In the first of this three part series we discussed the history of the potato, the tragic Irish Potato Famine, guidelines for choosing and storing potatoes, and potato nutrition. We now turn our attention to the culinary characteristics of potatoes and the seemingly illimitable ways they can be cooked.
Potatoes are one of the few vegetables that are almost never eaten raw. It is subsequently fortuitous that they are amenable to virtually every cooking technique in the book. Granted, some approaches will provide better flavor than others, (deep frying vs. boiling), but the fact remains that for every method of applying heat to food, a potato could be the subject.
The first and foremost consideration when cooking potatoes is knowing which kind is most appropriate for the particular culinary application at hand. It all boils down to starch content. Here’s the bottom line: Potatoes high in starch will disintegrate easier while potatoes lower in starch will retain their structural integrity. Therefore, if you’re making mashed potatoes, a high starch potato is the ticket. High starch potatoes are also good for frying and baking. Conversely, if you’re recipe calls for the potatoes to remain somewhat firm and retain their shape, such as potato salad, potato gratin, or sautéed potatoes, a low starch, a.k.a. “waxy” potato is the way to go. With this general axiom in mind, let’s delve into the specifics.
The first distinction amongst potatoes is whether they are “early” or “new” potatoes vs. “main crop” or “old.” Both new and old potatoes can arise from any variety. New potatoes are young, less mature potatoes harvested in spring and early summer. They are thin skinned, less starchy, smaller than old potatoes, and do not keep as well. Old potatoes are larger, starchier, thicker skinned, harvested in the fall, and store well. Follow the aforementioned rule of thumb regarding starch content with new and old potatoes.
Russet or Idaho potatoes have low moisture and high starch. They are best for mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, and French fries. They can be roasted as well but some chefs prefer the waxy ones. “Idaho” potatoes are simply russets that have been grown in Idaho, the distinction being more of a marketing ploy than anything else.
Long white potatoes are thin skinned and starchy. They are best baked or fried. Small long white potatoes are known as “finger” potatoes. They are less starchy and should be treated like new potatoes.
Round white or red potatoes, also known as “boiling” potatoes are generally high in moisture and low in starch. These are the quintessential waxy potatoes. They’re better suited to boiling but can also be roasted and fried.
Yukon Golds are medium starch potatoes that have good flavor and a rich texture. Many feel they make the best mashed potatoes. They are also the potato of choice for Vichyssoise. They can be roasted, used in soups, potato salad, and gratins.
Place peeled potatoes that are not to be cooked immediately in water. Potatoes, like many other fruits and vegetables will turn brown, i.e. oxidize, when exposed to air.
When boiling potatoes, leaving them whole and in the skin, (as opposed to cutting them into chunks), reduces absorption of moisture and consequently inhibits flavor dilution. Indeed, a trick for intensifying the flavor of mashed potatoes is to cook them on low to medium heat for a few minutes after mashing them to evaporate some of the excess water. When boiling potatoes whole, start them in cold water. This will prevent the outside from overcooking by the time the inside is done. They’re finished when a knife can be inserted with mild resistance.
Some folks bake their potatoes in aluminum foil. This causes them to steam more and produces a moister potato, similar to a boiled one. If this is your goal then so be it. But for more of a baked or roasted flavor lose the foil. Poke some holes in the potato with a fork or make a slit with a knife to allow the steam to escape and then bake. Brush the outside with oil to facilitate crisping of the skin if you like. They’re done when they can be easily pierced with a fork.
For roasting, cut russets in half lengthwise and then cut each half into thirds lengthwise. Round potatoes can be quartered. Toss with olive oil, chopped rosemary, salt and pepper and roast in a 400 degree oven until done. Feel free to alter the seasoning and/or herbs to suit your taste.
The trick with French fries is frying them twice, first at a low temp and then at a high temp. Placing them in very hot oil from the get-go can cause the outside to over brown before the inside is cooked. The initial low-temp frying allows the inside to cook somewhat without obliterating the surface. Then the final frying can be done briefly at a high temp to crisp the exterior. Some chefs also recommend resting them in water beforehand to remove excess starch. In any event, cut russet potatoes into ¼ inch strips. Fry them at 300 for 2-3 minutes or until they start to turn golden. Remove them and rest them on paper towels. Turn the oil up to 375. Return the fries and cook for about one more minute or until golden brown. Very thin fries do not need to be fried twice.
Potatoes can also be sautéed or pan-fried, the difference between the two methods being merely the amount of oil. Either way, get the pan and oil very hot, add the potatoes and occasionally stir, (if diced), or flip, (if cut into long flat ovals or rounds) to evenly cook them. Finally, potatoes can even be grilled. Naturally you must cut them into relatively thin slices and then simply sear each side on the grill.
The final segment of this trilogy will present an array of potato recipes.