How to cook perfect hash browns

If a potato has any place at all on the breakfast table, surely it must be in the form of butter-golden, crispy yet fluffy, hot hash browns

I’ve spent the last fortnight in the United States. Yellow grits, blueberry pancakes, biscuits and gravy – I managed to tick off most of the breakfast items in the I-Spy book of American cliches, but to my disappointment, not a single one came with hash browns. I’d hoped to return home an expert, but my principal experience of hash browns remains the crunchy orange triangles traditionally served with spaghetti hoops at school. These, however, were certainly preferable to the greasy, floppy rosti-like creations I ate in Chicago a few years ago – and neither, I’d hope, are representative of the true glory of the hash brown.

I lugged three large American cookbooks back in my suitcase, but only one had a recipe for hash browns, and that, in the 75th anniversary edition of the classic Joy of Cooking, sounded remarkably like a rosti. Panicked, I wondered whether they were in fact different names for the same dish, but the Oxford Companion to Food reassured me that hash browns are “small rissole-like cakes of cooked and finely chopped potato” in the fine tradition of American hashes rather than the cakes cooked from raw or parboiled potato favoured in Switzerland.

Hashes, the American equivalent of British bubble and squeak, have always been a favourite way of using up motley leftovers, so this makes sense. Hash, of course, comes from the French verb hacher, to chop up, which suggests the spuds should be cut up and, of course, browned rather than just heated through. But apart from these clues, I’m going into this challenge somewhat blind. According to the various recipes, hash browns can be anything from a loose collection of crunchy fried potato chunks, often labelled as “breakfastpotatoes” on the menus I came across, to crunchy, latke-like potato pancakes – but which fits the breakfast bill best?

Unless you’re a cattle rancher they may not fit the bill on a Thursday morning before work, but crisp, buttery hash browns are well worth the effort on a lazy Saturday morning. Serve with a poached egg, and then go out for a long walk before lunch.

Serves 2-3

500g floury potatoes, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
35g butter or 25g bacon drippings
½ onion, thinly sliced

1. Put the potatoes in a large pan of cold, salted water and bring to the boil. Simmer until tender, then drain well and set aside to cool and dry out completely.

2. If using butter, clarify it by putting it in a small pan over a medium heat and skimming off the foam that rises to the top. When it stops bubbling, pour it through a fine sieve or cheesecloth to strain off any solids, then set aside until ready to use.

3. Heat a small heavy-based frying pan on a medium heat, and add half the butter or dripping. Cook the onion until soft and golden. Meanwhile, finely chop the cooked and cooled potatoes and season well.

4. Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the potatoes to the pan in one layer, stirring to incorporate the onions. Push down to make a cake, then cook for about 15 minutes until crisp and well browned on the bottom, then tip on to a plate and add the rest of the butter or dripping to the pan. Slide the hash brown back into the pan, browned side up, and cook for about another 10 minutes, then cut in half and serve.

Are hash browns the best kind of breakfast potato, or do you prefer tattie scones or country fries – indeed, does a potato have any place on the breakfast table at all? Do you yearn for the crunchy, orange cafeteria variety, and if so, does anyone have any suggestions about how to recreate those guilty pleasures from scratch?

By Felicity Cloake

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