Potatoes are the most commonly consumed vegetable in the US today – roughly 113 pounds per person in 2010—and they’re quickly gaining popularity as the most popular food staple in the world.
Clearly, people don’t love the spud because of its looks: Eye candy it’s not, with its lumpy shape and bland coloring. Potatoes are also not super convenient to eat since they have to be cooked. But in their favor, the potato is easy to grow and produces a large yield. They’re nutritious—high in potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C, while sweet potatoes score high on vitamin A and beta-carotene. And then there’s the taste. Cooked, the vegetable is transformed from something inedible into one of life’s most delicious foods in the form of potato chips, gratins, gnocchi, hash, latkes, samosas, and pierogis. They’re used in casseroles, soups, and salads, and can be baked, boiled, fried, and steamed, just to name a few ways to prep them. And unlike so many other types of produce, potatoes are reliably good year-round (although the availability of specific varieties may be seasonally dependent).
This is a transcript from the video series Everyday Gourmet: Cooking with Vegetables. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
History of Potatoes
Potatoes, originally from South America, have spread around the world. Brought to Europe around 1570 by the Spaniards, they were originally considered an ornamental and avoided as a food crop as they are a member of the nightshade family of vegetables, many of which are poisonous. Because they are hearty and easy to grow and because they store well they became popular originally among peasants. For example, at the time of the Irish potato blight in 1845, it was common that the typical Irish peasant would have consumed between five and ten pounds of potatoes a day. Immigrants to the US from Europe brought the potato back to the North American continent.
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Potatoes should not be refrigerated or the tuber will interpret the temperature as a sign of winter and will turn starch into sugar for the plant to use as food. Too warm a storage and that signals spring and sprouting begin. Ideally, you’ll buy only what you need for immediate use, but if you do need to store potatoes, keep them in a dark, cool, and dry place such as a garage or in a well-ventilated bag or box. If your potatoes start to sprout green eyes or the skins turn green, you can either cut off the green parts or if you think spud is too far gone, just discard altogether.
When you cut up potatoes, the pieces may begin to brown; to prevent this discoloration, place them in cold water until you’re ready to prep and cook them.
Types of Potatoes
Potatoes come in two broad categories: baking potatoes are often referred to as mealy potatoes, which are high in starch and low in moisture so that when they cook the moisture is quickly absorbed by the starch and the swollen starch granules flake apart into a light, dry fluffy mass. They are best for baking, mashing and because of their low moisture, they also fry well. Examples of these potatoes include various cultivars of Russet potatoes and purple potato varieties and to a lesser extent Yukon Golds and Kennebec potatoes, which can be thought of as all-purpose potatoes.
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The other type of potato is the waxy potato, which by comparison has high moisture and lower levels of starch. Because of their higher moisture content, these potatoes are more perishable. When cooked, they stay moist and hold their shape well, but if you try to mash them they tend to get gluey and sticky. Boiling, sautéing, making potato salads and roasting are great techniques for these potatoes. Examples of these potatoes include new potatoes (harvested early in the season before the plant has matured +/-2”). Red potatoes, creamers or white potatoes, and fingerling potatoes, which take their name from their distinctive shape.
Alternate Names: Yellow
Characteristics: Smooth-skinned and a bit waxy, this now ubiquitous yellow potato were made available to the general public only in 1980. It has a light buttery color on the inside, and when cooked, the Yukon Gold becomes flaky and a bit starchy (although not as much as a russet). Use these when you’re looking to mash or shred, but they’re waxy enough that they’ll also hold their shape if cooked in a soup or stew.
Characteristics: As the name suggests, sweet potatoes are considerably sweeter than other potatoes. They’re also larger, heavier, and starchier, and like a russet, the skins are coarse and should be removed before eating. Chances are they’re being sold as “yams” in the marketplace, but that’s a misnomer. Sweet potatoes look and taste nothing like true yams, which are hard to find. Pictured above are three varieties of sweet potatoes that are marketed as “yams”: Garnet, Jewel, and Hannah. Other varieties you may find are Japanese, Beauregard, and Covington. The flesh coloring will vary depending on the type: white, bright orange, deep red-orange, and even purple. And while roasting is a great way to bring out the sweetness, steaming will render them ever so moist and tender while retaining their signature flavor.
Alternate Names: New potatoes, creamers
Characteristics: Immature potatoes—no matter if they’re red, yellow, or purple—are deemed baby, new, or creamer. Because of their small size, these potatoes are best-cooked whole—boiled, steamed, and even roasted—allowing the skins to add a colorful element to dishes.
Alternate Name: Idaho
Characteristics: Russets are very starchy potatoes that are long and wide with skins that are dark and earthy, and rough to the touch. If you cut one raw, there’s a firmness, and yet when it’s cooked, a russet will yield a light, fluffy interior. While the Idaho is not great at retaining its shape, it’s the preferred potato for frying, baking, and mashing.
Alternate Names: Red Bliss
Characteristics: Red potatoes have a smooth thin skin that makes for a striking visual contrast against the white flesh. Its skin is edible, so it’s not necessary to peel or remove it after cooking. Like many waxy varieties, red potatoes are low in starch and won’t produce a light, fluffy texture. However, they are prime candidates for boiling and roasting and work well in dishes that would benefit from a potato that holds its shape—even when sliced and diced—such as salads and gratins.
Characteristics: Just as their name suggests, fingerlings somewhat resemble fingers. Knobby, slim, firm, and short, these heirloom varieties are mainly found at farmers’ markets or specialty gourmet shops. Fingerlings have distinctive flavors, usually nutty or earthy. Pictured left are Russian Banana and French, two of the more abundant types generally available. Both happen to have a waxy yellow flesh, but the French, underneath its red exterior, can sometimes show a streak of red. Other varieties to look for include LaRatte and Purple Peruvian. Roasting keeps these diminutive, uniquely shaped potatoes intact, but they’re versatile and can be cooked any which way.
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Make the Powerful Papas Arrugadas (Wrinkled Potatoes)
Traditionally these potatoes are cooked in a large pan in. which a number of pebbles are placed at the bottom. The water is added covering the pebbles (this is optional) or about a quarter of the pan. The potatoes and the seal are then placed on top. Cover the potatoes with large cabbage leaves or a clean wet cloth
- 3 kg Potatoes small
- 200 g Sea salt
- leaves Cabbage large, to cover the pan
- Water as needed
- Cook until the potatoes are tender and with a whitish and wrinkled appearance.
- Serve with Mojo Verde con Cilantro
Make an Enchanting Green “Mojo” Sauce from the Canary Islands (Mojo Verde con Cilantro)
- 1 Garlic head small, purple, peeled 1 ea.
- 1 bundle Cilantro
- Sea salt as needed
- 100 ml Virgin olive oil
- 50 ml White wine vinegar
- 50 ml Water from boiling potatoes
- Pound in a pestle and mortar the garlic and the coriander. Pour in the olive oil, little by little, stirring constantly with the pestle. Add the vinegar and the water to dilute the mixture. Season with salt
- Serve with wrinkled potatoes or with fried fish.
If you’re using dried herbs instead of fresh herbs, use about a third as much of the dried herb as you would the fresh herb. This is because the moisture has been taken out of the dried herbs and they have shrunken, so you don’t need as much of them.