Perfecting crispy, creamy hash browns
One thing I’ve said exactly 6 gajillion and 11 times is, there are more bad examples of food out there than there are good examples. Today’s topic, hash browns, is no exception. Too often, what should be a crispy, creamy, perfectly seasoned, standalone dish is reduced to little more than a bland and mushy ketchup delivery system. Let’s see what we can do to fix that.
Now, before we start, let’s get our terms straight so we know exactly what we’re talking about. When I think of hash browns, I think of golden brown cakes of pan-fried shredded potatoes. Some people also include preparations where the potatoes are cut into small or medium dice, or even thin slices, but now you’re straying into home fries territory. For today, then, we’ll grab our graters and go with shredded.
Also, remember that hash browns are pretty much just potatoes. If you start adding binders, like egg or flour, well, now we’re talking potato pancakes or latkes. Those are terrific, too, mind you, but they’re not hash browns.
Let’s take a quick look at the ingredients:
Of course, there’s the potatoes. What kind of potatoes depends on whom you ask. Personally, I prefer Russets, the best-known variety of which are called Idaho potatoes. James Beard, the legendary food writer, preferred waxy or new potatoes, which have less starch. Clearly, they’ll both work with slightly different results. You can decide for yourself.
Regardless of the type of potato, there seem to be two general schools of thought on Planet Hash Brown. One is to start with raw potatoes, the other is to start with previously cooked potatoes, typically boiled or baked. I’m in the raw camp, though I’ve had some great examples from the cooked camp. If you start with cooked potatoes, you can pretty much cut the cooking time in half. For my money, though, I think you get a somewhat more crispy product by starting with raw.
Next, there’s the fat. Remember that fat serves a number of functions, including heat transference, non-stickitude and, perhaps most important, flavor. For the first two functions, any fat or oil will work. For the last function, though, I would recommend lard, bacon fat or clarified butter. (You can use whole butter, but, because it has milk solids, you run a great risk of it burning.)
The last necessary ingredient is salt. Potatoes without salt are like chimps without bananas — just a little bit sad.
Now, you add other stuff as well, like a little minced onion, as long as you take care not to let it burn. For garlic, my inclination would be to crush a couple cloves and saute them slightly in the hot fat BEFORE you add the potatoes. Then, remove the garlic and add the potatoes. That way you get the flavor without the risk of burning.
You can also add herbs or spices. A little rosemary is nice, as is a bit of paprika. But, with all this stuff, I prefer it simple: potatoes, fat and salt — yum.
One last thing: the pan. Diners mostly make their hash browns on a flat top griddle. For the home cook, I think a good, nonstick pan works best. Some people love cast iron, too, but those things are so heavy, it makes it hard to flip the hash browns like you could if you’re using a light nonstick. If you’re going to flip it with a spatula anyway, go ahead with the cast iron. That’s probably what Abe Lincoln would have used.
OK, now let’s get to the actual making. I figure one big potato makes enough for two servings of hash browns. If you’re making a lot, keep potatoes in acidulated water until it’s time to cook. That will keep them from discoloring.
Peel your potatoes and shred them with the largest hole of your grater. If you’re going to cook them right away, put them in a paper towel or clean dish towel and wring out as much water as you can. This will help them crisp up more quickly.
Heat your nonstick skillet over a medium to medium-low flame. While it’s heating, season your potatoes with salt and anything else you might be adding (pepper, for example).
Now, for most sauteed items, I add just enough fat to coat the bottom of the pan. For hash browns, I add a little more to make sure they really don’t stick and to add a little more flavor.
Add enough grated potatoes that you can press them into a circle covering the whole pan. How thick a layer? Excellent question. The thinner the layer, the more crispy the whole thing will be. If you mound your potatoes more thickly, the interior will be soft and white while the exterior is all nice and crispy. I’m not about to tell you which way is better. That’s your choice. Cook them over medium low heat until the bottom is golden brown and crispy, 5 to 10 minutes. Flip the hash browns and do the same on the other side. Serve immediately, because they’ll lose their crisp if you try to hold them.