Hash Browns

There are times for gussying up.  Times to reach past Hemingway for Proust.  To match your pocket square with your tie.  To sous vide then sear.  Moments that call for the laboriously elaborate, the inventively original.

But not all the time.  Sometimes all you need is a classic, done simply, done well.  

Enter: The Hash Brown.

There are endless ways to cook a humble potato, but recently in the bleary eye'd A.M., I've been defaulting to hash browns.  Crisped up slowly over a medium-low flame, hash browns are relatively hassle free, leaving you with time to make coffee, fry up some thick strips of bacon, and, right before the potatoes finish, cook a few eggs with still runny yolks in the leftover bacon fat.  

My favorite hash brown is crispy with a soft, fluffy center that remains cohesive and homogenous.  Think breakfast at McDonalds and then dial it back a bit.  Because while a McDonalds hash brown is delicious, on average mornings I want something with less cook steps (the fast food type demand a par-cook, freeze, and fry) that is a closer semblance to the food it actually came from (crispy potato strands vs. crispy potato product).

The basic order of operations for this type of hash brown is as follows:

  • Pick the right potato
  • Grate it
  • Dry it out
  • Cook it slow in plenty of fat 

The right potato here is the high in starch Russet (Maris Piper if you're on the other side of the Atlantic).  Its same propensity to fry up fluffy and crisp that makes it such a perfect french fry potato applies in every way here as well.  Buy a Russet potato.

Wash but don't peel your new potato (there's flavor in the peel), and grate it on a box grater.  Note the liquid.  It's everywhere.  Turns out potatoes are filled with water, and that water, being the enemy of crispiness, needs to go.  Wrap the grated potato in a clean towel or tough paper towel and squeeze as hard as you possibly can.  You should be able to get a good quarter cup of brown starch water out of each one.  Dump that out.  Add the de-watered potato to a bowl and season evenly with salt and a few turns of cracked black pepper.    

If this post was superfluously titled, like it was "The Ultimate Epic Best Hash Browns You'll Ever Make In Your Life!!!!", then right now would be a good time to go into all the herbs and spices and other vegetables or meats or something using the word umami you could add to the mixture right now to take it up to the "next level" (!!!!).  But luckily, it's not.  This is a post called "Hash Browns" and so we're going to add salt and pepper and leave well enough along.  Salt and pepper tastes good.  

These amps may go to eleven, but sometimes this song sounds best on five.  

Find a pan that will hold your grated potato in a half-inch thick layer.  For one normal sized russet potato, I go with an old 8 inch cast iron skillet.  Warm the pan for a minute or so on medium-low heat, melt in twice as much butter as you think is adequate (and don't put it away, you're going to be using more), and add the potatoes, pressing on them firmly with a rubber spatula into an even layer, so that as all the interior potatoes begin to cook through, they'll bond together, creating a somewhat homogenous core.  After a minute or so give the pan a shake just to confirm that yes, the hash browns aren't sticking.  If they are indeed stuck, use a fish spatula to slide under and gently dislodge the stubborn spots.  

This small, under-powered jerk is the bane of my existence.  But also still way better than electric.  

This small, under-powered jerk is the bane of my existence.  But also still way better than electric.  

Right around now is when I start spinning the hash brown to ensure even browning.  You may or may not need to do this.  See, I use a cast iron pan because it's great.  All the hype about cast iron pans, totally true.  The problem with cast iron pans is that for as amazing as they are at being non-stick and storing up enough heat to properly sear meat or provide a nice even cook, they're terrible at diffusing that heat internally.  Meaning, if your cooktop is a piece of shit like mine, and the flame is no more than two inches across, well you're going to have a 2 inch hot spot in the center of your pan.  A hot spot you will definitely notice in the overcooked, possibly burnt center of your food.  What I do to fix this is slide my pan up a bit so that the flame is off-center, under 6 o'clock.  Then every once in a while I rotate the hash brown a little to ensure that eventually it cooks evenly.  Pretend it's the restaurant in the Space Needle until the whole underside is crisp.

After about 4 minutes, flip the hash brown over.  I normally do this by just sort of flicking my wrist and hoping that everything works.  If you're less interested in aerial theatrics, feel free to go with a spatula or the even safer, Spanish tortilla method.  Most importantly, once the hash brown is flipped over, add more butter.  I like to nestle a few chunks around the edges and let them melt in and make everything better.  If need be, start spinning the hash brown on this side too.  After a few minutes, flip it over and see how it cooked.  I normally flip it a few times, just to make sure it's good and crisp, and also because I enjoy flipping hash browns.  It's the simple things, people.  Don't take this away from me.

All in all, it takes about 15 minutes to get to this...

Beautiful, right? It's super crispy and cooked through all fluffy-like on the inside.  

I'll admit, fifteen minutes may sound excessive, but really it's about the perfect time.  Because while you're periodically checking in on the hash brown, you'll have enough time to fry up some bacon (more than you think you'll need, because if you're anything like my impatient self, half that bacon isn't making it to the plate), make a cup of coffee, and then right when the hash brown is looking good, cook some eggs.  I like sunny side up, but follow your heart here.  

There it is, the breakfast of the gods (assuming the gods were cowboys in some sort of Paul Newman film).  

As far as I'm concerned, that first line of The Shape of Punk To Come does not apply here.