Potato Pancakes Vs. Latkes: What's The Difference?

Is that a potato pancake or a latke? To some, these dishes might seem identical. Both are potato-based, fried, chewy in texture, and golden brown on the outside after all, and the starchy fritters are both usually topped with sour cream or applesauce, which give them a similar flavor profile. Despite these similarities, however, potato pancakes and latkes are distinct dishes. 

First, let's start with where these dishes come from. The potato pancake, also known as Kartoffelpuffer, was first popularized as a street food item in Germany during the 1870s, according to Via Travelers. The origin of the potato pancake is unclear, as many neighboring European countries have their own variation of the potato pancake, with different names, but a similar preparation.

Latkes on the other hand were first inspired by Italian ricotta cheese pancakes. Food historian and blogger Tori Avey explained to PBS that when Jews from Sicily were forced by the Spanish to move up north, they introduced their ricotta pancake to those who lived there, making it a staple for Hanukkah. The latke was made from buckwheat flour and fried in schmaltz, or chicken fat, until the mid-1800s, when, thanks to the introduction of potatoes in Eastern Europe, the latke took on its modern form as a potato-based dish fried in any oil (via PBS). So what is the difference between these two dishes?

The ingredients and the prep time

The potato pancake and the latke are sometimes mentioned interchangeably, but these two dishes could not be more distinct from one another. The potato pancake is much simpler, with nothing but raw grated potatoes, egg, and all-purpose flour. The latke, on the other hand, adds baking powder, matzo meal, and even a splash of milk, according to Cooktoria

Surprisingly, the potato pancake has a longer preparation time due to the simplicity of its batter. Raw potatoes are grated into a fine slush so that the natural starch of the potato holds the fritter together. While it requires more ingredients, the latke is prepared with a roughly grated potato (think the texture of hash browns), making it come together quicker. Thanks to the addition of baking powder and matzo meal, the latke is held together without the need for much natural potato starch. 

So the next time you try to prepare one of these dishes, be sure to consider how much time you have. If you don't have matzo powder, opt for the potato pancake. If you don't have the time, go for the latke. If you don't have either, try out a similar dish, Irish potato cakes, which makes use of your leftovers from last night's dinner!