Exploring Latkes (Potato Pancakes)

Updated on November 14, 2018
Carb Diva profile image

Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

It Wasn't Always About the Potatoes

Once upon a time...

About 2,200 years ago, the people of Jehovah were forced into the worship of Greek gods by a tyrannical ruler from Damascus. They rebelled, and for three years fought for their freedom. Finally victorious, they reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem.

To rededicate the temple, the Jews needed to light the menorah, but their supply of oil was only enough for one night... or so they thought. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights. In that time, they were able to produce more and kept the eternal light aflame.

This is the miracle of Hanukkah, and this is why oil is an integral part of the eight-day celebration. Latkes are fried in oil and are a significant part of the feast—but did you know that they were not always synonymous with potato pancakes?

In The Beginning...

...latkes were made with ricotta cheese. A Sicilian rabbi named Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (1286-1328) included ricotta cakes in the list of dishes that should be served at a Purim feast. Years later (in 1492), the Spanish expelled Jewish settlers from the island of Sicily. The refuges resettled in northern Italy and brought with them the custom of combining two foods (dairy and oil) in their Hanukkah meal.

And Then Potatoes Arrived in Europe

Do you remember the story of the potato plant?

Potatoes were cultivated by the Inca of Peru over 8,000 years ago. In 1536 the empire was invaded by Spanish Conquistadors who took samples of the potato home to Spain.

By the end of the century, potatoes had spread throughout all of Europe. The potato is the world’s 4th-largest food crop (out-performed by only rice, wheat, and corn), but in the ability to feed the masses, it deserves a place at the top of the list. Consider this—a severe storm can fell top-heavy rice, wheat heads, or stalks of corn. But the potato grows underground, sheltered from wind, rain, and hailstorms.

Grain crop failures in Poland and the Ukraine eventually led to a reliance on the potato as the mainstay of peasant food. They were simple to grow, cheap to produce, and easy to store. Ashkenazi Jews gave potato pancakes their now-famous Yiddish name—latkes—and repurposed them as a holiday food in the mid-1880s.

I Love Latkes!

I'm not Jewish, but I love potato pancakes. Actually, if you have been reading my articles for a while you will know that I love anything made with potatoes. Of course I love potato pancakes. I've been known to make an entire meal of them. Here's my recipe:

Equipment You Will Need

  • hand grater or food processor with a shredding attachment
  • colander
  • cheesecloth or clean, lint-free kitchen towel
  • large mixing bowl
  • mixing spoon
  • large skillet or saute pan
  • metal spatula
  • wire rack for cooling
  • paper towels

Ingredients

  • 3 large Yukon Gold potatoes (enough to make 5 cups of shredded potato)
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, shredded
  • 1 cup matzo meal
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Olive oil for frying
  • Optional garnishes (sour cream, chopped chives, minced fresh dill, applesauce)

Instructions

  1. Grate the potatoes into a large bowl and cover with cold water.
  2. Grate the onion and set aside.
  3. Drain potatoes in the colander and then place in the middle of a large square of cheesecloth or kitchen towel. Wring to squeeze out as much water as possible.
  4. Combine potatoes, onion, matza, and eggs in large mixing bowl.
  5. Pour cooking oil into skillet to a depth of 1/8 inch. Heat over medium heat to 365 degrees F. (My mom always tested the readiness of the oil by dropping in a cube of bread. If it browned within a minute, the oil was ready).
  6. Set wire rack next to your skillet. Place paper towels underneath to soak up any drips of cooking oil.
  7. Form potato mixture into 3-inch patties. Fry 4 or 5 pancakes at a time. Don't crowd the pan. Flip when they are golden brown, about 4-5 minutes per side. Remove from pan and drain on wire rack.


More Recipes and Variations

Oven Fried

Perhaps you are looking for a potato pancake that uses a little less oil. These oven-fried latkes are creamy on the inside and marvelously crispy on the outside, without pan frying.

Spinach, Feta, and Potato

I chose this recipe to share with you because it combines the "old" cheese latke and the now "traditional" potato latke. The flavor profile is Greek. Spinach, feta, and fresh dill combine to make a salty, savory pancake your whole family will enjoy.

Vegan (Eggless)

Latke recipes typically rely on eggs as a binder (the glue that holds all of the ingredients together). This recipe is vegan (no eggs). The natural starch that accumulates in the bottom of the bowl when you drain shredded raw potato is the perfect "glue."

Carrot and Zucchini

These low-carb latkes use shredded zucchini and carrots in place of potato. Reducing carbs is an admirable goal, but personally, I would not attempt to make these if I did not have a food processor with a shredder attachment.

