One of the obvious joys of restaurant dining is that you don’t have to cook the food. That pleasure is intensified when you enter a diner, crusty-eyed and slack-jawed, having only managed to put on pants (pajama bottoms are a perfectly viable choice) and a shirt, but definitely not run a comb through that mop on your head. Simple, customizable eggs, toast, and a host of other breakfast delights await to reconstitute you into the human your parents always wanted you to be.
Breakfast potatoes facilitate that transformation for me more quickly than anything else the server places in front of my gob. I prefer hash browns (shredded and crisped up in a thin cake on the griddle), but I recognize that most people like home fries (pre-cooked cubes smashed on a griddle and crisped up with bell peppers and onions), if for no other reason than the fact that every damn diner in America adds them on to my plate of sausage and eggs without any prompting.
Good diner-style home fries are, in my opinion, a very rare accomplishment. Too often they’re mealy, not creamy; greasy, not crisp; and when you hate bell peppers as much as I do, home fries have a steep hill to climb.
But even I will admit they are worth eating—if you make them at home. Let’s learn from what diner cooks know, but then improve upon it.
Dryness equals crunch, so after parboiling your spuds (just bring the water to a boil, turn off the heat and let the whole potatoes sit in the hot water until the skin can be pierced easily with a fork, then dunk them in cold water to stop the cooking), you’ve gotta get that water out. At diners, cooks let the potato cubes drain and steam-dry in a colander, then refrigerate them until an order’s up. While this is a great way to dry the potatoes, when they’re packed on top of each other in a colander, all the potatoes on the bottom stay soggy. And when cold, slightly soggy potatoes hit a hot griddle with tons of butter or oil, they act like a sponge, soaking up fat but never attaining the crucial crispiness.
To get those home fries crackling enough on the edges (because if you’re not, why aren’t you just making mashed potatoes?), you‘ve got to lay your cooked ’taters out on a rack or layer of paper towels in a single layer to drain, exposing as much of their surface area to the air as possible. And while you’re making home fries at home, take advantage of not being in a restaurant and leave the potatoes out at room temperature (which a diner health inspector might not appreciate) so they don’t absorb excess oil once they hit the griddle.
Once the cubes have dried, heat a thin layer of butter mixed with an equal amount of vegetable oil (butter adds flavor, while the oil lets you crank up the heat) in a cast-iron skillet over high heat and toss in a single layer of potatoes, without crowding or stacking them on top of one another. Season them liberally with salt and cook until crisp and the bottoms of the matte white cubes have turned deep and golden. Flip the potatoes in big, spatula-sized chunks, and repeat until they have achieved maximum crispness all over.
And no, I didn’t forget about the onions and peppers. Leave them out! This is all all about the crisp, crunchy polygamous marriage between salt, butter, and potatoes, and no sulphuric vegetables or nightshades need apply for entry into this holy union. Just slide them onto a plate, grab a fork, and house a giant plate of these potatoes—no shoes or street clothes required.
Ben Mims is a food writer, recipe developer, and author of Sweet & Southern.