How to Make Latkes for Hanukkah or Anytime
With frying tips from Jewish food mavens Leah Koenig and Naama Shefi.
It seemed like a good idea at that time. My roommate and I had decided to host a Hanukkah party and, of course, we had to have latkes. But we didn’t have a food processor and the thought of grating potatoes by hand seemed like way too much work. We were in the Pathmark inside the Atlantic Center (now it’s a Shop & Shop—I’m majorly dating myself here) in Brooklyn, and I held up a bag of frozen, pre-shredded potatoes, meant for hash browns.
“Maybe this will work,” I said. It seemed like the perfect shortcut. And weren’t hash browns and latkes basically the same thing anyway?
A few days later, drunk and with our party guests waiting hungrily for freshly made latkes, we found out that no, hash browns weren’t the same as latkes, and our genius shortcut didn’t work. The shredded potatoes—after we mixed them with egg and flour—didn’t hold together into patties. Instead, the shreds floated freeform in the oil. Our guests ate loose and greasy hash browns that night instead of latkes and for many years I avoided making them again.
Now that I have a spouse, a five-year-old, and a food processor, it seems like the right time to try again. I have fond memories of my mother making latkes for me and my three siblings, knowing it was a lot of work. Each Hanukkah, she would pick one of the eight nights to spend at the stove. When I was younger, I remember her completely pulsing the potatoes in a blender until they were almost pureed, which was how my Bubby used to make them. Greasy and golden, served with sour cream and applesauce, we kids devoured them while my dad set up the menorahs, carefully pouring oil into his ornate brass version while the kids got skinny, rainbow-colored candles stuck into the homemade menorahs we had crafted at school. At some point, my mother switched to using shredded potatoes and none of us can remember why.
Cookbook author Leah Koenig also recalls her mother making latkes each year. “My mom made amazing latkes when we were growing up. They were crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and served sizzling from the pan,” she recalls. “She was very much attuned to the 1980s ‘low fat’ era, and also hated a mess in her kitchen, so making latkes was a true sacrifice of her values. That’s love.”
Naama Shefi, the founder of the Jewish Food Society, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and celebrate Jewish food and just launched a new podcast called Schmaltzy, says simple is best. She loved eating latkes at the home of her friend Uri Scheft, the founder of Breads Bakery who was born in Copenhagen before moving to Israel. “He would just grate the potato, squeeze it, add salt, and then just do like a very, very thin version of a latke—and it would be huge, it would cover the entire pan,” she says.
Turns out, the squeeze, as I’m going to call it here, is one of the most important parts of latke making. Koenig, the author of Modern Jewish Cooking and The Jewish Cookbook, and Shefi shared some tips on effective squeezing, oil temps, and toppings as I prepared to tackle latke frying once again. But first, a little history.
How latkes came to be
Of course, most Jewish people (and some non-Jews, too!) know that we eat latkes on Hanukkah because they are fried in oil. The miracle of Hanukkah was that the oil needed to light the Menorah in the temple in Jerusalem after it was nearly destroyed by the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE lasted eight days even though there was seemingly only enough oil for one. But of course, as Shefi mentioned, the Maccabis (the Jewish warriors that saved the temple) didn’t eat latkes back then. So how exactly did they become traditional Hanukkah fare?
“Italians used to fry ricotta pancakes—I don’t think they called them latkes, but they used to fry these cheese pancakes for Hanukkah,” Shefi says. “And then it was really the Germans that started to use potatoes for pancakes, in the late 18th century. The Spanish had recently brought potatoes over from South America. And from there, it evolved into this classic recipe that we know now as latkes.”
From Germany, the potato latkes traveled throughout Eastern Europe and then immigrated to the United States along with many Jews in the 19th century. “Potatoes really became a staple for the European Jewish dietary menu. They were cheap and relatively easy to grow and use,” says Shefi. Eventually, latkes became a deli and appetizing shop staple at places like Katz’s and Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side in New York City, where so many Jews lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. “I think this really helped to make latkes popular and recognizable even beyond Hanukkah,” Shefi adds.
Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze
Now that we’ve got the history out of the way, I was ready to tackle latke making. I quickly learned that the enemy of fried potatoes, and therefore latkes, is water. And potatoes, especially the large Russet potatoes that are favored for latkes, are full of water. If you’ve ever grated potatoes, you know that you’re left with a pool of water at the bottom of the bowl. After peeling, cutting, and dumping my potatoes and onions into my food processor to grate, they were indeed dripping with water.
Both Koenig and Shefi stressed the importance of squeezing out as much water as possible before making your batter. “You need to squeeze the hell out of your potatoes. And then let them sit for five minutes, and squeeze them again, because there’s just an insane amount of water in potatoes,” says Koenig. “Water and oil don’t really mix well. So if you have a really wet batter, it’s just going to splatter everywhere.”
