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:
1) RAW GRATED POTATO RINSED AND WRUNG OUT IN A TEA TOWEL
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
2) BAKED POTATO REFRIGERATED FOR 6 HOURS BEFORE GRATING
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-
3) PARBOILED POTATO GRATED IMMEDIATELY AFTER BOILING
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-
4) PARBOILED POTATO REFRIGERATED FOR 6 HOURS BEFORE GRATING
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
5) PARBOILED POTATO FROZEN FOR 6 HOURS BEFORE GRATING
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!