Whoa! Don't even think about it! It is practically impossible to make home fries or hash browns on the stovetop from raw potatoes; don't try. I have a master's of science degree in heat transfer and I have not gone to the bother of proving mathematically that it is actually impossible; but I know from much experience practically impossible and there are so many easy short-cuts that there is no reason to contemplate the issue.
The 'short-cut' of years ago was to bake or boil potatoes, let them cool, grate them, then cook the grated potatoes in butter on a griddle. This is a good way to do it. But the big down side is that you have to plan ahead - just about a day ahead. What about those Sunday mornings when you say to yourself "Gee, wouldn't it be nice to have a perfect Sunday brunch with eggs and potatoes and sausages and toast and jelly and bagels and cream cheese and lox and orange juice and fruit. You know, just a little something." Well, it hardly matters what you think of after the potatoes part, you just cannot be satisfied until you get those crispy golden-brown shreds of potato, all fluffy and soft on the inside.
First, choose the right potatoes. In my experience, the smaller the potatoes the better. Use Yukon gold potatoes or some other clear-skinned slightly yellow fleshed potato. I had 'California grade B's' this morning, and they were the best I've ever tasted. They are about the size of a seven -year old's fist - two golf balls. Okay, you certainly can use those leftover baked russett potatoes. And you can get excellent results; but for the procedure we're about to discuss, the russett is simply too big to work well.
Next, choose whether you want home fries or hash browns. Hash browns are grated potatoes cooked in butter on a griddle. Home fries are cut up chunks of potatoes cooked in butter on a griddle. Home fries may have peels - in fact, red-skinned potatoes can make very pretty home fries, but hash browns are almost always free of peels. So if you are making hash browns, peel the potatoes. And grate them.
Third, place the potato in the microwave. Four small potatoes make a very generous serving; two potatoes will work in most situations for a serving. Microwave four lemon-sized potatoes for 4 minutes before starting to heat the pan. If cooking for more people, cook in multiple sessions. Check the potatoes; if they seem well cooked, then start up the griddle. Let it heat for 2 minutes before adding butter and the potatoes. If you are making home fries, cut up the potatoes into bite-sized chunks.
Make sure the butter evenly coats the whole cooking surface. Spread the potatoes in a thin, uniform layer. Cook for about 4 minutes at medium heat, until brown and crispy then turn them over and do it again, adding more butter. Serve promptly.
Hash browns are not a low-fat dish. Not if made well. It is the butter that causes the potatoes to brown and crisp. You can use vegetable oil, but the result will not be quite so beautifully brown. And there is a flavor in butter - especially browned butter - that complements potatoes perfectly. It will be missing if you use vegetable oil.
Before you go screaming into the darkness about this being a heavy dish, remember that clear skinned potatoes have less starch than russets. And remember that potatoes are excellent sources of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and a number of other crucial and hard-to-get nutrients. Half a tablespoon of butter is really not a big price to pay to get all this. And you can use the same griddle to cook your eggs. This morning, I just moved the hash browns away from the center of the griddle and fried two eggs. It was quite easy, except that the hash browns started to spill over the edge of the griddle. The fried egg goes so well with hash browns that it has or should have by now supplanted bacon in our minds when we think of "eggs and..." The 'dippy' centers dress the potatoes and the crispy potatoes lend punch to the egg. And nutritionally, they are great complements.
Finally, we need to say a few words about ways to make home fries and hash browns more interesting. The first step is onions. There is hardly a savory dish in the world that cannot be improved a little by the addition of caramelized onions. Hash browns can be; home fries invariably are. Next is spices. Pulverized peppers in the form of paprika, chipotle pepper, ancho chile pepper, or cayenne used alone or in combination with salt, black pepper, or onion or garlic powder, can improve either hash browns or home fries. I think, however, that ketchup is the best thing to go with either, and that most of these spices get in the way of enjoying ketchup a little bit.
There is a trend to make hash browns with cheese in a casserole. Well, I am the first to crowd into line for scalloped potatoes or any sort of potato gratin; but I think a potato gratin is different from hash browns. I could live on cheese and potatoes, but I don't think hash browned potatoes contain cheese. Period. This is not an issue of taste it is an issue of definitional clarity. I mean, if we said any baked dish that contains tomatoes and cheese was a pizza, then what would we do if we wanted to order baked spaghetti or veal parmegiano or baked, stuffed tomatoes topped with cheese? No these are different things which, for good reasons, have different names. If your potato is baked with cheese in the oven it is a gratin. Or a casserole. Case closed.
Of course nothing is so simple. I saw a recipe for home fries that were roasted instead of fried. This is close enough, because the result resembles the original in every respect. And what if one discovered a way to make hash brown potatoes in the oven that perfectly resemble those made on the stove top. Again, now it is technically a gratin but practically a hash brown; server's choice. But once the potatoes that come out of the oven depart, even just a bit from the stove-top variety we are definitely talking potato casserole of some sort. Please forgive the air of self-righteousness here, it matters that things are named correctly else we cannot find them on the internet. I'm sure you understand.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.