Potatoes are such mainstays in our kitchens that we hardly give them a second thought. But they’ve literally travelled the globe to get to where they are now, and we couldn’t be happier they made the trip! They’re one of the most versatile ingredients available, and can be baked, fried, mashed, steamed, boiled, roasted or grilled. While they’re usually featured as a side dish, potatoes are also delicious in soups and stews and have been known to add moisture and fluffy texture to breads and rolls.
The spud’s journey starts in Peru in the 1500s where potatoes were introduced to Spanish Conquistadors by native Incan tribes. The Spanish then carried them back to Europe, where they eventually were widely cultivated and incorporated into European cuisine. Potatoes were brought over to the United States by the colonists in the 1600s, and today, Idaho is the largest producer of potatoes in the U.S., supplying nearly 13 billion pounds annually!
There are a lot of different kinds of potatoes out there. But it’s easiest to analyze them by dividing them into three groups: floury, waxy and all-purpose. Every variety of potato fits into one of those three groups.
Floury: Everyone knows the most popular floury potato, the russet. Floury potatoes are the highest in starch content and lowest in water. That makes them the best candidate for mashed potatoes. They’re great for mashing because of the fluffy texture their high starch content gives them. That, along with low water content, makes them absorbent but still light and airy when butter and cream are mixed in. However, if they’re overworked, they’ll turn sticky and gluey. (Never, ever mash them in a food processor. Believe me: I know!) They’re also the best to use for baking and French fries.
Waxy: Waxy potatoes have the highest water content and the lowest starch content. They tend to hold their shape through cooking, and that makes them great for techniques such as roasting, steaming, pan-frying and boiling. They’re perfect for dishes like soups and salads where you want them to hold together and not fall apart. Their high water content means that waxy potatoes don’t absorb much liquid. So if you wanted to make mashed potatoes out of these guys, you’d probably be sorry. They won’t absorb cream and butter, and fluffing up isn’t in their vocabulary. Markets carry several varieties of waxy potatoes–red, white, even blue. Farmers markets and some grocery stores often carry fingerlings, which are small, finger-shaped potatoes that come in an array of colors. Waxy potatoes are identifiable by their smooth, thin skins.
All-Purpose: These potatoes have starch and water contents that fall in between waxy and floury potatoes. These can be used for every cooking purpose in the known potato world. Yukon golds are one of the most well-known all-purpose potatoes, and are a terrific pick for mashed potatoes.
Sweet: While not botanically related to potatoes, sweet potatoes and potatoes are cooked using similar techniques (ie., boiling, baking, frying, sautéing, roasting). Like potatoes, sweet potatoes are available in several varieties – garnet or jewel are deep orange and very sweet; purple sweet potatoes are drier in texture than orange varieties – and are interchangeable with each other. We like them baked, mashed or as the base for a soup or salad, but this gratin makes a special and unique side dish for practically any celebration.
Selection & Storage
Potatoes should be firm and not yield to gentle pressure. Avoid those with sprouting eyes–they’ve been in storage too long. Also avoid green potatoes. While they may look underripe, they’ve actually been exposed to too much sunlight. That causes solanine, a toxin, to develop just under the potato’s skin. You’d need to eat a lot of green potatoes to feel the effects of the solanine, but it’s best to avoid them altogether.
Potatoes should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place–think basement or pantry. Refrigeration isn’t recommended unless there isn’t a cool storage spot elsewhere. They must be well-ventilated too: baskets or paper bags are good, plastic bags are not. Avoid storing potatoes near onions because onions emit a gas that causes potatoes to spoil quickly. Also avoid freezing raw potatoes–they’ll turn mushy.