Why It Works
- Building the pommes Anna in a cake pan and baking it in the oven gives you time to shingle stress-free and ensures the potatoes cook through fully through without scorching.
- Browning and crisping the baked pommes Anna in a nonstick skillet puts the finishing touches on the pommes Anna without the risks of the traditional method.
In my years as a recipe developer, there have been times when, after rounds of testing and tinkering with a recipe, my advice to the reader has been frank: The path to success isn't with novel methods or tricks, it's by practicing the classic technique. (See: French omelette and tortilla española.) I couldn't let that be my message with pommes Anna.
A visual showstopper, pommes Anna features thinly sliced potato layered into a cake of beautifully shingled concentric rings that's cooked until tender inside and crisp and golden on top. Traditional recipes call for a finicky and failure-prone approach of building the cake in a hot pan, with the cook having to meticulously arrange the potato slices as they fry in scalding butter. It's a questionable method on the best of days, one that, yes, with regular practice can be perfected. But it's not the kind of dish most home cooks are likely to make often—certainly not often enough to get to the point where failure isn't a distinct possibility.
How can pommes Anna go wrong? Oh, let's see:
- You burn yourself while frantically layering potato slices in a hot pan with scalding butter.
- The potato sticks to the pan, ruining one of the main selling points of pommes Anna—its appearance—because you turned down the heat, worried about that whole burning your skin thing.
- The top layer browns unevenly because you're not a potato-shingling virtuoso.
- The top layer burns because you didn't manage to build the subsequent (still raw) layers rapidly enough.
- The pommes Anna looks terrible or, worse, falls apart as you rush to plate, because the specter of failure was hovering over your every move (see all of the above).
Some recipes try to circumvent these risks by building—not a cake—but something more akin to a potato crisp that is all of one or maybe two layers thick. This still involves building the layers in a hot pan, so it's still not exactly risk-free. I suppose that's one option, though I think it shortchanges the pommes Anna, which in my opinion is better when made with multiple layers, offering more substance, more textural contrast, and more “wow” factor.
A properly executed pommes Anna is, without question, stunning. It's stunning enough to fully warrant making—at least on occasion, for someone you love or at the very least want to impress with culinary flair. So, if the traditional method is too hit-or-miss, and the modified methods produce a potato cracker that isn't grand enough, what's a recipe developer to do? Welp, I guess I could rethink the technique.
Reinventing Pommes Anna: The Road to a (Near) Foolproof Method
Attempting to assemble the intricate concentric rings and multiple layers of potato in a pan over high heat was clearly a bad idea. But my first stroke of inspiration still came from tradition: the pommes Anna pan. Yes, there exists a pan just for this, and at least the linked model can be had for the low, low price of just $500 (at the time of publication). To be clear, I do not think you should buy that pan, unless you're a billionaire, in which case you should buy ten of them to use as hat boxes for your bowler collection.
The classic pommes Anna pan has straight, cylindrical sides and a flat bottom, and is roughly nine inches across. You know what else has straight sides and is roughly nine inches across? An 8-inch cake pan. I knew I wanted to get my pommes Anna away from that whole build-it-on-the-heat-on-the-stovetop thing, so why not build it in a cake pan and cook that in the oven instead? This would allow ample time to carefully build all the layers without worrying about speed or burns.
One of the challenges of the traditional pommes Anna method is nailing the timing so that the top is perfectly browned and crisp at the same time the under-layers are cooked and tender. By building the pommes Anna in a cake pan and baking it first, I could solve that problem too by separating the tenderizing and browning steps. The fully-cooked pommes Anna cake, once unmolded, could just be browned and crisped in a skillet at the very end.
Some weeks after developing this method, I became aware that I wasn't the first to land on the cake pan epiphany: Jacques Pépin had beat me to the punch by several decades, recommending a similar approach in his classic, Complete Techniques. He doesn't do the final browning step in the skillet, which I've found to be essential to getting the pommes Anna to its ultimate form, but it does goes to show that very little in this world is new, and Jacques Pépin is a legend for a reason.
Choosing and Handling the Potatoes
My alternate method was coming into focus, but I still had details to work out. First: choosing the potatoes. Here in the United States, potato options are slim. We have starchy russets, silky Yukon Golds, basic white and red potatoes, and that's more or less it most of the time. A lot of people reach for russets here, but my tests convinced me Yukon Golds are the better choice. They're silkier, which creates a more appealing texture in the interior of the potato cake, one that's more elegant and less powdery. They also have more flavor, which makes a difference in a simple, if ornate, potato cake like this.
The other thing to figure out in terms of handling the potatoes was whether to bother making the rounds perfect circles by punching them out with a round ring mold. On the one hand, it enhances the pommes Anna's appearance, and as I've made clear, appearance is a big reason to make this. On the other, stamping out the rounds is fussy and creates food waste.
I ended up writing that step into the recipe as an optional one; it's how I prepared the potatoes in the photos you see here, but there's a little trick with this as well. Much like the fake building fronts on a movie set, the potatoes in pommes Anna only need to be stamped out for the visible top layer (this is, to be clear, the bottom layer when you're building it upside down in the pan). Punching out a couple dozen potato rounds is way less of a nuisance than punching out a couple hundred of them, which is a pretty good compromise in my book. Make it shine where you can see it, don't bother where you can't.
Tips for Pommes Anna Success
Using my method, pommes anna becomes a much more doable, much more manageable, much more foolproof recipe. Still, there are some key points to keep in mind as you're making it:
- Remove water: Cooking the potatoes in a cake pan in the oven traps more moisture than in a hot skillet on the stovetop, so removing excess water is important. I do this in a couple ways. First, I don't rinse the potato slices, which is something many traditional recipes call for to remove excess starch and slow browning of that top layer; my method doesn't require it. Second, use clarified butter, which already has its water content removed. Third, lightly salt each layer of the pommes Anna as you assemble it, then press down on the assembled pommes Anna in the cake pan after letting it stand; water drawn out by the salt can then be carefully poured out and discarded so that the potato cake bakes instead of simmers.
- Compress the pommes Anna: In these photos I'm using the Chef's Press and a small lid that fit inside the 8-inch cake pan to weight it down. The Chef's Press is a versatile weight that we recommend for many recipes, but if you don't have one, you can improvise with a a lid and any oven-safe objects to add weight.
- Flip carefully: The traditional pommes Anna method requires flipping, and my method can't avoid it either. Make sure to pour off any hot fat or liquid before attempting a flip so you don't splash scaling juices on your arms, pick a plate or lid that is flat and smooth, then do it decisively. Slow flips run a higher risk of the whole thing falling apart.
- Nonstick is just fine: Here at Serious Eats we tend to call for nonstick pans in limited situations, but my testing convinced me it's a great choice here for the browning step. You can get just as crisp and brown of a crust in nonstick as you can in cast iron or carbon steel, with none of the risk of the potato cake adhering to the pan. Do those other pans work? Yes, they do, but the margin of error is smaller. They need to be perfectly seasoned and preheated sufficiently, and you need to swirl the cake more to account for hot spots typical of cast iron and carbon steel that can produce uneven browning.
Follow these tips, and you really won't need much practice at all for a pommes Anna worthy of a glossy magazine cover.