One of the many things that I love about travel is the chance to eat a renowned dish in its country of origin. In India, I went straight for the curries. In Vietnam, I fell for bánh mì. In Switzerland, I gobbled up fondu, raclette and rösti. You can’t get much more authentic than that.
Of these, it is the Swiss potato pancake, rösti, that I make on a regular basis. Derived from the German word rösten, which means to roast or grill, rösti consists of fried, shredded potatoes. That’s it. That’s the main and often sole ingredient of this easy Swiss specialty. Crisp on the outside yet soft and velvety on the inside, the simple rösti possesses a rich, complex flavor and competing textures that make it a sheer delight to eat.
Originally, rösti served as a filling breakfast for 19th-century Bernese farmers. A shared offering, it was placed on a platter in the center of the breakfast table. Using their spoons, people would cut off a piece of the patty and dunk it into a cup of weak, milky coffee. It may seem like an unusual custom, but it was one that soon caught on in other parts of Switzerland.
Rösti a versatile dish for any meal
Rösti quickly usurped the traditional Swiss farm breakfast of soup or mash, which had fed the hungry since medieval times.
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Today’s Swiss cooks continue to deck out their potato pancakes with a diverse range of ingredients. At Geneva’s Auberge de Savièse, rösti is decorated with strips of red bell peppers and onions. Meanwhile, the Eiger Guesthouse in the Alpine village of Mürren adds a touch of Italy to its offering, adorning it with sliced, fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and a drizzle of pesto sauce.
Some prefer pairing a simple rösti with a savory entrée. This is the case for Geneva resident and United Nations worker Chris Morh. “On a chilly day there is nothing better than to have rösti with Zuericher Geschnetzteltes, veal with cream sauce,” Morh says.
Just as the serving styles vary, so too do the ways that rösti is prepared. The differences start with the potatoes, which can either be cooked and then shredded, or shredded when raw. This is also the case with a relative of rösti, the American hash brown.
Then there is the question of how to cook the potatoes. Although I prefer to boil them in their skins, others opt for steaming. With the latter method, no salt is added to the potatoes and fewer nutrients leach into the cooking water.
In what the shredded potatoes are fried also differs from cook to cook. Some folks swear by vegetable oil while others endorse butter or bacon fat as the best.
Many claim you should fry your potatoes in oil and then add butter in small dabs at the very end of the cooking time. You spread the butter around the rösti’s edges so it melts, drips down into the hot pan and flavors your dish. I’ve found that this step also stops my potatoes from sticking to the skillet.
In spite of the variations, there are some agreements on rösti. You should use firm, cooking potatoes such as yellow or golden. You should also sauté the potatoes first before shaping them into a plump pancake and frying the cake on both sides.
Whether you make it to Switzerland or just to the corner store, pick up a pound of firm, yellow potatoes and treat yourself to an easy, delicious dinner of rösti.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ pounds yellow/golden potatoes, boiled in salted water until just tender, peeled and grated
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
⅓ cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 spring onions, whites and 1 inch of greens sliced
1. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter and the olive oil over medium-high heat. As the butter is melting, toss together the shredded potatoes, thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Spoon the potatoes into the frying pan and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure that all the potatoes have been coated with the oil.
3. Shape the potatoes into a pancake and fry on one side until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Place a flat plate over the top of the pan and invert the pan onto the plate. Return the pan to the heat, add a dab of butter if needed and then slide the rösti back into the pan, uncooked side down. Allow the potato pancake to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until that side has also browned.
5. A few minutes before removing the rösti, break off small pieces from the remaining butter and spread it around the edge of the potatoes.
6. To remove the rösti, place a serving platter over the top of the pan and invert it onto the platter. Spread the Gruyère cheese and spring onions over the top of the rösti. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Rösti. Credit: Kathy Hunt