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What Are Potatoes?
Potatoes are the tubers (large underground storage stems) of Solanum tuberosum, a nightshade plant native to the Andes Mountains, where they’ve been cultivated for about 8,000 years. A member of the same family as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, potato plants also produce flowers, leaves, and poisonous berries. (Sweet potatoes come from an entirely different species, Ipomoea batatas.)
Mature potatoes are harvested in the fall by killing the above-ground part of the plant and leaving the potatoes in the soil for a few weeks to thicken their skins. You’ll only find a fraction of the 200-plus potato varieties at your local market, but that’s still enough to make choosing the right variety confusing.
Watch Chef Thomas Keller break down some of the more common varieties here.
Are Potatoes Healthy?
Often derided for their high carbohydrate content (actually only about 37 grams per potato, or 12 percent of the recommended daily value), potatoes are actually pretty nutritious. One potato contains about 70 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C and has more potassium than a banana. Potatoes are high in vitamins such as vitamin B6, vitamin B1 (thiamin), and vitamin B3 (niacin).
What's the Difference Between Starchy and Waxy Potatoes?
To help make sense of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes, they’re often broken down into categories based on their texture post-cooking. The way a potato cooks is determined both by the type of starch it contains (amylose or amylopectin) and its solids content (i.e. how much dry matter, versus water, it contains). Amylose makes potatoes floury after cooking, while amylopectin keeps them firm. And the higher a potato's solids-to-water ratio, the drier its texture will be. These factors come together to place potatoes on a spectrum from starchy to waxy, with in-between potatoes categorized as all-purpose. No potato fits into these categories perfectly, but it’s a useful way to determine the best potatoes to use for different applications.
- Starchy potatoes, also called mealy, are high in solids and amylose starch and low in moisture. When cooked, the cells in starchy potatoes separate from each other, creating a fluffy, floury, falling-apart texture that can become gluey if overworked. The most famous starchy potato is the Russet: good for baked potatoes, french fries, hash browns, and latkes.
- Waxy potatoes are high in moisture, low in starch, and retain their shape after cooking. They tend to have thin skin and a higher proportion of amylopectin starch. When cooked, the cells in waxy potatoes come together, creating a dense, moist texture that’s good for gratins, potato salads, and soups. New potatoes are a classic waxy variety.
- All-purpose potatoes have medium levels of starch and are somewhere between starchy and waxy, a lot like a Yukon Gold potato.
12 Different Types of Potatoes and Their Best Uses
- Red Bliss: One of the most commonly available red-skinned varieties, Red Bliss potatoes have moist, white flesh with a high sugar content. They’re usually classified as waxy and can turn gummy when used for mashed potatoes. Red Bliss potatoes are ideal for boiling and will not crisp when fried or roasted. Chef Thomas Keller likes to boil Red Bliss potatoes alongside Yukon Golds for his authentic German potato salad, or to roast them with chicken.
- Russet (aka Burbank or Idaho): Large, oblong Russets have rough, spotty brown skin and white flesh. Hybridized in the 1870s, Russet potatoes became popular as a source for fast food french fries, and now make up about 70 percent of United States potato sales. The classic example of a starchy white potato, Russets are high in amylose and become mealy and dry when cooked. They’re ideal for baked potatoes because their skins become crispy when baked, and their flesh easily absorbs butter and sour cream. Steam Russets for Chef Keller’s perfect potato gnocchi recipe.
- La Ratte: This French heirloom fingerling variety is very dense and holds a lot of fat, which is why it’s Chef Keller’s favorite potato to use for puréed potatoes. La Rattes have thin golden skin and waxy yellow flesh that holds its shape when cooked, making them good for roasting, as well. They have a buttery, hazelnutty flavor.
- Yukon Gold: Yukon Golds were developed in the ’60s and named after the Yukon River in Canada. They’re very high in vitamin C, with firm, dry, fine-textured flesh high in amylopectin. Chef Keller uses Yukon Golds in his potato rösti recipe and says they’re the next best thing to La Rattes for puréeing and mashing.
- Kennebec: One of the most common varieties in the US, lumpy Kennebecs were developed in the 1940s. They have thin, tan skin with brown spots and white flesh that’s high in amylopectin. They’re all-purpose potatoes that maintain their shape when cooked, making them good for fries, potato chips, and hash browns.
- Cranberry Red (aka All-Red): These medium-size potatoes have red skin with tan webbing and pink flesh that’s soft and moist due to a high amylose content. They’re good all-purpose potatoes for steaming and sautéing, with an earthy, nutty flavor and creamy texture. Use Cranberry Reds in scalloped potatoes, ratatouille, potato salad, soups, stews, and curries.
- All Blue: Long potatoes with dark blue skin and blue flesh, try sautéing All Blues for frittatas, baking into a gratin, or boiling for colorful potato salad.
- Red Thumb: With thin red skin and pink flesh, waxy Red Thumbs are considered the least starchy variety of fingerling potato, and the sweetest. Try them in red potato salad or roasted with rosemary and whole garlic cloves.
- Russian Banana: One of the most popular fingerlings, Russian Bananas have yellow skin and flesh that’s very waxy and moist. They’re great roasted and smashed.
- German Butterball: Medium potatoes with golden, smooth skin and yellow tender flesh, German Butterballs are beloved for their rich, buttery flavor. They’re versatile potatoes that can be steamed, baked, fried, or mashed.
- Purple Majesty: One of the most flavorful blue potatoes, Purple Majesty is a medium-size potato with smooth, dark blue skin and purple flesh that’s high in antioxidants. These all-purpose potatoes remain firm and moist after cooking, making them a good choice for chips.
- New Potatoes: Potatoes are typically harvested in the fall and “cured” underground for a few weeks to extend their shelf life, but almost any variety of potato can be harvested in the spring while young, small, and waxy. New potatoes are more perishable than mature potatoes, and typically only available at farmers’ markets. If you’re lucky enough to find some, try making Gordon Ramsay’s rack of lamb with new potatoes.
Find more culinary techniques in Chef Thomas Keller’s MasterClass.