A few reviewers commented that the pancakes were bitter. I have found that the skin of carrots (especially older ones) can taste slightly bitter, so I would suggest peeling your carrots before shredding.

Sweet Potato

My daughter loves sweet potatoes for their taste, texture, and because they are lower in carbs than white potatoes. Of course, I had to find a sweet potato latke recipe for her.

Beet and Carrot

True confession. I have not made these pancakes (and am not sure that I ever will). I simply canNOT do beets. I don't care if they are raw, steamed, roasted, or pickled. However, I know that many of you DO like them, so this is my gift to you. They are pretty (I'll admit that). The blogger who posted this recipe suggested topping them with sour cream. Using my imagination, I can envision a bit of grated horseradish stirred into that sour cream (there's the bitter herb for your Purim meal), or perhaps some tangy goat cheese.

Apple

SmittenKitchen is a wonderful blog full of recipes created the way I think and written the way that I write. (I want to be SmittenKitchen2 when I grow up). These apple latkes sound like a fun dessert (or breakfast).

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Paula, you have made me so happy! I'm glad that this little article brought back some good memories for you and has given you a little nudge to get in the kitchen and recreate that special meal. Have a wonderful day!

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 

        3 weeks ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        Diva....YUM!! My Dad's special. Our mother worked evenings, so it was just my sister and I with our Dad, most of the time during the week. He was a half-way decent cook but he made awesome potato pancakes from scratch. It's how he bribed us to behave and it worked! His recipe was like yours with slight variations.

        They were a real treat! I think I'll try yours! They sound wonderful!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Manatita, I'm not a big fan of the sweet potato, but I am in the minority in my family. I will cook this for them.

        A bowl of dhal would taste very good right now--something to take the chill off. I hope you enjoy.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        3 weeks ago from london

        Yes, the whole page looks lovely. Sorry I cannot eat it, I mean being hungry and all. I'll go out for some dhal and roti soon.

        Such beautiful pancakes, and yes, I'm glad you did a sweet potato one. Seems familiar, these pics, perhaps I've had them before.

        Interesting European and Spanish history. The Maoris called sweet potato Kumara. I think it goes back a long way. Great work!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you Pamela. If you make the zucchini-carrot latkes be sure to either scrape out the seeds of the zucchini or (like the potatoes) squeeze the excess moisture from them. Let me know how they turn out, OK?

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        I like all the vegetables you featured, and I never thought of doing anything different than potato pancakes. The pictures looked great and i am going to try the zucchini and carrots as they sounded really good.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 weeks ago from USA

        Anything potato and I’m in! But anything with beets and I’m absolutely out, like you. These sound really good. All of the varieties were intriguing. I wonder if the bitterness of the carrots had to do with those coke using old carrots. Fresh carrots should be almost sweet.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, is the sum of the whole greater than the parts? I actually had more fun writing the history than presenting the actual recipe(s). If you don't want the onions I promise that I won't cry.

        I have no doubt that your hash browns are amazing (as are you, my friend).

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Linda I am tired of giving you glorious accolades on every article. My kids declare me the hash brown marvel. I never mastered the panicake. Now I will go get the freshiest to cook up. I never used enough oil I judge here. The onion was so lame to leave out.

        Once again a remarkable joy with the history. Bless your soul.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Yes, absolutely. In fact, I've changed the recipe to call for olive oil rather than peanut oil. Grapeseed oil is good too. Both of them have a higher smoke point than peanut oil.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        4 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Yeah, I think I will give these a try. Can I substitute grapeseed oil for peanut oil?

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Mashed potato cakes are nothing like these latkes made from freshly grated potato. You really should give them a try. (Sour cream and applesauce on the side are a must, by the way).

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        4 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Oh, yummy! I love potato pancakes, Linda! I've never made them from scratch. I cheat and make them from left over mashed potatoes. But your recipe would give them an entirely different texture. I love that you use matza meal, keeping the tradition!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you, Bill. Don't confuse these with the pancakes on which you pour syrup. Think of them more as a round hash brown, OK? Yes, the cat gets cold at night and is now taking to sleeping on our daughter's bed to stay warm. Winter is officially here.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        I'm a waffle guy, Linda. Having said that, these look pretty good! I don't think I've ever had a latke although I have heard of them. I just might give it a go...no promises, mind you, but you've got me thinking about it.

        Glorious weather once the ice melts. :) Enjoy your day and hello to your lovely family.

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