Because potatoes are such a staple in our kitchens, it seems hard to believe that they have a “season,” but winter is a great time for enjoying super-fresh spuds. Over 1 million acres of potatoes are planted in the United States each year, making potatoes the leading vegetable crop in the country.
Potatoes are classified as either a “starchy,” meaning the flesh is dry and fluffy when cooked, or “waxy,” which tells you that the flesh is smooth and somewhat creamy. The most common starchy potato is the brown-skinned russet (also called Idaho and baker), and it makes excellent baked potatoes, French fries and potato pancakes; russets are also the best choice for mashed potatoes because their dry interior can absorb a lot of milk and butter. However, because starchy potatoes tend to crumble when cooked, they’re not the best choice for salads or soups because they tend to fall apart during mixing. Instead, use a waxy variety, like red- or white-skinned potatoes, or one of the many heirloom varieties, like fingerlings, because they hold their shape much better.
No matter which type of potato you’re buying, look for those that are firm with no signs of softening, bruising or nicks on the skin. Also avoid potatoes that have started to sprout (indicating that they’re old) or that have a greenish tint to their skin (a sign that the potato was exposed to sunlight). Stored in a cool, dark place, potatoes will keep for several weeks. It’s not recommended, however, to store them in the refrigerator because the cold temperature causes the starches to turn to sugar and changes their cooking and flavor properties slightly.
How to make mashed potatoes is an art. With the right potato and the proper...