Sunday, May 3, 2009

The perfect hash browns

I'm still going to get to the knife care and maintenance article. However, this is somewhat of a newsflash. After many years of searching for the secret, I've finally discovered how to make perfect hash browns from raw potatoes.

Would you like to be able to make hash browns in endless quantities, hash browns that are just like the ones you get from your favorite restaurant, from a large, inexpensive bag of potatoes? Would you like to forever forsake the need to pay five dollars for a bag of frozen hash browns that contains about fifty cents worth of potatoes, if that? Would you like to impress your family and friends with your hash brown prowess? Then read on.

I know a bunch of guys who, while they don't claim to be chefs, or even particularly good cooks, pride themselves on their ability to make breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, these they can make. But, if they want to make hash browns, they have to resort to frozen shredded potatoes, and proceed from there. Why? Because if they attempt to start with raw potatoes, the result is inevitably gray, gooey and heavy. Perfectly white potato shreds turn into discolored gelatinous masses in their frying pans, without fail.

Now, conventional wisdom states that in order to make the perfect hash browns, meaning crispy and light, with the only change in color being to golden brown, you must first eliminate the moisture. And this works, sort of. I have tried various methods, with various degrees of success. I tried wrapping them in a towel, and twisting the towel to wring the moisture from the potatoes. This worked as well as anything I'd previously tried, in fact, somewhat better. My hash browns only came out slightly gray and gummy, which lead me to believe I was on the right track. Slightly, after all, is better than completely.

But, as it was a real pain to get all the shreds off the towel, I decided to try a potato ricer. If you are not familiar with these, they are rather like a giant garlic press. (The rotary things people often call ricers are actually food mills, and something else entirely.) What ricers are designed to do is to extrude cooked potato out their myriad holes when you push on the handle. Because potatoes don't extrude the same way as something like Play-Dough does, they wind up in short extrusions, the resultant pile looking a bit like rice. Hence the term "ricer."

When raw potato shreds are put in a ricer, however, the results are different. Raw potatoes are tougher, and are not so easily smashed through the holes. What happens instead is that the water is squeezed out of the potato shreds, at which point it runs out through the holes, leaving you with mechanically dehydrated potato shreds. Exactly like what happens when you squeeze a wet sponge.

In regard to hash browns, however, what you wind up with is hash browns that are still a bit gray and gummy, but with a utensil that is a bit easier to clean. Rinse the ricer, and you quickly remove the potato shreds that stubbornly cling. Rinse the towel, and you wind up with a wet towel with potato shreds stuck to it.

With either method, however, you still wind up with hash browns that are still a bit gray and gloopy.

But, here's the thing. If you simply grate your potatoes and then put them in a pan to cook, they wind up a hopeless mess, right? So then, after you research it a bit, find an "expert" who tells you that the key is to get all the moisture out, try it yourself, and get markedly better results, you assume you are on the right track, right?

So the "wet" potatoes get all grey, gummy, and yucky, but the ones from which most of the moisture has been removed are only slightly grey, gummy, and yucky. The logical conclusion at this point would seem to be that your hash browns would be perfect, if only you could get enough of the moisture out of them.

And so I thought, for many years. I always thought that if I could just get enough of the moisture out, I would have perfect hash browns. And, so, though my quest for the perfect hash browns has spanned decades, I seldom even tried to make hash browns. It really bugs me when I can't figure something out quickly, and when something like this bugs me, I tend to shy away from it.

So, though I am pretty sure I encountered the actual solution many years ago, I'm also pretty sure I dismissed it out of hand when I heard it. First, because it flew in the face of the idea that the reason that the hash browns I cooked got gray and gummy was because they had too much moisture in them. As I said, I'd gotten better results when I squeezed the water out. Second, because it was too simple a solution. And third, because there is a lot of plain bad advice out there.

But, a couple of days ago, I watched a video by Chef Todd Mohr over at (Please go check him out. He has a an incredible amount of vids demonstrating cooking techniques rather than recipes, and can teach you a ton. And I'm a HUGE fan of his. Click his link in the link section. ) He was making potato pancakes. Now, the only potato pancakes I have ever been served were made out of leftover mashed potatoes, and I didn't much like them. But, I watched his video because I watch all of them, and because I was hoping to learn that potato pancakes don't have to be quite as awful as the ones I'd eaten.

Well, they don't, but what amazed me was that he made them out of shredded, raw potatoes.

Now, here is the "secret" I have been building up to. The first thing he did, after shredding the potatoes, was to put them in a bowl, fill the bowl with water, dump the contents of the bowl into a strainer, and rinse, repeat, until the water ran clear. He then coated them with, I think it was Parmesan cheese, and fried them in a pan.

Now, of course, since I still didn't want to believe it was so simple, I told myself that he wasn't making hash browns, and that it must have been the parmesan coating that kept them from turning grey and gloopy. So, I tried it myself.

I shredded a Russet potato, did the routine with the bowl and the strainer. Meanwhile, my pan was heating. When I got done rinsing them, I left them in the strainer to drain for a couple of minutes. (I made no further effort to get them dry, because Chef Todd didn't either.) When the pan and cooking fat were hot, and with a "here goes nothing" attitude, I dumped the shredded potatoes into the pan, spread them out a bit, and waited for them to get grey and gooey.

Guess what? They never did. The end result was the perfect pan of hash browns.
So, no more frozen shredded potatoes for me. No more trying to squeeze the water out of the potatoes. Turns out it's not the water, but the starch that turns the potatoes grey, and makes them gooey. Get rid of the starch and you get rid of the problem.

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