Does the type of potato work?
Christy Olsen Field experiments with her family’s lefse recipe to find out
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
Taste of Norway Editor
The Norwegian American
Like many Norwegian Americans, lefse holds the highest place of honor in my family, and it’s not Thanksgiving or Christmas without it.
Both of my parents have strong Norwegian roots and grew up with lefse made by their grandmothers at the holidays. My mom Diane learned the recipe and technique from her grandmother in the mid-1990s, and she has perfected the art of it since then, with only some minor changes. Sometimes it’s just my parents who make it in early November, with 20 pounds of potatoes, and some years it works out that my two sisters and our families can come home to make it together.
My family makes potato lefse, and the ingredient list is simple: russet potatoes, heavy cream, a bit of sugar and salt, and all-purpose flour. (There are many variations of Norwegian lefse that don’t use potatoes at all, but that will be a discussion for a future article!)
This is why my curiosity was piqued when my friend Leslee Lane Hoyum posed an interesting question to me last fall. She wrote:
“Almost everyone in the U.S. seems to make lefse with russet or Idaho potatoes. We have always used red because that’s what they use in Norway, and we knew there were no russet potatoes in Norway when our grandparents emigrated. They are moister and less starchy than russet. Norwegians use red potatoes for lefse, usually Beate red, because red potatoes have been a staple for centuries in Norway. When one uses russet potatoes, the lefse is drier and the flour taste is more evident. What are your thoughts?”
I had honestly never questioned the use of russet potatoes before this. Was it because I spent many years of my childhood living down the street from a potato farm in Idaho? Or simply because that is the potato that’s always been used? But if Norwegians use red potatoes, it made me question my long-held assumption. Would red potatoes yield a stickier dough but a moister lefse in the end?
So, I decided to do an experiment to test my family’s lefse recipe with russet versus red potatoes available in American grocery stores.
First, a note: I use my family’s potato lefse recipe because it’s the one used in my family. I love this recipe. My mom has it committed to memory. It’s a crowd pleaser in all branches of my family. But there are as many lefse recipes as there are Norwegian Americans, so please don’t take offense if my recipe is different from yours. I don’t roll mine super thin because I honestly like it a bit thicker. There is no one way to make potato lefse, and I am sure yours is great, too!
Potatoes in Norway
Potatoes are synonymous with traditional Norwegian cuisine, but they didn’t actually come to Norway until the mid-1700s.
Fagforum Potet, the Norwegian Potato Council, has a fascinating history of potatoes published on their website. Potatoes are a New World crop, and Spanish conquistadors brought back tubers from Peru in the 1500s, but it took a couple of centuries before they started to gain popularity in Europe.
Potatoes came to Norway in the 1740s via Denmark and some Swedish traders and were planted in prestegårder (the farm connected to the priest’s residence). By the end of the century, potatoes were grown across western Norway and Trøndelag, and eventually eastern Norway.
Potatoes were much easier to grow than grain in Norway’s cool climate, and they stored far better, too. By the early 1800s, potatoes exploded in popularity for farming, and by 1836, potatoes made up 26% of the food energy in Norwegian agriculture. And it was more than just cooked potatoes to keep people fed: Potatoes could be dried and milled to make flatbread, into grøt (porridge), distilled into alcoholic spirits, and provide animal fodder.
(If you read Norwegian, the history is worth a read. Google Translate’s version is pretty decent, too! Here’s the link: potet.nlr.no/fakta-om-potet/potetens-historie.)
Today, potatoes are taken quite seriously in Norway, with a dozen or more varieties available to purchase at a typical grocery store, and everyone has their own particular favorite.
But back to lefse. I was still curious about the type of potatoes that Norwegians used in potato lefse, so I did a deep dive on Norwegian food blogs and message boards for homemade potato lefse. A few varieties surfaced repeatedly: Asterix, Kerrs Pink, Beate, and Mandel.
To get a professional opinion, I reached out to a couple lefse manufacturers in Norway to see what kind of potatoes they used.
Per Wilhelm Klevenberg is the daglig leder (CEO) of Engers Lefsebakeri in Gjøvik, about a two-hour train ride from Oslo. Engers Lefsebakeri opened in 1954, and it produces several varieties of lefse and lomper.
“Depending on the time of the year, we use different potatoes. The most common are Laila, Kerrs Pink, and Lady Claire,” wrote Klevenberg. “We don’t want the potatoes to be too dry, because then the resulting lefse will be dry. The ideal amount of moisture in the potato is between 22% and 24% … There are probably some home bakers who use Beate potatoes, but also Asterix and Kerrs Pink.”
I also reached out to Buer Lefse in Askim, located about an hour southeast of Oslo. Founded in 1957, Buer is the largest producer of lefse and lompe in Norway, with 50 employees. Quality Manager Stein Borud wrote to me: “It is true that we have used Beate before. Now we use a potato called Lady Claire, and next year we will switch to a potato called Lady Britta. For us, it is good if the potatoes have a high dry matter so that we can adjust the dough with water. If there is a lot of water in the potatoes, we must use potato fiber to get the consistency of the dough.”
Unfortunately, I had no way of sourcing Beate potatoes for this experiment, or the other types. At my grocery store, red potato options are simply called red potatoes, with no additional information about the specific varieties. (For what it’s worth, it’s the same thing with russet potatoes!)
For my experiment, I decided to keep it simple and buy red and russet potatoes at my local grocery store. I used my family’s beloved recipe and scaled it down to 2.5 pounds of both red and russet potatoes.
