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What Are Potatoes?
Potatoes are vegetables known as tubers, which are bulbous stems of the plant Solanum tuberosum that grow underground. Potatoes are also called “spuds,” a name they adopted after the tools used to dig them up. Potatoes are grown in a variety of colors, sizes, and shapes and are a source of potassium, fiber, and vitamin C.
3 Different Types of Potatoes
Throughout the world, there are thousands of varieties of potatoes (yet despite its name, a sweet potato is not related to potatoes). Here are a few of the most popular types used in cooking:
- Russet: The russet potato was originally hybridized in the 1870s and exploded into popularity in post-WWII America with the advent of fast-food and frozen French fries. Russets now account for 70 percent of potato sales in the United States. Russets are considered a “floury” potato with large starch granules; therefore, they are not ideal for mashing, as they will have a coarse texture. They are best for baking and frying.
- Yukon gold: Yukon gold potatoes are a “jack of all trades” potato. They are suitable for frying, baking, puréeing, and boiling, but they may not be the best in each cooking method. Yukon gold potatoes were developed in Canada in the 1960s as a hybrid of ancient Peruvian golden potato varieties. Thanks to their fine texture, dry interior, and good flavor, they quickly found favor in the chef community when they became commercially available.
- Red bliss: Red bliss potatoes, a waxy variety, have high moisture and sugar content. When roasted or fried, they brown very quickly but do not become crisp. They may be gummy when mashed and are instead best for boiling and steaming.
4 Tips for Cooking Potatoes
Potatoes are easy to work with but there are a few basic cooking tips to follow:
- Cut potatoes up if you’re in a hurry. Potatoes cook faster when cut into small pieces.
- Store raw, sliced potatoes under water. When cut and left for a bit, the flesh of potatoes can become slightly discolored from the carbohydrates reacting with the air. They’re still okay to eat, but if you want to avoid this, keep sliced potatoes in water until ready to cook.
- Boil potatoes for quicker cooking. Many potato recipes call for boiling to soften them. Always start potatoes in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil together to cook evenly.
- Pick the right potato for each recipe. Russet potatoes are starchy and fluffy, perfect for mashed potatoes. Red bliss or Yukon gold keep their shape and are better for roasting.
11 Ways to Prepare Potatoes
Potatoes are a versatile food. They can be prepared as a main course or a side dish and served any time of day—hash browns for breakfast and potato soup for dinner. Any way they’re prepared, potatoes can be topped or cooked with so many different foods. Here are 11 ways to prepare potatoes:
- Baked potato: This easy potato recipe has one step: Bake it. Pierce the potato with a fork and place it in the oven, right on the rack, at 350 °F for almost an hour, or until a fork slides into it. Cut it in half, sprinkle with salt, and melt a dab of butter on each side. Try adding your favorite toppings, like cheddar cheese and broccoli.
- Mashed potatoes: This classic comfort food pairs well with roasted meats. Cut up the potatoes and add them to a pot of cold water. Bring the pot to a boil until potatoes are soft. Drain the water and add butter and salt. Using a hand blender, whip the potatoes, adding milk or cream until you reach the desired consistency.
- Potato salad: No picnic is complete without a flavorful potato salad. Start by boiling white potatoes, like yukon gold, until tender. Peeling is optional in a potato salad. Cut into bite-sized pieces and bring to a boil. To keep them firm, don’t overcook. Then, depending on what type of potato salad you want to make, add the mixings. A classic American potato salad uses mayonnaise, eggs, salt, pepper, and herbs. For a German potato salad, use red bliss potatoes and mix with cider vinegar, mustard, bacon, and scallions.
- French fries: Deep-fried russet potatoes are a regular side at hamburger joints, dipped into ketchup or sometimes ranch dressing. French fries can also be made at home, though there’s more prep time than other potato dishes. It’s helpful to have a cooking thermometer to monitor the oil temperature while cooking. Cut a potato into sticks and soak the sticks in a bowl of cold water. Then, fry them up twice: once at 300 °F and then at 400 °F until they’re golden and crispy.
- Tater tots: These crispy potato bites are most often eaten like French fries: as a side dipped in ketchup. Soften a few peeled russet potatoes by boiling them for a few minutes. Grate them up and squeeze the excess water from them. In a bowl, mix the grated potatoes with salt, pepper, a little flour, and any herbs you want, then shape them into tater tots. Fry them up in vegetable oil until they have the golden, textured exterior ready for dipping.
- Potato pancakes: Latkes—the Yiddish word for pancakes—are a staple dish at Chanukah celebrations. Grate onions and potatoes and mix in a bowl with eggs, flour, salt, and pepper. Spoon the mixture into a pan of hot oil, flattening each pancake with a spatula, and cook until crispy. For a classic latke, serve with sour cream and applesauce.
- Roasted potatoes: Roasted potatoes are an easy recipe that leads to a hearty, savory side dish. Cut potatoes into pieces and toss with olive oil, salt, and a flavor herb, like rosemary, then lay them out on a baking sheet and roast at 475 °F until the skins are golden brown.
- Au gratin: This cheesy French potato dish has a signature presentation: Potatoes are thinly sliced, and tightly layered into rows in a baking dish. Combine with salt, black pepper, cream, and parmesan cheese, or your favorite cheese, and heat together on the stove. Once hot, pour over the pan of potatoes and bake at 425 °F for an hour.
- Scalloped potatoes: Another rich, delicious baked potato dish starts with thinly sliced white or yellow potatoes. Simmer in a pan with butter, heavy cream, tarragon, onion, and garlic. When tender, pour the scalloped potatoes into a baking dish, cooking in the oven until the top is golden brown. For one-step scalloped potatoes, try cooking it all at once in a slow cooker.
- Potato skins: Potato skins make great dinner party appetizers. A baked (or microwaved) potato is cut in half, and most of the flesh of the potato is scooped out. The remaining skins are coated with olive oil and baked until the are crispy and golden. Make loaded potato skins by topping them with sour cream, cheese, and chives.
- Gnocchi: These pillowy potato dumplings are a variation of pasta. Boil potatoes, then peel and put through a food mill. Make a dough by mixing the potatoes with flour, eggs, salt, and pepper. Shape the dough into small balls and boil for several minutes, or until they rise to the surface. Serve as you would any pasta—with tomato sauce—or make a primavera with country vegetables. Find Chef Thomas Keller's potatoe gnocchi recipe here.
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