At Shefi’s suggestion, I took some cheesecloth, dumped my shredded potatoes and onions into it, and squeezed until my forearms ached. Starchy rivers of water streamed out of them, but when I opened the cheesecloth for a peak, they still looked wet. So I squeezed again. And then one more time.
After all of my squeezing, I mentioned this to my sibling-in-law, David Warga, an excellent cook. He shared a really hot tip with me that I wish I knew before: He parboils the potatoes for about five minutes, then peels and shreds them after they’ve cooled.
“The parboiling activates the starches and releases some moisture via steam,” says Warga. “Squeezing potatoes sounds dreadful.”
Add the binders
One thing I was particularly nervous about was the latkes holding together. Understandably traumatized from my last attempt, I grilled Shefi and Koenig on how to make sure the pancakes would in fact remain pancakes. With the first tip being to never use frozen, pre-shredded potatoes, they assured me it wouldn’t be so hard. Just add some eggs and flour—they both suggest regular flour instead of potato starch or matzo meal, which is sometimes suggested—and stir to combine.
And, of course, don’t forget the salt and pepper. Shefi said I would be able to tell as soon as I formed a patty in my hands if it would stay together, and she was right—it felt pretty solid. And if not, just add a little more flour.
Don’t skimp on the oil
The oil is arguably the most important ingredient in latkes and Koenig had a lot to say about it.
“The most important thing is getting enough oil and getting the right temperature of oil,” she says. “Because the way frying any food works is you have to sear a crust on the outside so that the oil doesn’t leak into the inside. So you want the heat high enough—usually in the 350 to 365 Fahrenheit range is optimal.” I had just ordered a digital thermometer on Black Friday, and now was the perfect time to christen it.
As to what type of oil, both Koenig and Shefi agreed: never use extra virgin olive oil for frying because its smoke point isn’t high enough. Pretty much any other vegetable oil will do, like sunflower, safflower, grape seed, or canola oil. And only a quarter or half-inch of oil is necessary, Koenig told me. Since latkes are thin and you flip them, both sides will get fully fried.
Knowing when to flip
I’m impatient. Which is often the death of a good fry, I have learned over the years. Whatever it is—tofu, fried rice, pancakes, anything you’re supposed to let sit without disturbing so it gets that golden crust—about 90 percent of the time, I flip too early.
“Don’t rush them, you want to make sure they’ve been in the pan long enough for the egg to help bind them, and also you want them to have that protective crust on the bottom,” says Koenig, usually about three or four minutes per side.
Koenig recommends using a flexible and thin fish spatula if you have one to really get all the way under each latke, but really, she says, “just flip with confidence.”
“Potatoes really became a staple for the European Jewish dietary menu. They were cheap and relatively easy to grow and use.”
Sour cream or applesauce?
Once you’ve fried all your latkes, drain them on paper towels to keep the grease at bay. And while Shefi insists that latkes must be eaten fresh from the pan—she never understood why anyone would eat a latke from a deli—Koenig swears you can reheat them in the oven just fine.
“You can cook them and let them cool and either refrigerate or freeze them and they actually crisp back up really well in an oven,” she promises. “So you don’t have to be like a slave to the stove on Hanukkah itself.” She suggests placing them on a wire rack over a baking pan in the oven so the extra oil can drip down and both sides get crispy.
But the real question is: sour cream or applesauce?
“I’m team both,” says Koenig. “Actually, I literally would have one latke and I Yin-Yang sour cream and applesauce on one—it’s like a black and white cookie. I’m like, ‘Why choose?’”
But Shefi is mildly horrified by eating applesauce with latkes. “Definitely not applesauce,” she says seriously. “As an Israeli, it’s shocking to me. In Israel, it’s pure, you just eat plain,” although she says many modern Israeli restaurants do serve sour cream (and other toppings) with latkes these days.
The applesauce tradition comes from Eastern Europe as well, says Koenig, since apples and potatoes were both abundant in winter and easy to store. And, in Eastern Europe latkes used to be made with goose fat or schmaltz, so dairy sour cream wouldn’t have been allowed for those who kept kosher. So sour cream seems to be an American addition. I myself am team sour cream all the way—and it better be full fat. I love the way it cuts through the oil, whereas applesauce seems to just lie soggily on top.
Try vegetable variations
Although potatoes have become traditional, Shefi and Koenig both enjoy using other vegetables, too. After all, as Shefi reminds me, the core ingredient for celebrating Hanukkah is the oil, not the potato. One of Shefi’s favorite variations comes from the Jewish Food Society’s archives, a Bulgarian spinach recipe (shared below). Koenig also enjoys using alternative vegetables, her favorite being a beet recipe she came up with for her Modern Jewish Cookbook, served with goat cheese and chives (and also shared below).