This is not a scientific experiment, but I prepared each batch simultaneously with the same method.
This would be a good time to share with you that I find lefsemaking quite intimidating when I’m not making it at my parents’ house. My folks live across the state from me, so I relied on phone calls and text messages for help (and encouragement). I think the lefse rounds can sense my trepidation during the rolling part.
I boiled and simmered, cooled, and processed the potato mash with my food mill, which I find easier than a potato ricer. I added sweet cream and a bit of sugar to the mix, and let it chill overnight and into the next day. I observed no noticeable differences in the resulting potato mash between the red potatoes and russets.
The next day, I turned it into dough. My lefse consultant uses a 2:1 ratio by volume that is two cups of potatoes to one cup of all-purpose flour. This could be kneaded together in a bowl, but it’s easier on the countertop. I worked it until it came together as a smooth dough. I rolled it into a thick log, about 18 inches long, and sliced it in 1-inch rounds. I put these pieces on a baking sheet to chill in the fridge until The Big Roll Out.
The big roll out
After a pep talk from my mom and dad, I set up the griddle stations. I feel lucky to have two full sets of lefse gear: Two griddles (one we received as a wedding gift, one was my best find ever in my neighborhood Buy Nothing group!), two boards and pastry cloths, two rolling pins, and my rolling partner, my husband, Carl.
Carl may not have Norwegian heritage by ancestry, but he is definitely an honorary Norwegian American by being married to me. He’s also a patient, methodical person, so rolling and griddling lefse is very much in his wheelhouse.
We heated each griddle to 375°F while preparing the steaming stations. This is the crucial part of my family’s lefse making process for moist, tender lefse. Each station has two layers of terry bath towels with a tea towel as the innermost layer. After each lefse round is griddled to perfection, it is tucked inside the tea towel. The stack of lefse rounds then cools down to room temperature (sometimes overnight, if needed).
I started with the red potato batch. I generously floured my lefse board and rolling pin with pastry sleeve, and lightly dusted each side and edge of the lefse piece with flour. The first couple of rounds had some rips and tears (as usual!), but I then I was rolling out 12-inch rounds with a pretty high success rate. They were not perfectly round and about 25% of the rounds had a rip or tear, but as I said, I think the lefse can sense my trepidation about this process.
Halfway through my rounds, I switched to the russet dough and had Carl roll out the remainder of the red potato dough. Much to my surprise, the russet batch had the same rate of tears or sticking on my board that the red potatoes did. At Carl’s rolling station, he found the same. (Also, his rounds were thinner and more evenly shaped than mine). With my family recipe, the red and russet batches were pretty much the same to roll out.
The taste test
After steaming in the towels for 20 minutes or so, I took a round of each variety. I prepared it in the Olsen family way: Generously buttered with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar. I cut it into quarters and rolled it up. I handed out each piece to my Taste of Norway panel of judges: Carl and our two young sons. The kids’ eyes lit up with that first bite. They love lefse! I took another round of my less-than-perfect lefse to give them a second helping.
According to my panel, no noticeable difference between the red and russet varieties. Both were moist and pliable and tasted like lefse.
But lefse is not typically eaten fresh on the day that it’s made, so for me, the real test would be refrigerating it and reheating it to see the results.
We tested again after 24 hours in the fridge and reheated in the microwave. It tasted the same to us.
But after 48 hours, there was a slight yet noticeable difference. The red potato lefse was moister, with a good chew. The russet batch was, well, on the dry side. The red potato batch held up better in the fridge and reheating, which is crucial in the way that we enjoy lefse at our house.
Going forward, I think it’s a matter of preference and the family recipe. I am glad I tried this with my family recipe because it made a subtle, positive difference in the resulting lefse. I’m curious how red potatoes work in other potato lefse recipes.
So, let me know: What potato variety do you use with lefse? Have you experimented with red or russet potatoes? I’d love to hear from you. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Diane Olsen, Christy Olsen Field’s mom and lefse enthusiast
Makes 6 dozen half-rounds
10 pounds of russet potatoes
2 cups whipping cream
1 tbsp. salt, plus more to taste
3-4 tbsps. granulated sugar
Peel and boil potatoes in salted water until the potatoes are fork tender.
Drain and mash the potatoes. Add the whipping cream and sugar, and taste for salt, adding more if needed. The potatoes should taste like sweet, creamy mashed potatoes that you could enjoy as part of a meal. Press the mashed potatoes through a ricer.
Let the mixture cool to room temperature, and then place in the fridge to chill overnight.
The next day, measure out 2 cups of potato mixture to 1 cup flour.
Knead the mixture well on a counter until it comes together as a very smooth dough.
Shape into a long log roll, about 4 inches in diameter.
Slice into 1-inch pieces, flour all the sides, and place on a plate or cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
Place in fridge until you’re ready to roll.
Preheat the lefse griddle to 350°F.
Prepare a steaming station with a terry cloth bath towel lined with a tea towel.
Generously flour the pastry cloth board and pastry sleeve rolling pin. Roll out very thin.
Use a lefse stick to transfer to the heated griddle. Cook on both sides until brown spots appear.
Place the cooked lefse in the tea towel. Add each lefse round in the stack in the towel steaming station. When done, let the stack of lefse cool to room temperature in the towels.
Fold into quarters and store in zipper bags. Freezes well.
Serve warm with butter, sugar, and cinnamon.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.