One of the emails I received last week from The New York Times Cooking carried the heading, “The Veggie: Will It Latke?” This tickled my funny bone because it seems to be a play on a question I asked many years ago when I bought my first waffle iron. Will it Waffle was the title and subject of a creative little cookbook that challenged other foods, such as falafel, s’mores, spaghetti and pizza to become “waffled.” Personally, I love this idea because I like playing with my food, especially when it involves something unexpected. Here are a few things we have waffled at our house:
When it comes to latkes, however, there are a few limits to what can be turned into a latke, and this is largely based on the starch content of the ingredients you wish to “latke.” When you start leaning toward less starchy vegetables, you may run into trouble getting the well-composed patties and delicate, crispy edges that make latkes so irresistible— not only during Hanukkah (which started last evening), but anytime you get a hankering for tasty fried nuggets.
This post is the result of my experiment making latkes with butternut squash— botanically, it’s classified as a starchy vegetable, but clearly less so than a potato— and I’ll confess now that I did not follow a recipe from the email that raised this “will it latke” question. Rather, I decided to wing it, trusting my instincts and knowledge of starch and frying, plus my past experience with making my “regular” Classic Crispy Latkes.
I held firmly to the handful of immutable rules for making latkes, including making the “batter” as dry as possible so that the latkes hold together and fry up crispy, heating the oil to a fairly high temperature so the latkes don’t soak up too much of the oil, and seasoning the latkes the moment they emerge from the frying pan to make them even more delicious.
The rest of my effort was learn-as-you-go, and I’ll walk you through the lessons this experiment taught me, with a printable recipe at the end, laying out the roadmap to the best outcome. Ready to make these?
First, I chose my flavor profile, and I kept it simple with onion— to keep them more savory than sweet, as squash tends to be— and smoked paprika for a little bit of spice without heat.
I fitted my food processor with the small hole shredder plate to shred up the onions, then pressed them through a fine mesh strainer to squeeze out every bit of juice.
I knew that additional starch would be needed to make up for what the butternut squash lacked, and I went with a peeled russet potato (the starchiest variety), which I also shredded with the fine hole plate. Shredding it fine helped me to coax out as much starch as possible to aid in binding the squash shreds. I covered the russet shreds with ice water and let them soak for about 45 minutes. After soaking, I scooped the potato shreds out of the bowl and squeezed them dry in a clean towel. Then I carefully poured off the water, preserving the valuable starch that had settled to the bottom of the bowl. A quick, light blotting with a paper towel removed the remaining moisture without losing the starch.
If there was any doubt about whether the squash has enough of its own starch to make latkes, this next part of my experiment settled it. I switched to the large hole plate for shredding the squash and applied the same ice water trick I used on the russet. Unfortunately, this was futile— almost no starch was visible in the bowl, so I’m pretty sure this could have been skipped altogether. Next time, I’ll simply shred the squash and blot it dry on a clean towel. This will also save me from having to wash so many dishes; to this point, I had every large glass bowl in my kitchen involved in this latke project.
With everything shredded and prepped, I was finally ready to make the latkes! As with my regular recipe, I heated grapeseed oil (about 1-inch deep) in my large electric skillet. Figuring that the winter squash might take longer to cook than potatoes, I set the temperature at 350 rather than my usual 375. This turned out to be the wrong thing, as you’ll see in a moment. I mixed that beautiful, sticky russet potato starch with a beaten egg and blended it into the big bowl of squash, potato and onion shreds. The whole thing got a seasoning of salt and pepper, and with a quick test of the hot oil, I was in business.
My first batch didn’t sizzle much when the batter hit the oil (the first sign that it wasn’t hot enough), they were tricky to turn (a sign of poor binding), and sure enough, these first few latkes turned out really greasy (strike three)! The patties had soaked up so much oil they were unpleasant to eat.
I had a couple of problems to be solved, so I adjusted both my ingredients and my technique. For better binding, I sprinkled in a generous spoonful of potato flour to stiffen up the batter. I also turned up the temperature to 375 F, and they were better but still a bit fragile and difficult to turn.
With only a third of my batter remaining, I had time to make one more adjustment and it was a simple one. For easier turning, I made the latkes a little bit smaller. This turned out to be a game changer, and the final two batches of smaller latkes came out crispy outside, tender inside and flavorful through and through!
So this settles it— butternut squash does indeed make a delicious latke, and next time I want to make them, I’ll keep these simple takeaways in mind and I’ll follow the recipe below to make them right from the start!
- Incorporate extra potato starch to make up for what your alternate ingredients might be missing.
- Keep the oil temperature hot to ensure crispy edges and prevent greasy latkes.
- Make the latkes a bit smaller for easier turning and faster cooking.
Butternut Squash Latkes
I learned a few things along the way to making butternut squash latkes, and this recipe will help you get to success without all the lessons!
- 1 large russet potato, peeled
- 1 medium sweet onion, trimmed and peeled
- 1 medium butternut squash, peeled and seeded (enough to measure 3 packed cups of shreds)
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp. kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning after frying
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 tsp. smoked paprika (I used “bourbon smoked” from Bourbon Barrel Foods)
- 1 Tbsp. potato flour (or potato starch or dried potato flakes)
- Grapeseed oil for frying (enough to fill frying pan to 1-inch deep)
- Grate onion with fine shred plate. Press shreds through a fine mesh strainer placed over a measuring cup. Discard onion juice or save it for another use (I usually add it to a meat marinade).
- Grate potato with fine shred plate. Transfer potato shreds to a medium sized bowl and cover with ice water. Set aside for 45 minutes, and then scoop out shreds and squeeze dry in a clean towel. Carefully pour off water, preserving the starch that settles to the bottom of the bowl.
- Grate butternut squash with large shred plate. Transfer squash to a clean towel and squeeze dry. Add squash shreds to a large bowl. Add potato and onion shreds. Sprinkle in smoked paprika and black pepper. Use a fork, tongs or your hands to mix everything evenly. Sprinkle on potato flour and mix again.
- Heat grapeseed oil to 375 F, with oil about 1-inch deep in a cast iron or electric skillet.
- Whisk the reserved potato starch and potato flour into the egg in a small bowl. Stir in salt.
- When the oil reaches temperature, blend the egg mixture into the squash and potato shreds. Shape the latke “batter” into small clumps approximately the size of walnuts. Shape one at a time and place them immediately into the hot oil. After about 1 minute, use the back of a flat metal spatula to lightly press the latkes flat.
- Turn the latkes to cook the other side after 3 to 4 minutes, when they are crispy and golden brown on the first side. Cook the second side until done to match, for a total of about 7 minutes for each batch.
- Transfer finished latkes to a paper towel-lined baking sheet or rack. Sprinkle them immediately with a pinch of salt.
- Repeat with remaining latke batter. Serve immediately.