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Apr 6, 2011 04:44 AM

Cooking hash browns: a side-by-side method comparison

The hash brown is my favorite food, yet I had never cooked a great one. I fancy myself a decent home cook, so it was a source of mild consternation to me that I had never produced what I would consider to be a truly great hash brown. In fact, the best hash browns I have ever cooked came from a ORE-IDA freezer bag. I mean come on, how come I have to resort to a processed product to make this dish, which is essentially just potatoes and hot fat? Surely I could do better with raw ingredients. Today I corrected this glaring deficiency with five side-by-side preparation methods to further my understanding of cooking the perfect hash browns.

Each batch consisted of 1 1/2 cups grated russet potato, 1/2 cup diced onion, 1 1/2 tbsp salt, 1/2 tbsp black pepper, cooked in 2 tbsp of corn oil. Of course bacon grease or butter tastes better than corn oil but for this test I wanted a fat which is more consistent and less likely to burn. All batches were cooked over low heat in a steel pan until they formed a golden-brown crust on one side, then flipped as one cohesive mass to form the same crust on the other side. Here are the five methods, with their results:

These were the worst of the lot. I simply could not get enough moisture out of them by wringing, so they spent too much time steaming in the pan before the browning began. The raw potato interior took so long to cook that the onions burned black before the potatoes were done, even on the lowest heat setting. The final crust was hard rather than crispy, and the interior seemed to soak up the most oil of all the batches. GRADE: D

The baking dried out the potato too much, making it crumbly and hard to grate. The shreds were short and pasty, and I had to stop multiple times to clean gluey paste out of the grater. The result had a decent crust but little of the stringy hash brown internal texture. It resembled a fried mashed potato croquette more than anything else. It avoided the common hash brown pitfall of being too greasy, but overcompensated by being a bit too dry. GRADE: B-

This one was kind of a mess. The hot grated potatoes became very sticky very quickly, sort of like what happens when you overwork mashed potatoes. It formed a glutinous patty in the pan which was not promising, but surprisingly the crust was well-crisped and not half bad. The patty interior however, was gluey and sticky, and resisted picking apart with a fork. GRADE: C-

Probably the average standard of my homemade hash browns. Decent crust, okay interior (but still not quite fluffy enough). Nothing was particularly good or bad about these but they were still missing something indefinable. GRADE: B

The runaway winner! The semi frozen potato grated very well and produced long, firm, shreds which did not stick together excessively. The cooking time was not really any longer than the others, despite the cold temperature, and the results were a perfectly crackly crust with a fluffy, greaseless, perfectly cooked interior. The downside was that the onions were a shade underdone here, maybe because the cold potatoes slowed their cooking process. GRADE: A-

Why were the boiled and frozen potatoes so much better than the rest? The semi-frozen strands were long and distinct, which made for an airy, spaghetti-like internal structure. They also resisted sticking to each other, which meant that the interior did not turn into mashed potatoes when I pressed on the patty with a spatula. The freezing may also have changed the internal chemistry of the potato itself, but I'm no scientist so I'll leave that speculation to others. It's no coincidence that these were the only batch to beat the ORE-IDA hash browns, which also seem to be parboiled before freezing, possibly with some anti-clumping agents thrown in.

Well my whole apartment corridor now smells like a Waffle House, my roommate won't stop bitching about the oil-spattered countertop, and I've eaten about a week's allowance of grease and starch, but it was worth it. I finally cooked the homemade hash browns of my dreams!

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  1. I think it's the San Francisco Chronicle columnist whose slogan was "I watch these TV shows so you don't have to." You went through all these gyrations so we don't have to do it ourselves and we thank you. I gave up on hash browns some time ago but maybe I'll give it another try using your winning method.

    The restaurant at Centennial Airport, just south of Denver CO, serves what are country fried potatoes rather than true hash browns. They (like all their breakfast items, how we miss that place) were delicious. We were told that the cook's method was to take the potatoes and onions to the 80% cooked stage and then let them sit in the fridge overnight, finishing them when ordered with a nice crusty outside. If you don't feel like going through the hash brown exercise, this is a good alternative.

    1. What a great report! How long did you par-boil the potatoes for, roughly?

      1 Reply
      1. re: lidia

        Thanks! it depends how big the potato is. I parboil until a fork pierces them easily, but meets some gritty resistance near the center, about 7-8 minutes for a fist-sized potato.

