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Potatoes - How to Make the Most of Your Tubers

Updated on November 21, 2011

Potato Love

Picture by neona via Flickr.
Picture by neona via Flickr.

Varieties seem endless!

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Photo by

The potato has existed in the Americas since time immemorial - originating in Peru as early 10,000 years ago. It's little wonder that this starchy tuber is so ingrained in cultures around the world - it's one of the first foods that humans had as - well - humans. Potatoes traveled to Europe with the Spanish sailors returning from South America, where it spread across Asia byt the 17th century. From the Irish Potato Famines to the 17Th century mini Ice Age, have affected the lives and deaths of millions on a day to day basis.

With the exception of bread, potatoes are one of the most commonly consumed foods in the Western Hemisphere. The rest of world can say the exact same thing - simply replacing bread with rice. Loaded with nutritional power: a medium potato contains vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6, as well as thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc. They contain as much dietary fiber as many whole grain breads and pastas. So there are plenty of reasons to make them a part of your everyday diet.

With over 4000 culinary varieties grown, there are really only a few which most Americans and Europeans will encounter most of the time, although more types are appearing in markets seemingly every day. For the most part these will fall into three categories, dependant on the amount of starch each type contains. These are starchy, waxy and the in-betweens. It all comes down to texture. How you cook each one depends on how much starch it contains.

There really isn't a wrong technique for cooking potatoes. They are just about the most adaptable food I know - they can be baked, fried, boiled, even grilled. They have terrific flavor on their own, yet happily absorb any additional punch you choose to give them. But there are some techniques which will give better results, and which will make you look great in the kitchen. From the simplest boiled potatoes with a little salt and butter, to an oven roasted Peruvian blue French fry with garlic aioli - the basic techniques are the same. Ready to appear Bombshell? Good. Let's do this.

Baked Potato

Photo by Texas Lady Bug29 via Flickr.
Photo by Texas Lady Bug29 via Flickr.

Twice Baked Potatoes

Photo by via Flickr
Photo by via Flickr


Not a whole lot gets better than a baked potato. They are amazing on their own, needing just a touch of butter and salt, but you can happily load them up with a host of other ingredients - scallions, chives, sour cream, yogurt, barbecue pork or beef, crab, shrimp, bacon, cheeses of all kinds, chili and chilies both - there aren't many foods which won't happily tuck into a baked potato and taste great.

Baking a potato is simple. For this you want the mealy or starchy potatoes - the classic is a Russet, also known in parts of the US as an Irish potato. Truthfully though - other varieties are good, but the classic fluffy interior and crispy skin comes from a Russet. Choose medium sized potatoes, and preheat your oven or grill (yes I bake on my grill) to 375F.

Scrub them off, and pierce the skins several times with a fork. Don't skip this step - very fresh potatoes contain a lot of moisture, which expands as it cooks. You're effectively steaming the potato from the inside out. Without venting the skin though, the potato can explode. The best you'll get is a mess to clean up - the worst is a seriously nasty burn.

Once the skin is pierced, rub the exterior of the potato with oil - the choice is yours, but remember smoke points. Olive and vegetable oils are great, and if want amazing flavor use a little bacon grease. The oils crisp the skin - and I love seeing my kids devour potatoes, skin and all. Don't worry too much about the added fat, even with bacon grease. The oils will render off almost immediately in the heat, and very little will actually be left on the potato. You will still have the lovely crispy texture and flavor though. Rub the exterior then with a good bit of kosher salt - potatoes love salt, and will absorb whatever you give them. So how much is up to you - I like to use enough to make them look almost 'sanded'.

Place the potatoes on a rack over a baking sheet, and give them 45-60 mins - the longer time if they're very large. If your oven is set to a lower temperature, add fifteen minutes for each 25F drop. That's it - that's all that you need to do.

At the end of your cooking time, you can do all kinds of things. Pop them open and serve as is, with whatever you like to dress them with. Scoop the fluffy inside out, mash it, top with cheese and bake, and you have twice baked potatoes. Cube them up and dress them and you have baked potato salads. Halve them lengthwise, scoop out the insides, brush with butter and crisp in the broiler and you have the start of potato skins better than any restaurant's appetizer menu. The fluffy, snowy exterior of a baked potato is equivalent to an artist's blank, primed canvas - and you can paint it with any flavor you choose.

