Its glamorous reputation as the side dish of choice at expensive steak houses is rather ironic, since the ingredients for potato gratin are certainly pretty basic and there’s not a lot of culinary technique and skill needed to make it. As a result, potato gratin is a dish that can suit any occasion – the expensive steakhouse on a Saturday night.. or your rustic kitchen table on a Wednesday evening with the family.
Potato gratin is also known in France as Pommes Dauphinoise, named after the Dauphiné region of France, which is known for gratin dishes of all kinds. We often think of gratin dishes as having a lot of cheese on top, browned under a broiler, but in actuality there is no cheese in classic Pommes Dauphinoise. The potatoes and cream bake in the oven and a light crust is formed simply by the top browning as it cooks. I love the salty flavor of Parmesan cheese and cheat a little from the classic recipe by adding it on top of the gratin in this recipe.
An important feature of a classic potato gratin is the amount of garlic in the dish. Many recipes will tell you to simply rub the inside of the gratin dish with a clove of garlic. In this recipe, I add a smashed clove of garlic to the half-and-haf and simmer them together for 15 minutes to add a little garlic flavor ever-so-delicately. Sometimes I remember to remove that clove of garlic and sometimes I completely forget and tell my guests that it’s a lucky charm for whoever finds it.
The two most important parts of this dish are 1) slicing the potatoes properly and 2) using the right pan for the job. I like to use a Yukon Gold potato when I want a gratin that has distinct slices and Russet potatoes when I want a more uniform texture to my gratin, with the potatoes melting into the cream more completely. Whichever potato you choose, use a mandolin if you have one to slice the potatoes perfectly and evenly. With even slices, the potatoes will cook evenly and that’s the first key to success.
The right pan for the job is one that is not too deep. You want the heat to surround the potato gratin properly, giving the top surface full exposure to the heat. A pan that is too deep will insulate the top of the gratin and prevent it from browning properly. The classic potato gratin dish is an oval pan like this one. It makes a spectacular presentation at the table too, which is important since you can’t transfer the whole gratin to a serving dish. If you don’t have a classic gratin dish, any shallow-sided pan will do the trick and you can portion out the potatoes onto plates before taking the plates to the table.
You see? A versatile side dish – fancy enough to serve at the finest of tables in a classic oval gratin pan… or rustic and friendly enough to serve directly onto plates. Either way, it’s always delicious!