I love all forms of fried potatoes. If I could have french fries or tater tots for a meal every day without concern, I would. However, I tend to regulate these iterations of crispy spuds to lunch and dinner these days, thus filling me with joy and exuberance anytime I'm able to enjoy crunchy taters in the morning. Enter hash browns.
My childhood mornings regularly featured diced and pan-fried potatoes prepared by my mom, but I consider those "home fries" and not "hash browns." To me, the latter are shredded rather than diced and are a staple at diners and fast-food restaurants across the country, not necessarily something made at home from scratch. I've even made hash browns numerous times during my line cook days, but until I revisited them for this recipe, I forgot just how easy they are to make in your own kitchen.
The word "hash" comes from the French "hacher," which means to chop, so "hash brown potatoes" translates to "chopped and fried potatoes." Before being shortened to "hash browns," the dish was called "hashed and browned potatoes," the first known mention of which comes from "Miss Parloa's Kitchen Companion," published in 1887. The cookbook features a recipe for "cold boiled potatoes, cut into cubes" heated in a brown gravy and then pan-fried until browned and has a texture that can be "fold[ed] like an omelet," very different from the recipe many of us know and love today.
Shredding overtook dicing as the preparation of choice in the 1970s, according to "Breakfast: A History" by Heather Arndt Anderson, which was "likely inspired by Swiss rosti, the traditional farmer's breakfast from Switzerland's capital, Bern." But when it comes to shredded fried potatoes, there are numerous iterations around the world, with some of the most well known coming from Europe, including rosti, pommes darphin and potato latkes.
Not all potatoes are created equal, and the choice of potato in hash browns will affect the final product. The main two types of potatoes are mealy and waxy, which have high and low starch contents, respectively. "Though the Swiss use waxy potatoes [for rosti], those in the U.S. do not brown as well as Idaho baking potatoes," according to a recipe in the Chicago Tribune. It's the extra starch in mealy potatoes that helps them get nice and crispy, making russet potatoes (a.k.a. Idaho or baking potatoes) ideal for hash browns.
In theory, you could use any fat you wanted to fry hash browns. A neutral oil such as vegetable or canola is pretty standard, but as its name implies, it doesn't contribute anything in the flavor department. Many chefs love peanut oil for frying, but that's a nonstarter for anyone with a peanut allergy. You could use a good olive oil, but its flavor doesn't fit my idea of standard hash browns. Bacon or other animal fat can be a great flavor booster, but some may find that it can overpower the potatoes. And last but certainly not least, there's butter. Some recipes do instruct you to use it as the sole fat for frying — the Kitchn exclaims, "Yes, you can use butter for simple pan-fried recipes!" — but I still worry about it burning over the medium-high heat and cook time called for in this recipe. Using clarified butter or ghee would erase this worry, but those are items that I don't tend to keep on hand.
I chose to use a combination of vegetable oil and butter based on memories making hash browns as a line cook (looking back, they were technically rosti or pommes darphin) and wanting to impart some butter flavor without the anxiety that comes with using all butter. I initially thought using a mix of the two raised the overall smoke point, but my research taught me that is a myth. However, there are still benefits. Per Serious Eats, "Though the milk proteins will still burn," which I didn't notice in any of my recipe testing, "if you cut the butter with oil, they'll at least be diluted, meaning that you won't have as much blackened flavor in that mix."
How to cook hash browns
I chose to peel the potatoes, but you could certainly keep the skin on and just give them a good scrub instead if you want the extra nutrition. Then, with a handheld grater or the grating attachment of a food processor, shred the potatoes. Next comes the most important: Get rid of as much moisture as you can to achieve shatteringly crisp potatoes. I like to gather the shredded spuds in a clean dish towel and wring out all of the water — nearly 1/2 cup in my trials — but you could also use cheese cloth, paper towels, a ricer or even just your hands. While some recipes instruct you to rinse the potato under running water, don't. Doing so removes the starch that helps the vegetable strands stick together and also aids in crispiness. Toss with salt and pepper so the seasonings are evenly dispersed throughout, and then it's time to fry.
Grab a large skillet — nonstick is preferable to cast iron due to the latter's issues with uneven heating - that is big enough to spread the potatoes into a very thin layer. Heat a small amount of fat in the pan, add the potatoes, press them into a thin, even layer, and then cook until golden and crisp. (Pro tip: I like to regularly press the potatoes with my spatula as they're cooking to help them stick together and ensure the hash browns get good contact with the pan to encourage browning.) Then flip, let them brown on the other side, and you're good to go.
Crispy Shredded Hash Browns
2 to 4 servings. Total time: 20 minutes
Crisp potatoes are always a good thing, but they're particularly delightful for breakfast or brunch. The key to hash brown perfection is getting them as dry as possible by wringing them out in a towel after shredding. A combination of butter and vegetable oil is recommended for frying for best flavor without risk of bitterness from burning, but you could also use any oil good for frying, or bacon grease, for even more flavor.
2 large russet potatoes, about 1 pound total
teaspoon kosher salt
teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or another neutral oil)
Line a bowl with a clean dish towel or multiple layers of paper towels. Peel the potatoes and grate them directly into the towel-lined bowl. (You can also use a food processor fitted with a shredding attachment.) Gather up the towel and squeeze out as much of the moisture as you can from the potatoes; discard the liquid. Return the potatoes to the empty bowl, sprinkle with the salt and pepper and toss to combine.
In a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter and heat the oil until shimmering. Add the potatoes, pressing into an even layer with a spatula, and cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 7 minutes. Flip and continue cooking until browned on the other side, about 5 minutes more. Remove, drain on a paper towel-lined plate or wire rack set over a baking sheet, and serve.
Nutrition Calories per serving (based on 4): 175; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 8 mg; Sodium: 217 mg; Total Carbohydrates: 20 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 2 g