Last week I found myself making hash browns a few times, which is strange behavior on my part. Idaho boy that I am, potatoes are not a vegetable I crave. I got my fix growing up, when there was a baked potato at almost every dinner, and if not a baked potato then some kind of potato dish: twice-baked potatoes in a casserole, scalloped potatoes from a box mix, sour-cream mashed red bliss potatoes, et cetra. After I moved to New York I’d meet someone new, share that I grew up in Idaho, and brace myself for his or her response: “Did you grow up on a potato farm?” (I didn’t grow up on a potato farm.) Potatoes—my bête noire.
But as summer swiftly came to a close last week, I was more often than not making hash browns with dinner, and I think I figured out why. For many years, my dad would make hash browns for my brother and me before we left for school. The fridge always had a few leftover foil-wrapped baked potatoes in it, and so Dad would grate them up and fry them. (This may have also been a way to improve on his own usual breakfast of Honey Nut Cherrios.) When we came to the kitchen, showered and ready for school—we could hear the garage door cranking closed, because Dad would have just left for work—there would be two plates of hot hash browns on the counter waiting for us. Sometimes they had melted cheddar on top. We’d bastardize them with ketchup, shovel them down, and run off to catch the bus.
Then I was also remembering how at some point in September or October during those hash brown years, my mom would decide that it was time for a “guys weekend.” She’d send the three of us off with our camping gear loaded into the minivan so that she could have some quiet time with her friends for a few days. On the way out of town we’d stop at the Sunrise Café for omelets, but out at the campground breakfast always consisted of some form of hash browns. We’d eat them either as a side or as a center-of-the-plate meal, with whatever happened to be in the cooler—tomatoes, onions, peppers, salsa, scrambled eggs, some form of meat—mixed in. I haven’t been camping for ten years or so, but I’m still convinced that no food ever tastes as good as breakfast does when you’re camping.
So with September—and school, and camping trips, and the musty smell of dry leaves, and that pretty, syrupy, angled autumn light—officially here, hash browns must have been weighing on my subconscious. Dad makes his from potatoes that had already been baked, but baked potatoes, as I may have implied, are forbidden at my house. So mine omit that step, and in any case mine are a dinner thing, though there’s no reason you couldn’t serve them at brunch. And while Dad’s hash browns are more of a loose mass—he stirs the frying pan as he cooks them—this recipe is for hash browns that are pressed into the skillet, flipped so that they’re brown on both sides, and then sliced into wedges like pie. I’ve decided that’s how I like them, with the bottle of Sriracha within reach.
Skillet Hash Browns
Hash browns are really only good eaten fresh—I haven’t had a great time with them as leftovers. This is an easy recipe to halve if you own a small, 6-inch skillet. And for the potatoes, starchy white ones, like Idaho Russets, will produce the crispiest hash browns, but I tend to go for flavor, and enjoy using a variety.
2-1/2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 medium white or yellow onion, diced
1-1/2 pounds potatoes (see note above)
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat 1/2 tablespoon butter or oil in a heavy 10-inch skillet (a well-seasoned cast-iron one is ideal) over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until just translucent, about 7 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Off the heat and leave the onions in the pan as you proceed with the recipe.
2. Grate the potatoes directly over a large piece of cheesecloth or a tea towel. Gather them up by the corners and, moving the bundle over to the sink, squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Put the potatoes in a mixing bowl. (You want to wait to grate the potatoes until just before you use them, because they’ll turn brown as they’re exposed to the air.) Add the salt, pepper, and onions (returning the skillet to the stovetop without wiping it out), and toss with a fork to incorporate.
3. Add 1 tablespoon butter to the skillet and melt over medium heat. When the foaming subsides, add all the potatoes to the pan. Press firmly with a spatula or your hands to compress the potatoes into a big pancake. Cook for 6 to 9 minutes, without disturbing them except to carefully check the color on the bottom after 5 minutes or so. After the bottom is deeply golden brown, place a plate or platter on top of the skillet and invert it, so that the cooked side is face down on the plate and out of the skillet. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in the now-empty skillet, then slide the hash browns back in, with the browned side up. Cook for another 6 to 9 minutes, until browned on the bottom. Test for doneness of by sliding a paring knife into the center—it shouldn’t meet resistance. Invert over a plate or platter, as before, and serve hot, with ketchup, hot sauce, sriracha, whatever you fancy.