Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hash Brown Secrets

I've been making a lot of hash browns this week. Why? Well number one is because I'm broke and have half a bag of potatoes laying on the counter. Ordinarily I would forget about a bag of potatoes until they started to rot and then throw the bag away. Almost like a government subsidizing program. But since I am penniless I thought I should do a better job of utilizing what I have. Not the best way to feed a family but it works for two meals a day for just me.

I LOVE hash browns. Especially extra crispy with cheese and onions. But homemade hash browns are amazingly difficult to make. I suspect that restaurants use frozen shredded potatoes to make theirs which is significant. I suppose I could do the same thing but then I lose out on the challenge, the reward and have to pay extra for it.

If you just shred your potatoes and then fry them you'll either end up with a soggy mess or burnt potatoes and pan if you're going for that extra crispy style. Believe me I know. Try to add more oil to prevent the burning, it only gets worse and oddly, sometimes your hash browns smell or taste like fish.

I think I have found three keys, the potato, the pan and the fat.

On the potato it isn't which potato you use but how you use it. I've made great hash browns with Idaho baking potatoes, Yukon Golds, even blue potatoes. The problem with potatoes is that as soon as you cut them, they begin to oxidize. They go brown very quickly. Therefore you need to shred your potatoes and then put them in a bowl of water so that they avoid air contact. Even better is to shred them directly into water. If I'm not up to using my box grater, I use my food processor with a grating disc but fill the bowl half way or more with water. That way the potatoes shred directly into the water. If you want the whitest potatoes, add a dash of white vinegar. You won't be able to taste it but the vinegar will prevent the potatoes from browning once you take them out of the water. Good if you aren't moving fast.

There's one more key to the potato. As I said, I suspect restaurants use frozen potato shreds. Why is this significant? Because in order to get any crispiness to your hash browns you need to have DRY potato shreds. This is doubly important after you've had your potato shreds soaking in a bowl of water. At the minimum, spread your potato shreds out onto paper towels and press them dry. But if you really want to do this right, you need a potato ricer. The difference is night and day. Save your money and skip that cheap aluminum one at the store. I busted one of those on my first press. Get a nice stainless steel one that you can run through the dish washer. I have this one. And please don't make the mistake of many a moron and try to press a whole potato through your ricer. You will break it for sure. Ricers are for pressing boiled potatoes into fine mush before whipping into mashed potatoes. This ensures no lumps. But they are also great for squeezing the moisture out of some foods. After you've pressed the water out of your potato shreds, spread them out on a paper towel and pat out any remaining surface moisture.

Now the pan. I've tried every pan I own and I think I've got it now. The pan does make a difference. Stainless steel and anodized aluminum (Calphalon) will give you nice crisping of your potatoes but they will also stick to your pan, no matter what temperature you use or what you fry in, oil, butter, Crisco, lard, doesn't matter. They'll taste good, but you'll be frustrated. A non-stick pan removes the frustration of your hash browns sticking but you'll have a hard time browning them. That's the nasty secret no one tells you about non-stick cookware, it doesn't brown. The only way you can get any browning with non-stick is to use butter. But you have to be careful of not burning the butter. So if you must use non-stick, use a 1:1 combo of butter and oil. Just remember by the time you get the butter to brown your hash browns, they'll most likely be burnt.

So which pan works? Good ol' seasoned cast iron. I fried up my hash browns in my 12 inch cast iron skillet this morning and not even the first shred of potato stuck. It was beautiful. I found it works best to spread the potatoes over the full surface of the pan (scattered a la Waffle House) and then after they have begun to brown, scrape then back to the center into a patty just bigger than your spatula. Let them continue to get brown and crispy on the bottom and then flip the patty over to brown on the other side. Ideally you only want to flip once. This method gives a crispy outside with tender cooked hash browns in the center.

Last but not least, the fat that you use for frying is important. Forget spray, it won't work. Butter has two problems. One it burns at a low temperature and two, part of butter is water. Remember, you need dry potatoes. Adding oil to the butter helps, but the results are disappointing. Oil is an option but then you end up with your potatoes floating in oil and my experience is they soak up the oil by the time it's time to flip and then the potatoes burn after you flipped them.

So today I used my recently rendered lard. Cool, huh? Just a tablespoon. And at $2.38 to make my tub, it was far less expensive than oil or butter. And using only a tablespoon, it's probably better heath-wise than either the oil or the butter. But the result was amazing. The hash browns were perfectly crispy but lighter than any hash browns I've made before. WOW!

So to recap, to make great home made hash browns:
  1. Prevent your potatoes from browning by plunging under water.
  2. Press your potatoes shreds dry with a potato ricer.
  3. Use a large cast iron skillet.
  4. Fry in a tablespoon of lard.
  5. Only flip them once.


Brook said...

I love hasbrowns, my cast iron skillets, and bacon grease! Never have I made my own but now I will try it! And yes I know bacon grease and lard while from the same animal are not the same but I love that salty smokey flaver and oh, btw you should try fried pies in your cast iron fried in lard, and fried chicken too! Yes, my family is from the Deep South, and no-we are not fat and don't die young either. I say eat what you like and all things in moderation and you haven't lived til you have broken, yes broken, a cast iron skillet on your toe! Keep cooking the good stuff!

Huff Daddy said...

Thank you so much for visiting and sharing!. I will have to look into the fried pies because my wife, A Georgia girl through and through loves them.


Anonymous said...

Very informative! Thank you for sharing.

Adriana Campos said...

I was so frustrated after trying so many times to get a restaurant-perfect dish of hash browns and your story made me feel so much better! I will follow your suggestions but I have some concerns about using the lard...

Anonymous said...

Genius! You've helped me break into the world of tasty hash browns (not hash whites, which is all I was ever able to make before. Thanks for the helpful information!

Huff Daddy said...

Happy I could help someone out.

Anonymous said...

I read about rendering your own lard in Grit magazine and have been wanting to try it. Really appreciate both your helpful tips and your writing style! From anything I've been able to find out, lard is just as, or more healthy than other fats we use in cooking, so unless you have other issues with it, such a religious prohibitions, there doesn't seem to be any problem used in moderation.
Anyway I'll try making hash browns this way from now on, and see if I can achieve the real crispy-on-the-outside, cooked inside results!