sugars back into starches, he said).

Mattel always uses a five-to-two ratio of potatoes to onions. He first chops the onions, then shreds the potatoes — the acid in the onions prevents the potatoes from oxidizing too quickly, he notes.

He then blends the entire mixture (adding flour but intentionally leaving out eggs) and fries it in olive oil in a cast iron skillet.

“I’m partial to blending them because that’s what my grandma used to do, and it brings back fond memories,” he said.

Goldstein never uses olive oil, opting instead for canola or vegetable oil. “Olive oil has a strong flavor, and you can taste it over the potato, which you don’t want with a latke,” she said.

She blends only half of her potato-onion mixture, leaving the other half coarsely chopped and shredded. She doesn’t stir the mixture until she’s ready to fry it (this prevents the potatoes from turning brown). She also mixes in an egg or two, plus some flour or matzah meal to absorb the extra oil.

“I like some of my latke to be shredded and some of it ground up,” she said. “That way, it’s tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside.

“I have very strong feelings about this, as most Jews do.”

There are no shortcuts to making latkes, she said. “I never fry them ahead of time. I don’t rewarm them. I don’t freeze them,” she said. “We make ’em and eat ’em. They’re never the same if you make them ahead of time.”

As for potato growers, the lines separating good, better and best are far looser. David Fairbourn, spokesperson for the U.S. Potato Board, said farmers generally are loyal to whatever potatoes they grow.

“Most growers are quite assertive when it comes to the superior and multiple uses of their own variety, and aren’t very willing to concede that another variety that they don’t grow might be better for baking, frying, boiling or in salads,” he said.

In the United States, there are more than 100 varieties in development and as many as 20 introduced into the market each year. (It takes 10-15 years until a new type is ready for commercial farm production.)

“We’ve met resistance whenever we’ve hinted at recommending one variety over another for a particular use. Beauty — and in this case, taste — is definitely in the eye (and mouth) of the beholder.”

Here are two dueling recipes for latkes, both opting for — you guessed it — the russet.

Bruce Mattel’s Potato Latkes with Fresh Fruit Compote

Serves 6-8

10 oz. yellow or Spanish onions

3 lbs. russet potatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

Flour, as needed

Olive oil for frying

Grate onion on a box grater and place into mixing bowl. Grate potatoes and mix with onions. Season with salt and pepper. Add a small amount of flour to absorb some of the liquid. Place about a quarter-inch of olive oil in a frying pan (ideally a cast iron skillet) and heat.

Place potato mixture into oil making 2-3-inch pancakes. Do not press down; leave a little rustic in appearance. When golden around the perimeter, turn over and continue cooking until both sides are evenly golden brown and crisp. Blot on a paper towel and serve immediately with applesauce, sour cream or fruit compote.

Apple and Dried Fruit Compote

8 apples (preferably McIntosh)

3 oz. dried apricots

3 oz. pitted prunes

2 oz. pitted dates

1 stick of cinnamon

1 clove

1/2 cup sugar

Lemon juice to taste

Peel, core and dice apples. Dice all dried fruit somewhat uniformly and place in a saucepot with apples and all other ingredients. Cover pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer until apples have turned very soft and fall apart. Check flavor and cool.

Joyce Goldstein’s Russet Potato Latkes

Serves 6 (two latkes per person)

2 1/2 pounds russet potatoes,

peeled and kept in cold

water until needed

1 medium onion, peeled

2 eggs

2-3 tablespoons potato flour, matzoh meal or flour

1 Tbs. salt

1 tsp. white pepper

Corn or canola oil for frying

Grate potatoes and onion and place in a strainer. Or cut potatoes and onion into small chunks and process in blender or food processor with egg. (Goldstein grates half and purees half.)

Transfer to a strainer over a bowl. Press out as much liquid as possible. Put potatoes and onion in a dry bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients.

Heat 1/4 inch oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Drop batter by spoonfuls into the hot fat, leaving enough space around to flip them over. Let one side turn golden brown, then flip and press down. When golden on the second side, transfer to paper towel to drain.

Serve with sour cream or applesauce or sprinkle with sugar.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.