      2. I rarely make hash browns but I'd be interested in how your winner stands up against raw potato, grated and not rinsed. I can see how the rinsing process would create too much moisture, but unrinsed potatoes shouldn't have that problem. Thanks for posting your results, though - I'll be trying your method next time!

        4 Replies
        1. re: biondanonima

          I did just that this week, biondanonima, with room temp Yukon Golds. They were quite wet so I pressed them between paper towels, but that did not remove enough moisture. Frying them still created enough steam that they didn't crisp much at all.

          1. re: greygarious

            Interesting. I love Yukon Golds for just about anything, but they are a little less starchy/fluffy by nature than russets - I wonder if that translates into more moisture in the potato? CI recommends using raw russets or another high starch potato and wringing out the shreds in a tea towel before cooking.

            1. re: biondanonima

              How about microwaving the grated potatoes in a glass pieplate to drive off some moisture and partially cook the interior before frying? That might solve some of the mositure and burning problems.

              1. re: biondanonima

                My brother makes the best hash browns I've ever eaten! He grates the Russets on a box grater, spreads them out thin on paper towels, places other paper towels on top of them, lets them sit a few minutes, then presses down to squeeze out the moisture. He fries them up in a little vegetable oil (unless we have bacon grease) in a regular old skillet (from a set of Revereware that my Mom got for a wedding present about 60 years ago). Nice, golden, crunchy on the outside, warm and cooked through on the inside. And absolutely out of this world!

          2. Nice job. Good potatoes are my white whale. I can cook most anything but am atrocious at making potatoes. Whether mashed, home fries, roasted potatoes, etc., something is just always wrong about it...

            Regarding freezing the potatoes... here is a passage from Serious Eats, where Kenji tried to make McDonald's fries at home and figured out the secret was freezing fries.

            "The frozen fries had a distinctly fluffier interior, while the unfrozen ones were still ever-so-slightly gummy. It makes perfect sense. Freezing the potatoes causes their moisture to convert to ice, forming sharp, jagged crystals. These crystals damage the cell structure of the potato, making it easier for them to be released once they are heated and convert to steam. The best part? Because freezing actually improves them, I can do the initial blanching and frying steps in large batches, freeze them, and have a constant supply of ready-to-fry potatoes right in my freezer just like Ronald himself!"


            7 Replies
            1. re: ESNY

              Thanks for the article. Very interesting, before experimenting and reading I would not have thought that freezing - a mark of a lot of bad processed foods - would actually benefit fried potatoes. I guess it is an exception to the fresher is better rule.

              1. re: RealMenJulienne

                Okay, now I know how the cook out at the Way Station in Newhall (CA) turns out those great mounds of crusty hash browns with the fluffy interior: he dumps a big bag of still-frozen shreds onto his hot grill, and keeps the pile together without either stirring it or packing it down. This is a totally no-frills greasy spoon that gets everything from Sysco, but somehow produces some of the best breakfasts in LA County. Surprise! It's just a guy who knows what he's doing!

                1. re: Will Owen

                  gonna try and get my husband to the Way Station you mentioned WO.
                  thanks for the heads up about it.
                  may find time this weekend, if not next fingers crossed.

                  hey WO have you tried going up a few more miles north to Acton to Crazy Otto's?
                  they have really good hash browns too.

                  1. re: Will Owen

                    didn't get to it last time I said I'd try but tomorrow is another day, we're both off and the superbowl starts later

                    wooooo wooooo wooooo

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      hi Will Owen from the Way Station in Newhall Ca
                      watching the men as we're sitting at the bar awaiting our brekkie.
                      they dump frozen prebagged frozen hash browns onto the grill.
                      you're right!
                      he got pork chops and eggs I splurged for eggs Benedictine.
                      we'll see how good their hash browns are.

                      sorry to report Will Owen but:
                      -1 for Way Station
                      asked husband how his breakfast was.
                      he said "was it worth making the long drive up here? No.
                      Was it worth the long drive to spend time with my beautiful wife? Yes"
                      other than him needing a new optical apt. I agree.
                      the hash browns turn out like crisped on both sides mashed potatoes, no lie

                      1. re: iL Divo

                        So basically we disagree about what makes brilliant hash browns. I happen to be enthralled by a mass of frozen potato shreds turned into a giant crisp-sided mashed potato cake. It's the giant fluffy mashed potato cake I've always yearned for and never managed to make. I want to eat several times as much of that as I possibly can, preferably with too many eggs as well. YMMV, obviously.

