Food52, a new site I recently came across, has a category celebrating “genius recipes.” I knew exactly what they meant the minute I saw that phrase. A genius recipe isn’t some elaborate concoction requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of spices or an absolute mastery of sous-vide cooking; it’s something so radically simple, to borrow my friend Rozanne Gold’s phrase, that it transcends cleverness and becomes….genius.
Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce, in which you peel and cut up tomatoes, and throw them in a pot with half an onion and some butter, is a perfect example. But I think my hash browns are even simpler. And better. Because what’s better than hash browns?
You would think, given their enormous popularity, that this dish would be easy to get right. And yet, it’s so routinely and universally botched that I have to wonder. Thick, soggy chunks of baked potato, smashed into a pan and cooked into a dense patty isn’t it; that’s just a greasy, fried mashed potato. Likewise, the parboiled, water-logged “home fries” they give you in a diner. To me, hash browns are one thing: shredded potatoes, sauteed in fat, that has been perfected in American diners and chain restaurants. Forget steak or lobster: my last meal will be Waffle House hash browns.
The only negative thing is that the food service version, the kind you get at most uniform diners, comes from a bag of frozen processed potato. I would urge you instead to take a big pan, sizzle some salted butter in it, and just when the foaming subsides, coarsely grate an unpeeled potato over it. Once the potato hits the pan, salt it. The potato, unmolested, will still have all its starchy essence and the flavor that conveys. Do it sparingly, so that you see as much pan as potato. I use a 12” skillet and rarely do more than half a medium-sized potato at a time.
The reason you want there to be so much space is to give the steam somewhere to go. Potatoes need to shrink and shrivel, concentrating their taste down and replacing their water with precious fat. They can’t do that if they’re being jammed in next to each other like the crowd at a Phish concert. Give them room and let them bind with each other as the starch comes out. Then flip, salt lightly again, and cook for another 15 or 20 seconds. No more. Amazingly, the shreds will form a latticework snowflake, and you can slide it out of the pan in one motion onto a plate.
Then serve and eat. You will never go back to regular hash browns.