“They’re a little bit sweet and kind of earthy. And everything is so brown in Ashkenazi cuisine, so it’s nice to have something to buck that trend,” Koenig says.
Whatever vegetable you choose, just remember: squeeze, squeeze, squeeze all the water out!
Leah Koenig’s Potato Latkes
Reprinted from The Jewish Cookbook by Leah Koenig, with permission by Phaidon, 2019
- 4 lb russet (baking) potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, and patted dry
- 1 medium onion, peeled
- 2/3 cup all-purpose (plain) flour
- 4-5 eggs, lightly beaten
- ½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley (optional)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Sour cream or applesauce, for serving
1. Line two large baking sheets with several layers of paper towels.
2. Grate the potatoes and onion on the large holes of a box grater. (Alternatively, cut them into quarters and shred on the shredding disc of a food processor.) Working in batches, wrap the shredded potato and onion in a tea towel or several layers of paper towel and squeeze out as much water as possible.
3. Add the shredded, squeezed potatoes and onion to a large bowl along with the flour, 4 eggs, parsley (if using), salt, and pepper. Mix until the ingredients are fully incorporated. If the mixture looks dry, mix in the remaining egg.
4. In a large frying pan, heat ¼ inch (6 mm) oil over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking. Working in batches of 4-5, drop the batter by the ¼ cup (55 g) into the pan and press gently with a spatula to flatten. Cook, flipping once, until browned on both sides and cooked through, 6–8 minutes. Continue until all of the potato mixture is used up, adding additional oil to the pan if necessary and adjusting the heat if the latkes are browning too quickly or not quickly enough.
5. Transfer latkes to the paper towels to drain. Serve immediately topped with sour cream, applesauce, or both. Or, let latkes cool and store, tightly wrapped in plastic, in the fridge or freezer. To reheat, arrange the latkes in a single layer on a baking sheet and warm in a 400°F (200°C/Gas Mark 6) oven until crisp and warmed through, about 10 minutes.
Leah Koenig’s Beet Latkes with Chive Goat Cheese
Reprinted from Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig with permission by Chronicle Books, 2015
- For the chive goat cheese
- 4 ounces fresh goat cheese, at room temperature
- ⅓ cup sour cream
- ¼ cup snipped fresh chives
For the latkes:
- 1 large beet, peeled
- 3 medium carrots, peeled
- ½ yellow onion, quartered
- 1 garlic clove, minced or pushed through a press
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Snipped fresh chives, for serving
1. Make the chive goat cheese: Stir together the goat cheese, sour cream, and chives in a medium bowl until fully combined. Set aside at room temperature until ready to serve.
2. Make the latkes: Using a food processor fitted with the shredding disk, shred the beet, carrots, and onion. Working in batches, wrap the grated vegetables in a dish towel or several layers of paper towels and squeeze as much water as you can out of them. Don’t skimp; really get your squeeze on here.
3. Place the shredded, squeezed vegetables in a large bowl. Add the garlic, flour, baking powder, egg, salt, and pepper and mix with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are fully incorporated.
4. Heat ¼-in/6 mm of vegetable oil in a large pan set over medium heat until shimmering but not smoking, and line a large rimmed baking sheet with two layers of paper towels. Working in batches of four or five, drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan and gently press with a spatula to flatten. Fry, turning once, until crisp on both sides and cooked through, 4-5 minutes total. Continue frying latkes with the remaining batter, adding additional oil to the pan if necessary and adjusting the heat if the latkes are browning too quickly or not quickly enough. With a slotted spoon, transfer the latkes to the paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain.
5. Serve hot, topped with the goat cheese mixture and a sprinkle of chives. Or, let the latkes cool and store in the refrigerator or freezer. When ready to serve, arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and reheat in a 400°F/200°C oven.
Bracha’s Bulgarian Spinach Patties
Adapted with permission from Jewish Food Society
- 1⅓ pound regular spinach leaves, rinsed and dried or pre-washed and then finely chopped
- 5 eggs, room temperature, whisked
- ⅔ cup all-purpose flour
- ⅔ cup bread crumbs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Lemon wedges, for serving
1. In a large bowl mix the chopped spinach, the whisked eggs, flour, crumbs, salt and pepper. The mixture should be solid, to hold up in frying. Add flour and crumbs by the tablespoon if it is too loose.
2. In a large pan, heat ¼-inch of oil on medium-high to high, adjusting heat as you go.
3. With a large cooking spoon (or wet hands), scoop from the spinach mixture and gently place in the hot oil. Keep on one side until firm and browned, about 4-5 minutes, then flip to the other side for 4 or so minutes. Remove from the pan to a plate lined with paper towels and continue in batches with the remaining egg and spinach mixture.
4. Serve with lemon wedges to squeeze on top.