General Description: The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a tuber in the nightshade family that comes in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes with flesh that is starchy. Potatoes were cultivated as long as 2,000 years ago at high altitudes in Peru. These early potatoes were small, knobby tubers of many colors whose bitterness could only be made palatable by special, complicated techniques used by Native Americans since antiquity. Wild potatoes continue to be eaten in the Andes and are known as papas criollas (native potatoes). The Spanish brought the potato to the Old World in the 1550s, and it spread to much of the world. Potatoes became the basic food of the Irish until they were wiped out by a fungus in the late 1830s.

There are innumerable varieties of potato, falling into several general categories. New potatoes are freshly dug potatoes that have not reached maturity and have never been kept in storage. They have thin skin and fine-textured flesh. Starchy or mealy potatoes, such as russets, are high in starch. The potato cells in starchy potatoes separate easily upon cooking. When cooked, they have a glistening appearance and a dry, fluffy texture, making them suitable for baking or mashing. They also have a low sugar content so that they will not brown excessively if deep-fried.

Waxy potatoes, such as red-skinned potatoes, are low in starch. They are smooth, creamy, and moist when cooked. The cells in these potatoes have a greater tendency to adhere, helping them to hold their shape well. This quality makes them ideal for boiling and steaming.

All Red potatoes have brilliant red skin and pink red flesh. They are very popular in potato pizzas and make for pink mashed potatoes. B potatoes are small all-purpose white or red potatoes ranging in size from 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.

Blue and purple potatoes originated in South America and until recently have not been widely cultivated elsewhere. They have a subtle nutty flavor and flesh that ranges in hue from dark blue or lavender to white.

Creamers are also called baby potatoes. These marble-sized potatoes are less than 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Fingerlings are small, thin-skinned potatoes resembling a fat finger. Most have yellow flesh with a rich, buttery texture. Fingerling potatoes are excellent for baking, roasting, grilling, and steaming. The most popular fingerling variety is the Russian Banana.

German Butterball, a medium-sized round to oblong potato from Germany, has smooth golden skin with flesh more yellow than butter. Long whites are grown primarily in California and have thin, light tan skin and a firm, creamy texture when cooked. They have a tendency to turn green when exposed to light.

Round reds are often referred to as new potatoes, red bliss, or boiling potatoes. They have rosy-red skin with dense, waxy white flesh. Round whites are grown and used most often in the eastern U.S. Medium in starch level, they have smooth, light tan skin with white flesh. Regarded as an all-purpose potato, they are creamy in texture and hold their shape well after cooking.

Russet potatoes are the most widely used potato in the U.S. Note that “Idaho Potato” is a registered trademark; the same potato grown outside Idaho must be called a russet. They have thick, netted brown skin and white flesh. Their low moisture and high starch content make them light and fluffy when cooked. They are excellent for baking, French fries, and mashing. European chefs often return home with a bag of russets, because they are unlike any European potatoes.

Yukon gold, Yellow Finn, or yellow-flesh potatoes are all golden-fleshed boiling potatoes with dense creamy texture and a naturally buttery flavor that makes them excellent for mashed potatoes. They are very popular in Europe and increasingly popular in the U.S.

Season: All Red is harvested by late August or early September. Blue and purple potatoes are most available in the fall. Fingerlings are available October through April. Russian Banana is harvested by late August or early September. German Butterball is harvested by late August or early September. Long whites are available spring through summer. New potatoes are sold from late winter or early spring through midsummer. Round red potatoes are available mostly in late summer and early fall. Russet potatoes are available year-round. Yellow-flesh potatoes are available in late summer and early fall.

Purchase: Choose potatoes that are firm, smooth, and fairly clean with few eyes and good color. All potatoes should be blemish-free. For russets look for net-textured skin, oval shape, and brown color.

Avoid: Potatoes with irregular shapes will produce more waste in peeling, and it is more economical to buy more uniform sizes. Avoid potatoes with wrinkled or wilted skin, cut surfaces, soft dark areas, or a green appearance. Potatoes should not be sprouting.

Storage: Store potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place for up to 2 weeks. Prolonged exposure to light can cause potatoes to turn green. When green, the potatoes may contain an alkaloid called solanine, which has a bitter flavor and can be toxic if eaten in quantity. Cut the green portion off and use the rest; it will be safe. Low temperatures (below 40°F) can cause the potatoes to have a sweet taste. Warmer temperatures and prolonged storage encourage sprouting and shriveling. Always trim off sprouts before using potatoes.


  1. Gently scrub potatoes with a vegetable brush or cellulose sponge under running water to clean.
  2. Peeling is optional. When peeling potatoes, use a vegetable parer to keep peelings thin and maintain nutrients close to the skin. New potatoes or potatoes with thin, colorful skins are generally not peeled.

Note: Uncooked potatoes can become discolored once pared or cut, first appearing pinkish in color, then brownish, and finally dark gray. The speed and intensity of discoloration vary with each potato. These discolored potatoes are safe to eat. The color usually disappears when the potato is cooked. To prevent cut potatoes from discoloring, immerse them in cold water until ready to use, for up to 2 hours. Some types of potatoes blacken when cooked. This discoloration appears as a blue-black area as the cooked potato cools. Any discoloration can be cut away. Some potatoes are more susceptible to this discoloration depending on the soil and climate in which the potatoes were grown.

Serving Suggestions: Bake gold or russet potatoes and serve with butter, yogurt, labneh, or sour cream and fresh chives. Make German-style potato salad with warm bacon dressing and chopped eggs, French-style potato salad with vinaigrette and fresh herbs, or American-style potato salad with mayonnaise and chopped celery. Make potato gratin, layering thinly sliced potatoes with cream, or rich stock and onions, shallots, or chopped garlic, and bake.

Flavor Affinities: Butter, chicken, herbs, mayonnaise, olive oil, onions, pork, salads, shallots, vinaigrette.

from Quirk Books: www.quirkbooks.com