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Even the name sounds cozy: Swiss Rösti. The classic comfort food from Switzerland is surprisingly easy to make, with some tricks along the way, and it turns potatoes into a main meal (which I’ve always really felt they should be—French fries with a side of burger, anyone?). The main meal, at least when the dish was first prepared, was breakfast. In the Swiss canton of Bern, farmers needing fuel for a long day’s work were plated up a mountain of grated, fried potatoes. The only crucial ingredients were potatoes and butter. Some folks par-boil the potatoes before grating them, others don’t (the Zurich version tends to be grated raw, with parboiling elsewhere). There appears to be no master recipe, and it is hard to pinpoint a single place or restaurant that serves the “ultimate” version—which is, itself, unusual, for what is considered a national dish. In this series, now several years on, we have looked at numerous dishes that are considered national or regional specialties, and have sought a best, or at least a quintessential, version of the recipe. This has often led back to a certain cook, kitchen, or at least a region. But Rösti (which is more properly pronounced, rer-shtee) is so simple, that few bother to write down a recipe for it. We’ve narrowed it down to the area around the Swiss capital, Bern. The only other certainty is that it postdates the discovery of America, because there were no potatoes in Europe prior to it. Otherwise, its history is anyone’s guess.
The recipe can be summarized in five words: grate potatoes, sautee in butter. The resulting dish is usually served as a sort of pancake of potato, crispy brown on the outside, gooey, buttery, potato-licious on the inside. It may feature a fried egg on top, but this is entirely optional. Traditional Rösti should not add anything else to the mix. What, no bacon, you ask? No fried onions? Add fried onions to the recipe, and you have hash browns. Delicious as an American breakfast staple, but it ain’t Rösti. In fact, you could throw all sorts of other ingredients in there (crumbled sausage, spinach, garlic), but it wouldn’t be traditional Rösti.
Such a simple recipe, what could go wrong? A good question. In fact, more than you might think. The main danger is that potatoes have too much water content to just grate and fry without causing a splatter- fest. If you parboil the potatoes and let them cool before grating them, they will release less water. Likewise if you grate them, then sprinkle them with salt, the salt will draw out moisture. Less water content means a crisper fry, and also less of a mess in the kitchen. Some hardcore Rösti-makers chill the potato first, then grate the potato a day in advance. They grate more cleanly when cold, and moisture evaporates overnight, meaning less water content. But this seems a bit like creating work for yourself, when it comes to such a simple dish. One important component is the potato skin—most Rösti are cooked with the skin. The skin has the majority of nutrients in it, and has a great flavor. It just has to be spotlessly clean, and preferably a potato variety that has a nice, easy-going skin (some can be tougher and more fibrous, and therefore better peeled—the later the harvest, the firmer the skin). There is also no consensus on which potato to use: varietals that might be called “floury” (high in starch, low in moisture) result in a Rösti that tastes more like a mashed potato cake, whereas potatoes that might be categorized as “waxy” (high in moisture, low in starch) tend to be crunchier—I prefer the latter, which reminds me of potato latkes, a Jewish Hannukah tradition, often eaten with sour cream or apple sauce.
The grated potato is cooked, around ten minutes a side, in a cast-iron skillet on high with a lot of butter. It should form into a sort of pancake and be easy to flip. Butter is traditional, but you can experiment with fats. Goose or duck fat, if you have access to it, will spike up the flavor but, of course, is not traditional.
By now you’ve probably noticed that this is a dish that begs for expansion. It is satisfying simple, but I think it is best seen as a point of departure from which you should feel welcome to experiment. Adding things like melted cheese, egg, lardons, can kick the dish up a notch and make it your own. A few maverick Swiss recipes suggest adding a bit of coffee to the Rösti, making for the complete breakfast in a pan. This is not to say that Swiss Rösti is the be-all, end-all of potatoes as main dish. In another corner of the Alps, you can find the Society for the Promotion of Sauteed Potatoes as a Main Dish, a Slovenian social club, several thousand-strong, that tours the country setting up oversized iron sautee pans of potatoes and onions (prazen krompir), that they distribute for free at weekend farmer’s markets. But Rösti is so simple that it might be considered the core sautéed potato dish, and one that is worth adding to your culinary repertoire—even if you’ll want to play with it and may rarely cook the simplest of all versions.