Sep 20, 2023

Best Tools to Make Hanukkah Latkes

We took a new approach to these traditional favorites in a home kitchen experiment

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Fried food doesn't get much respect, at least from anyone who prizes their health. But eating latkes—potato pancakes fried in oil for Hanukkah—is worth the risk of censure from the food police. When it's dark and cold outside, there's nothing like lighting the candles and loading your plate with the warm, crispy outside and soft inside goodness of this holiday delicacy, ideally with homemade applesauce and sour cream on the side.

The recipe for latkes is simple but varies a bit from cook to cook. You’ll need a fair amount of oil for the frying (some recipes call for as much as a quarter-inch in the pan). The basic batter is grated potatoes (wrung out to remove extra liquid); one or two beaten eggs; a bit of all-purpose flour, potato starch, or matzo meal; salt (ideally Kosher); and pepper to taste.

If you need more guidance than that, check out variations from Joan Nathan, the Julia Child of Jewish cooking; Melissa Clark of The New York Times; and Tori Avey, who goes native, using delicious-but-deadly schmaltz—chicken fat—for frying.

Variations on the basic recipe are endless. Including raw, diced yellow onion in the batter is traditional. Adding shredded root veggies like carrots or beets can provide texture and color. You can even stir in Middle Eastern-style spices, as my CR colleague Paul Hope did with a recent batch.

Photo: Paul Hope/Consumer Reports Photo: Paul Hope/Consumer Reports

Paul and I, true latke lovers, have been making recipes from our moms for decades—though as a culinary school grad and all-around gourmet cook, he knows far more about proper pancake production. Yet we both had some surprising revelations when we made latkes in our home kitchens using traditional and not-so-traditional methods. Read on as we quibble over white vs. yellow potatoes, olive vs. canola oil, box graters over food processors, and even air fryers over frying pans. And whichever method you choose, you’ll find CR's top-rated picks for all the tools you need to fry up superb Hanukkah latkes, no guilt involved.

Paul: I always use russets. They have a high starch content. We were taught in culinary school that they fry better than other types of potatoes. Yukon Golds are lower in starch but still okay to use.Tobie: I’m using russets at your suggestion, and grating with the skin on. It's for texture and vitamins, right? Paul: Totally. It's also easier than peeling. We agree: Russets with skin on.

Tobie: I normally would cook with my usual oil—olive oil—but you recommend canola. Paul: That's what I use. You also could use safflower oil. Tobie: Why are those oils a better choice than olive oil? Paul: It's the smoke point of olive oil, the temp at which it starts to smoke in a pan. It's far lower than frying oils. Tobie: That could explain why my kitchen got so smokey in the past!We agree: Canola or safflower oil. We’ll save the olive oil for pizza.

Tobie: I like hand-grating. It's a lot more effort, and my shoulder and upper arm feel it the next day. But it creates a less uniform shred, which I think makes a nicer texture for the batter. Paul: What you say makes sense: The gratings are coarser and more rustic. I also like that you can do it with a $3 tool. But the food processor makes it a less daunting task. And if you’re doing a bigger batch, you don't have to worry about the batter getting dark from oxidation while you’re cooking. Tobie: That's true! And I’m not noticing much difference in texture between the finished products. Though there's something to be said for tradition …We agree: Food processor. Box grater if you don't have a food processor or want to feel the burn like Grandma did.

Tobie: I tried frying the pancakes in three pans—nonstick, high-quality stainless steel, and cast iron. I don't see much difference between the latkes made in the stainless and the cast-iron pan, but I found the nonstick pan harder to control, temperature-wise. My pancakes from that pan are way too dark—a bit burnt, to be honest.Paul: That doesn't surprise me. On a cheap nonstick, it's typically aluminum or anodized aluminum, plus the nonstick coating on the cooking surface. Aluminum is highly reactive, so it's quick to heat up. But it's also more prone to cooling down when you add the latke batter, and then heating up again quickly. The heat level varies, like getting into a shower with a very sensitive control. It's hard to get the right balance.Tobie: So what did you use? Paul: I used high-quality, heavy stainless steel and cast-iron pans, and I didn't see much difference, either. Mine came out dark, but I tend to like them that way.We agree: Cast iron or high-quality stainless steel will yield the crispiest, lightly browned pancakes.

Photo: Paul Hope/Consumer Reports Photo: Paul Hope/Consumer Reports

Paul: I’d never used an air fryer for latkes before, but I tried making them with an air fryer this year. I preheated it to 400 degrees for 5 minutes. Then I quickly pulled the basket out and sprayed the bottom and sides with cooking spray. I’d pre-smushed the latkes on a cookie sheet, so they were ready to be put in the basket. I cooked them for a total of 18 minutes. I flipped them once, I think about two-thirds of the way through. I wanted to give them enough time to become solid enough before I flipped them.

Tobie: I tried this too, but I used a toaster oven with an air fryer function. I also preheated it to 400 degrees. I took out the mesh shelf while the air fryer preheated, used cooking spray on it, and smushed the latkes right there on the shelf. I should have done what you did, though—smushing on a platter first—because the pancakes were hard to flip. Once I flipped them—after about 10 minutes—I brushed oil on the tops and cooked them for a few more minutes. They didn't come out as dark as the other latkes, which I actually liked. They were a bit softer in the middle, and not as crispy as the fried ones.

Paul: You’re right, the air-fried latkes weren't as crispy! But I was pleasantly surprised. The air-fryer latkes got eaten up faster than the others did—because there's only so much fried food you want on a given day.

Tobie: I felt I had more control over how brown they got than I did with the frying pans. But it's not great for a big group, because you can only do just a few at a time. And they do take more time than pan-frying.

We agree: For big, traditional batches, frying. For a small nosh that uses far less oil, air-frying (and zero guilt).

Tobie Stanger

Tobie Stanger is a senior editor at Consumer Reports, where she has been helping readers shop wisely, save money, and avoid scams for more than 30 years. Most recently, her home- and shopping-related beats have included appliance and grocery stores, generators, homeowners and flood insurance, humidifiers, lawn mowers, and luggage—she also covers home improvement products like flooring, roofing, and siding. During off-hours, she works on her own fixer-upper and gets her hands dirty in the garden. Follow her on Twitter @TobieStanger.

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