October 22, 2014

Breakfast at Home: Rösti (Swiss and German Hashbrowns)

Rösti are essentially a Swiss version of hashbrowns, specific to the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and differentiated geographically by an imaginary border called the Röstigraben ("rösti ditch") from its French-speaking and Italian-speaking neighbours.

Rheinisch Germany seems to enjoy rösti most often at lunchtime. These are often called Tellerrösti ("plate rösti") and are almost the size of the plate that they arrive on. To make it a complete meal, the rösti usually has various toppings: ham, mushrooms, and/or cheese are popular choices. Where cheese is added, they're usually popped under the broiler for a few minutes to melt it into bubbly goodness.

If rösti seem a bit similar to latkes or other potato pancakes (especially the smaller ones, or ones that are made with a ragged edge), indeed they are. However, there are some telling differences. The primary discrepancy is that latkes normally call for egg, and often flour as a binder, making it more of a fritter, whereas rösti rely solely on the starch in the potato to hold them together. Here in Germany there is something of an analogue for that, too, which is the deep-fried Reibekuchen (also called Kartoffelpuffer). These potato and onion fritters served with smooth applesauce or ketchup, are popular local festival fare. Not quite a latke, not quite a pakora.

There appears to be much disagreement about the perfect rösti recipe: what kind of potato to use, floury or starchy? Start with raw, par-boiled, or fully cooked potatoes? Should you add onion? Can you add tiny cubes of ham? Do you fry it it butter or oil or pork fat or duck fat? Should you leave the edges natural (ie: ragged) or should you pat them into place, or use a swirling motion with the pan to round the edges out naturally? Pan fry, or shallow fry?

The good news is that the lack of a definitive recipe means that you can lean toward your own preferences, without feeling like you're doing it wrong. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they can make their own rösti.

That being said, I like to use cold, fully cooked potatoes for my rösti, for three reasons: 1) I don't have to squeeze liquid out of the raw potato shreds; 2) the potato shreds are easier to compress into a cohesive mass; and 3) the cooking time is shorter. I just make sure to boil a few extra potatoes the night before.


Makes 1 (6-inch rösti)
Total Prep & Cooking time: 15 minutes

1 medium* potato, such as Yukon Gold, cooked and cooled completely (overnight in the fridge is great)
large pinch kosher salt
1 - 2 tablespoons grated onion (optional)
1/2 - 1 tablespoon butter (duck fat is also nice, if you have it)

The potato can have the peel on or off, it's entirely up to you.

In an 8" skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, dry your potato well with paper towel, and grate it on a medium-large-holed grater onto a cutting board. If you are adding onions, grate them separately.

When the butter is hot, add the potato strands all at once into the pan, and spread them about loosely and evenly. Sprinkle with salt, and add any onions (you can also use finely sliced green onion here).

Using a spatula, pat the potato mass into a nice, rounded shape, pressing down from time to time to ensure good contact with the bottom. Do not "stir" the potatoes. You want the ones touching the bottom of the pan to crisp up and get beautifully golden, and that takes a little time. If you have a lot of potato, it will be a thicker cake, and may take a little longer.

Continue to press the potato cake from time to time, both around the edges and across the top, to compact the potatoes into a cohesive cake. Use firm, but gentle pressure - you don't want to mash the potato strands, but you do want them to hold together. Check the temperature and make sure that the potatoes are sizzling, but not burning. Reduce the heat, if necessary.

When the bottom has developed a golden brown and delicious crust (this takes about 5 to 7 minutes, I find), you are ready to flip it over. Use the widest turning spatula that you have and move fast, if you're confident. If you're not confident, or if despite your best efforts, the potato isn't holding together as nicely as you would like, slide the rösti out of the skillet onto a plate. Cover the rösti with an inverted plate, and flip it over so the crisp bottom side is now on top. Slide the rösti back into the skillet with the crisp side up, and continue to cook for about another five minutes. The thicker the rösti, the longer it takes to cook through, especially if you're adding raw ingredients into the mix.

Slide the rösti onto your plate and you're ready to go - add a layer of ham and cheese and give it a quick broil, or top it with poached eggs and hollandaise for a fantastic breakfast.

You can make your rösti quite large, with multiple potatoes, in which case the inverted-plate method of flipping it over is pretty much essential. The finished rösti can then be sliced into wedges or quarters, as you like. For a thick rösti, you might consider finishing it in the oven, especially if you have eggs to poach or hollandaise to stir.

I realize that none of the above tells you how to pronounce "rösti", and the pronunciation itself is somewhat regional. The tricky bits are the ö which is pronounced somewhere between the "o" in 'dog' and the "oo" in 'good'. The s is pronounced "sh". So... rushti is not that far off, while still not being all that close. I'm sorry.

*How big is a "medium" potato? I use one about the size of my fist, but your mileage (and your fist) may vary. That's about 200 grams raw weight.

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