When it comes to a fun, festive Hanukkah celebration, crispy latkes are a must. To learn how to make them like the pros, we turned to Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman of San Francisco’s Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, which specializes in traditional Jewish comfort foods. Here, they tell us how to choose, prep and fry potatoes for the ultimate holiday latkes.
Can you tell us about any Hanukkah memories from your childhood?
Every year my grandmother would start making latkes months in advance, then freeze them in order to have enough for all of the hungry grandkids, aunts, uncles, etc. We used to joke that each shelf in the bursting freezer was its own decade of latkes.
What are the best types of potatoes and oil to use for cooking latkes?
Russet potatoes are the best for latkes—they get crispy without turning to mush and aren’t too waxy, like some other varieties. People tend to get pretty fancy with their latkes, but I really prefer the classic. As for oil, something neutral with a high smoke point. Canola and vegetable oil work great, and grapeseed is even better (though quite pricey).
Any tips for prepping the potatoes or forming the latkes?
Make sure you strain the potatoes of all of the liquid first—this is the single biggest mistake that people make at home. This means literally grabbing a handful of potatoes and squeezing as hard as you can! (Cheesecloth works great for this, too).
How do you know when your oil is hot enough for frying? Do you test it?
My mom always used an electric skillet with a temperature control—those are great. If you don’t have one of those, look for the oil to begin shimmering but not smoking. Make a small latke and gently set it in the oil, watching to see how quickly it cooks. You want the oil hot enough to crisp the edges but still be able to cook the insides without burning them.
Any other frying tips?
A little potato starch in the batter goes a long way to keeping the latkes together in the pan! Make sure not to overcrowd, and don’t flip them back and forth. Leave them be. Dont forget to season with salt every step of the way, both in the batter and before serving.
Why is cast-iron best for frying?
Cast iron is great because it retains heat You shouldn’t have to fuss too much with the stove once you get the pan to the right place. Once it’s seasoned well, it will cook very evenly. Mine never leaves my stovetop.
Any tips for controlling the oil mess?
Putting a few pieces of foil down on your stove and behind it can go a long way to easy cleanup. Try to put the latkes in the pan slowly and not splash. Squeezing the water out of the latke mix helps to cut down on splattering as well.
How do you keep them warm until you’re ready to serve them?
They taste best right out of the fryer! My memories are of parties centered around the kitchen and people eating them right out of the pan. If you must, turn the oven to 300ºF and hold for 15 minutes while you cook the rest.
Any special tips for making latkes for a crowd? Or make-ahead tips?
Add a little bit of lemon juice or citric acid powder to the latke batter to keep it from browning, and keep it covered tightly with plastic wrap pressed up to the surface. Your batter will keep up to a day.
Blot latkes on paper bags, then cool on a raised cooling rack. When you are ready to serve, turn the oven to 350ºF and cook on a cookie sheet, flipping once for 6 to 8 minutes. Season with salt before serving!
What toppings do you like?
Sour cream and applesauce are classic, and nothing beats home made applesauce! For something a little fancier or for brunch, serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and thinly sliced smoked salmon. Leftovers also make a great base for eggs Benedict the next day!
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DEAR (!) Leo and Evan,
THANK YOU for your wonderful comments, hints, suggestions, safety provisos and all the rest! You are really just as endearing in these comments as you are in your shop! My only problem is that I don’t get to San Francisco often enough… my resolution for 2015 is to put SFO at the top of my travel list, right next to Toronto and my friends from the tribe and the Downtown Toronto Bed and Breakfast. If you have not encountered this great spot, you should put it on your agenda for a Canadian visit soon. The gay guys who run this are the best and, of course, Toronto is my SECOND favorite city, right behind San Francisco.
Thank you again for rescuing my latke-making, disaster prone self from perdition. It was a worthy activity for the second night of Hanukkah!
All the best,
Dr. Linda from Moscow, as in Idaho