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          "YMMV" ?
                          Your mileage may vary................................that's according to *cyber talk* lingo, unless they're wrong on what that means, please do enlighten me WO.

                          And yes, it's amazing how many different opinions there are on food products, the way things are made and therefore turn out, what one expects from an ordered item on a menu, as well as highly anticipated recommendations.
                          We recommended Bergers Burgers in Mammoth for years, only to realize waaay after the fact, they'd closed down then reopened to nothing of the original way they'd been prepared previously.

                          I'm thankful for someone saying 'try this-here'. If it's not up to what I'm hoping for, it was fun making the jaunt and doing it with my love.

                2. The parboil and freeze method is fine, but a little hard to plan for if you want hash browns for breakfast. I grate raw potatoes then use a salad spinner first to rinse and then extract all of the moisture. Cover the pan for the first ten minutes of cooking then uncover. The result is a nice crisp crust with nicely cooked-through strands. Helps if you use a cast-iron skillet.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: 2intune

                    Hi, in the past every time I have started with raw potatoes, no matter how much water I press or wring out the inside soaks up too much oil and the outside turns kind of leathery. Are you using low or high heat? I have never used a salad spinner, so I will give it a try when I get a hold of one.

                    1. re: RealMenJulienne

                      If your potatoes soak up too much oil, you may not have your pan and oil preheated enough before adding the potatoes. I let my cast iron skillet heat up for about 5 minutes on medium low, then add fat (I use a combination of coconut oil and butter), let that heat up til it is shimmering, then add the potatoes. On my stove I'm at med/low, but its a pretty big gas stove. Your mileage may vary on that. After the first few tries, you'll get to see where the cutoff point is between heat too high (burning the bottom before the insides cook), and heat too low (not enough brown, soak up oil). Incidentally, I don't disturb or mix the potatoes while they cook. When the bottom browns, I put a dinner plate, face down on the top of the pan and flip the whole disc onto the plate, re-oil the pan then slide the uncooked side back into the pan.

                      1. re: RealMenJulienne

                        RealMen: raw potatoes seeming almost leathery, yep, I'd ventured down the same disappointing path to those results many a time also.

                        1. re: iL Divo

                          I think that the only great/real hash browns come from raw potatoes. The leathery thing, to hazard a guess, might be not enough oil/fat?????? My are crisp, usually. I have made great ones and not so great ones; the problem lies in my not being consistent because we don't eat them that often. I forget things that I learned last time in between times. But for absolute sure, precooked potatoes have never given me the results I want.

                          1. re: sandylc

                            you know sandy, there could be a bunch of variables that have cause and effect.
                            sometimes I've found like at our daughters house it's nothing more than the pan.
                            very little fat raw potatoes cubed and mildly seasoned into the pan and don't do another thing for 10-15 minutes then check for a good browning on the underside. if it's there I go in for the kill and turn 'em all over. now that's for those country fried potatoes or what a lot of breakfast joints call cottage fries. for what I think of when I want hash browns it's the grated potatoes that then go into a hot skillet or flat top, get drizzled with melted fat butter being best in my opinion, left untouched to brown then flip to other side till brown and dish up.

                            my kitchen is overstocked with pots and pans of every weight/size/material/brand and braggability. I've used all that could/do/would pertain in the effort of making hash browns, usually until I got it down to no good outcome. now as I stated in an above post, I figured out the mystery was has eluded me forever.
                            but you know what, whatever works for you or me or anyone else, works. that's the important thing. we, lIke you, don't make them all that often. I tend to do the cubed version for breakfast most because they're 'potatoes for dummies" or breakfast potatoes 101.

                            1. re: iL Divo

                              Yeah, we make good ol' fried potatoes pretty often - now, THESE I'm darned good at...

                      2. re: 2intune

                        I was thinking the opposite: I'm going to parboil up some spuds, pack them up and freeze them tomorrow. If they can freeze for six hours, I bet they'll keep for longer in the freezer. Heck, the Ore Ida's do! I'm keen to try this approach as I too have fallen victim to the oversteamed, too oily hashbrown syndrome. Thanks, RMJ.