Like a lot of farm kids who grew up in middle-of-nowhere, Wisconsin, I grew up eating meat and potatoes for every meal. Of course, there were vegetables from the garden, homemade apple pie on Sundays, and the occasional Jell-O salad thrown in for good measure. But despite eating potatoes, baked, mashed, boiled, scalloped, or fried, for most every meal, I never ate hash browns until I went to my first supper club.
We kids were lucky; our family didn’t eat out very often, but when we did, our parents let us order whatever we wanted. So, as the daughter of a beef and hog farmer, I almost always ordered jumbo shrimp—why order a T-bone or ham steak when I knew my mother could prepare something better at home? But the first time my father ever ordered hash browns, I did, too. And I never ordered anything else again.
When prepared properly, a plate of hash browns can transcend the best entrée on the menu. Ask any line cook and he or she will tell you a serving of hash browns should be brown and crisp on the outside, so that a spoon entering the hot and pillowy center emits an audible crunch, and the inside should be exactly the opposite: never mushy, never stiff, but extra hot and thoroughly cooked with a minimum grease factor.
At least that’s the way Matthew Stanley, line cook at The Tempest Oyster Bar, 120 E. Wilson Street in Madison, learned how to make hash browns from owner and tater connoisseur Henry Doane. Henry first perfected his line of restaurants’ style of hash browns at the late Blue Marlin, and still owns one of Madison’s most famous house of hash browns, the Tornado Steakhouse, 116 S. Hamilton Street. But the hash browns at Tempest Oyster Bar are something special.
“We always shred to order,” Matthew says, trying not to roll his eyes after I ask him if they keep a bowl of shredded potatoes on hand to fill the numerous orders that come in every night. Quickly realizing that I’m probably not going to leave his kitchen until he explains the entire cooking process, he shows me the drawer of par-cooked, whole Russet potatoes he boiled for 12 to 15 minutes earlier in the day.
“Partially-cooking the potato sets up its starches so that when you fry it the shreds dehydrate and brown. It’s the dehydrated starches that give hash browns their lasting crispness,” Matthew explains. When an order of hash browns comes into the kitchen, Matthew cuts a par-cooked potato in half, hand shreds it, and places the shreds with a little salt and pepper in a saucepan over a mixture of butter and oil. Initial high heat is used to produce a solid potato crust. After about one minute, he turns the burner down. The hardest part is now upon him: patiently waiting until the bottom crust fully forms and the inside is about half cooked.
“You can’t be in a rush cooking hash browns. You have to let it do its thing,” Matthew says. “A single order is going to take at least seven to eight minutes.”
Once the bottom crust is formed, Matthew flips the browns with an expert flick of the wrist, and then lets the potatoes cook for a few more minutes. At Tempest Oyster Bar, line cooks also add fresh scallions to hash browns for flavor and color. When the order is done, the potatoes are simply plated and taken to the waiting customer. “The nice thing about hash browns is that they’re not fancy. In a few simple steps, you can make a really good dish of potatoes,” Matthew says.
And while perhaps no one knows hash browns better than Henry Doane and his line of cooks, the folks at Toby’s Supper Club, 717 S. Dutch Mill Road on the southeast side of Madison, might just make more orders of hash browns than anyone in the city. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner, about half of all of Toby’s potato orders are hash browns, according to Kelly Gill, dining room manager and daughter of owner Roxanne Peterson.
Kelly has waited tables at Toby’s for 33 years, and on the night we visited, she told us that about half of those orders come with cheese, onions, or both. Toby’s serves hand-shredded hash browns family style from cast iron pans that have cooked hash browns for more than 50 years. “Oh my gosh, we’ve done it that way forever,” she says. Toby’s is a family affair, with Kelly’s brother running the bar and cousins working the kitchen. Her grandparents bought Toby’s in 1969 from Toby’s widow, Lila, and kept the original recipes. On any given night, the bar is standing room only and the dining room is packed full of people eating hash browns.
And while several dinner establishments in this area are known for stellar hash browns, Smoky’s Club, Mariner’s Inn, and Johnny Delmonico’s Steakhouse all come to mind. There is a distinct difference between dinner and breakfast hash browns. Breakfast browns tend to be a bit more greasy and cooked solid all the way through, skipping the pillowy inside and striving for pure crisp. One breakfast establishment does morning hash browns just right: Pat O’Malley’s Jet Room, 3606 Corben Court (at Amelia Earhart Drive) in Middleton.
After eating hash browns for more than 30 years at restaurants across the country, I’ve come to the conclusion that my mother had it figured out after all. There was a reason she never made hash browns at home; she knew they would taste better when someone else made them. And when that someone is a cook with a seasoned cast iron pan and a little patience, hash browns taste just a little better.
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.