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How to cook a quick hash and make the most of the food you have on hand

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

There are plenty of sayings that make you want to roll your eyes, but “make a hash of” is one that really gets under my skin. The implication: You’ve ruined or spoiled something. You’ve messed up. I hate it, because I love a good hash.

Hash is one of the most time-honored, satisfying ways to use leftover meat and vegetables, in a way that, frankly, could be better than the original.

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“Our word ‘hash’ comes from the French word hacher, to chop,” cookbook author Steven Raichlen wrote in the Los Angeles Times back in 1997. “Hash is certainly a venerable dish. In the 14th century, English people were already making hache or hachy. The English diarist Samuel Pepys waxed grandiloquent about a rabbit hash he savored in 1662. During World War I, American GIs consumed a steady diet of corned beef hash, which they christened ‘corned Willie.’” (Canned hash became such a mainstay for enlisted men that The Post published a letter from a serviceman stationed “somewhere in New Guinea” in 1944, “urgently appealing … for a recipe for hash preparation that will both disguise its appearance and alter its taste.”)

As Raichlen notes, “hash houses” cropped up as cheap places to eat in the 19th century, as the dish was increasingly presented as an economical and nutritious, if not always boast-worthy, at-home meal. In 1935, Food editor Dorothea Duncan set the scene, in which “company unexpectedly drops in for dinner” (imagine that!) and the hostess sighs and apologizes that “we are just having hash.” Duncan saw no need for an apology and demanded respect for the humble dish. “Hash isn’t a dish to be thrown carelessly together and eaten behind closed doors when the neighbors aren’t at close enough range to smell the fragrance that is gently wafted from your kitchen to theirs,” she wrote. “It is a dish to be proud of, and one that should demand as careful preparation as any other.”

Well then! She has a point. While cooking a hash is pretty easy, a few thoughtful steps along the way can make it truly worth celebrating. Here’s some advice.

Use what you have. “Don’t ever feel like you’re limited to what you can put into a good breakfast hash,” J. Kenji López-Alt writes in “The Food Lab.” We all know the classic corned beef hash, but there’s so much more to try, and improvise. Among the sleepers he mentions: bok choy, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and asparagus. Chef-owner Nicole Jones of Alexandria’s Stomping Ground, where the vegetarian hash is the No. 1 seller, recommends thinking seasonally (snap peas in spring) and thriftily, noting that vegetable tops (carrot, turnip and beet greens) are wonderful additions. Beets are a time-honored part of New England’s red flannel hash.

Make the recipe: Red Flannel Pork Hash

Make sure your ingredients are precooked. Seeing as this is a dish designed to use leftovers, you’d think it would go without saying, but here I am as someone who has in an early morning fit of madness thrown raw potatoes into a hash without considering time. Do not do this! “When it comes time to bring it together, you’re really only heating it through,” says Jones.

Hearty vegetables, potatoes especially, need to be fully or mostly cooked before going into the skillet for the final dish if you’re looking for a quick meal. You can steam or boil diced potatoes, though in “The Food Lab,” López-Alt says to microwave 1 1/2 pounds of cubed russets first for 4 to 6 minutes.

That doesn’t mean you can’t start with raw vegetables in the skillet — you just need to cook them there first, such as with some water or broth and then covered. You can also saute some aromatics, such as bacon or onion, before adding the broth and vegetables, as in this Root Vegetable Hash. Only after the vegetables are ready should you add in the rest of your quicker-cooking or precooked ingredients and the egg on top.

Another clever trick for speeding up the process: Thinly slice the vegetables. That’s the key to success in making sure the sweet potatoes are cooked through in this 20-minute Southern Collard and Sweet Potato Hash.

Lean in on the heat. Starting with precooked ingredients lets you concentrate on warming them and, equally important, getting an enviable crust. Without having to cook off the water in raw ingredients, all the energy can go into browning and crisping the exterior. Jones favors a cast-iron skillet for hashes. The metal can withstand high heat on the burner and also retains that heat for efficient browning. If you’re worried about burning or are using a nonstick skillet, medium-high or even medium is okay.

Go for uniform-size bites. I love this tip from a 1920 article in The Post with recipes from “well-known women”: “The conditions essential to a good hash are that the vegetables shall be cut fairly fine, but not so fine that the pieces shall lose their shape or stick together — that is, the particles should drop apart readily when shaken on a fork.” Aim for getting your pieces roughly the same size to put the ingredients on a level playing field, 1/2 to 3/4 inches, though meat can be closer to 1 inch if you prefer. Here’s another advantage of precooked ingredients: You don’t have to worry about adjusting the size of the pieces to ensure different ingredients cook through at the same rate.

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Think beyond potatoes for the starch. Ingredients such as potatoes add heft and texture to a hash, but the starches they release can also bind the dish together when they mix with whatever liquid is in the skillet, whether that’s water released from quick-cooking vegetables or juices from the meat. (Many older recipes also call for milk or cream to be added to the hash to help form a thickened sauce.) Potatoes are great for this purpose, of course, but you can certainly try other ingredients, including sweet potatoes, instead of white and yellow varieties, and winter squash. At Stomping Ground, the hash features farro, which boasts a nutty flavor and chewy texture. Jones says rice, grits or couscous are fair game. Slightly undercooking the starch, Jones says, can also help them absorb juices from meat or roasted vegetables.

Harness as much of the original flavor as you can. Making sure the ingredients going into the pan taste good to begin with is key to avoiding a bland hash. Season your roasted meats and vegetables well with salt. Jones likes to roast vegetables with a good bit of char, which itself contributes flavor and ensures the natural sugars in the vegetables have come out and developed depth. Be sure to hold on to any juices released by roasting meat or vegetables, which can be added to the skillet for the final hash.

Then add complementary or contrasting flavor elements. You know what the ingredients you’re putting in taste like, so what are you going to do to make the finished dish sing? Jones relies heavily on sour flavors to pop, using champagne vinegar as part of the farro cooking liquid and incorporating lemons (preserved or sliced and roasted), citrus zest or capers into the hash. A bunch of herbs folded in at the end make “a world of difference,” she says. Turn to your spice cabinet for inspiration, too. Cumin and cinnamon are unexpected but welcome in this Sweet Potato and Andouille Hash. Stomping Ground’s rendition includes oil infused with toasted paprika for more oomph. There’s always a classic topper of a beautifully fried or poached egg, whose runny yolk brings everything together in golden glory.

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