Mad Vegan’s Unplugged Latkes

latkes - 5Latkes, or little potato pancakes, are delicious. Unfortunately for vegans, traditional preparations involve eggs, and often butter. Adding wheat flour makes them also not gluten-free, for those for whom gluten tolerance is an issue. Unhealthily for everyone, they’re battered and usually shallow-fried in oil or butter at temperatures home cooks are comfortable with, resulting in the latkes absorbing a lot of fat during the cooking process and becoming heavy, calorie-laden pucks. Surely, there’s a way to get the crunchy, potato-ey latke goodness without the downsides, and make a healthy, low-fat, all-plant version!

“Unplugged” because we’re fans of that classic MTV series where great music comes together when stripped down to its core elements, acoustic instruments and voices. Let’s do the same with a recipe that’s supposed to consist of, and taste like, potatoes. Can we unplug all the flour, eggs, butter, etc. and end up with an even better end product? YES!

Science Lesson

You can feel free to skip directly to the recipe, but for those interested in how we got there, here’s the science behind it.

Two different phenomena cause yummy brown outside layers to form on the surface of cooked food:

Maillard reactions https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maillard_reaction; and

Pyrolysis https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrolysis

Both reactions cause tasty browned crusts with loads of umami flavor. There’s a significant difference, though: Maillard reactions occur at temperatures home cooks are usually comfortable with, but generally require wheat and/or animal proteins like meat or eggs. Pyrolysis will occur without wheat or animal fats, but requires higher temperatures and low moisture.

So we want pyrolysis to make our latkes yummy with no wheat or eggs. We like challenges, and broke down the problem of making flourless, eggless, vegan and very low fat latkes like this:

  1. Pyrolysis needs three elements: starches and proteins to convert to the yummy browned goodness; the food to reach an external temperature of more than 390ºF/200ºC; and an absence of free moisture (i.e., water). So our cooking medium has to be HOT, by home standards.
  2. Battering food allows it to be fried at home kitchen temperatures of 350º-375ºF because the flour/egg batter undergoes Maillard Reactions and forms a crust; but we don’t want to use batter; pyrolysis is our friend, as it doesn’t like fats involved.
  3. Potatoes have starches; onions and apples add some sugars which will help the pyrolytic process. Proteins (amino acids) are present in all these veggies. We have our reagents. Just need to get water out of the way.
  4. Dry heat from a grill or pan would get us the temperature we need – but how to get the moisture content down to a level where the pyrolytic reaction can occur?

Our formula: remove as much water as possible from the raw ingredients and crank up the dry heat. Use the desiccating properties of salt to help pull water out of the raw ingredients while doing double duty flavoring them up. Use only enough fat to create a flash-frying effect, because the fat itself becomes like an instant molecular “batter” that improves heat transfer from the pan/grill to the food, and locks in the remaining moisture so our latkes aren’t dry.

Required equipment

An electric grill or griddle capable of holding 450ºF/230ºC; a stovetop or restaurant style gas-fired griddle; or a cast iron skillet heated for one hour in a 450ºF/230ºC oven, then placed on a stove burner over medium-high flame.

Food processor fitted with shredding disc

Ingredients

Makes one dozen 4-inch / 10-cm latkes

4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, washed and dried, skins left on
1 medium to large white onion
1 Granny Smith or other tart fresh apple, peeled and cored
Coarse kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Soy-free Earth Balance or other vegan butter substitute

Directions

Halve potatoes, onion and apple. Run through food processor to shred. Place shredded vegetables in a large colander or sieve, mix well by hand and allow to drain for 10 minutes. Then sprinkle with 1 rounded teaspoon coarse kosher salt, massage it in, and allow to drain for 20 more minutes. Squeeze handfuls of the shredded mixture to release water. Sprinkle with another heaping teaspoon of salt, and add a few grinds of black pepper. Massage in the seasonings. After another 10 minutes, repeat squeezing procedure. You don’t want to remove every last drop of water; stop squeezing when only a few trickles are coming out of a handful of shredded ingredients.

Form the drained and seasoned mixture into 12 discs and place them on a baking sheet or tray. Top each with a 1/2 tsp. or so of the vegan butter.

Heat a dry cooking surface or griddle – see recommended equipment – to 450ºF/230ºC. Use a laser thermometer or other means to check the temperature. It’s critical the cooking surface is at this temperature (or higher, but we don’t promise what will happen at even higher temperatures) so the latkes will pyrolize without burning.

Place the latkes buttered side down on the hot cooking surface. If using a two-sided electric grill (panini press), close the top over the latkes. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, turning over once, or until they look like the finished latkes in photo below.

Remove the cooked latkes to a cooling rack and cool for 5 minutes, then serve hot with your choice of accompaniments; mustard, applesauce and (vegan) sour cream (Follow Your Heart makes a great one) are traditional.

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