Boiled Potatos with Parsley

Photo by Exhibit M via Flickr
Photo by Exhibit M via Flickr

Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Pancetta and Sage Vinaigrette

Photo by CookinCanuck via Flickr
Photo by CookinCanuck via Flickr


Boiling a potato can be a prep method all on it's own, or it can serve as a first step to other techniques. Either one works. Just about any kind of potato can be boiled, although the best results for simple texture comes from the waxier and in-between varieties. Fingerlings, reds, new potatoes, whites, Yukon golds - all of these have a lower starch content than the Russet and holds up to boiling a tad better (if you're going to mash it's less important). One note - some of the 'colored' potatoes that have begun appearing or reappearing in markets, notably the ones with black, pink or blue interiors, will often lose their bright colors when boiled. They taste great - just lose their visual 'oomph'.

The two tricks for boiling potatoes are basic - make sure the pieces you are boiling are all the same size, and make sure the water is heavily salted once it comes to a boil. Evenly sized pieces will cook at the same rate, making sure that all pieces are cooked through, without some being underdone and others turning to mush. Salting the water is more important than many realize - this is the only chance you have to make sure the interior of the potato itself is seasoned, so if you're going to have the pieces in your finished dish (vs mashing or smashing) then this is all you get. Salt until the water tastes salty - like seawater.

Like a baked potato, a boiled potato is now either ready on it's own, or ready for the next step. Serve them immediately with a sprinkling of fresh herbs, a drizzle of flavored oils, or a grating of cheese - or all three. For potato salads, for baking in a casserole or a gratin, for mashing or smashing with other ingredients, or for grilling. If you will be cooking them further, as in scalloped potatoes, or grilling them off, slightly under cook them at the boil, so they don't fall apart when cooked the second time. If you'll be serving them immediately or dressing them for a salad, boil just until for tender. Mashed potatoes have a little more leeway, and can handle a little more cooking time at the boiling stage - but don't go crazy. It's hard to drain potatoes that have disintegrated in the cooking water.

A good rule of thumb is to use pieces that have been cubed, bring them to a boil, then give them ten minute tests with a fork. They're done when there's only slight resistence to the fork. The exact time depends on how large your cubes are - and exactly which variety you're cooking.

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Photo by via Flickr.
Photo by via Flickr.

Broccoli Mashed Potatoes

Photo by terri tu via Flickr
Photo by terri tu via Flickr

Peruvian Blue Mashed Potatoes

Photo by
Photo by

Roasted Beet and Mashed Potaotes

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Photo by


Mashing isn't a cooking technique per se - the potatoes are already cooked before mashing. But since there's doubtfully a dish more beloved than mashed potatoes, I had to talk about it.

Almost any kind of potato can be mashed, but the traditional fluffy mashed potatoes come from either the mealy, starchy varieties, or the in-betweens such as Yukon golds. The texture of the potatoes once mashed depends on two things - how far they are cooked when boiled, and the mechanical means of mashing. I'm not going to get into the lump or no lump debate - people are usually firmly in one camp or another. As far as I'm concerned, they're all yummy. But I will tell you how to control whether you get the lumps or not.

So the first step in when you boil potatoes for mashing. If you like lumps, drain the water when they are just barely done. If you want smooth and silky, cook them a few minutes longer - until a fork not only pierces them, but will break them apart. All you've done here is determine the first step in texture for the finished dish.

Once they are drained, the next step in the texture quest comes with how you actually mash them. There are tons of methods - and are all good. Wooden spoons, simple potato mashers, ricers and even chinois are all used, depending on what the cook wants. For a chunky, typical 'smashed' potato - often full of additional chunky ingredients such as scallion, bacon or pancetta, and cheese - roughly smash everything together with a metal potato masher. Liquids or dairy are optional.

If you want the fluffiest, lump free mashed potatoes ever, use a potato ricer to 'rice' the cooked potatoes into the warm cream, broth, or even starchy cooking liquid. Whatever you choose to mash with. The liquid isn't as responsible for the texture as the means of mashing. If you want to go a step further and into the realm of potato puree, then a chinois is the only way to go.

See? Understanding those two points - degree of doneness and the tools - let you choose to do anything you want.

Just like in a baked potato, a mashed potato is a blank canvas. There's no reason to be limited to simply butter, cream and salt. Other vegetables are beautiful when similarly mashed and combined with potatoes. Try any of the green vegetables - broccoli, spinach and asparagus come to mind first but nothing is off limits. Puree or sautee them, and mix them in as you wish. Other root vegetables are also amazing - carrots, parsnips, turnips and beets can all be roasted, boiled or steamed and added as another puree, or a cubed addition. I personally like to use it as a vehicle for the sweetness of pureed butternut squash and pumpkin.

The more colorful your diet, the more nutritional variety you're getting. Potatoes are an awesome way to help with this. Use either the colorful potatoes - if you can find them, or use them as a means to pair up with other veggies. I won't tell you kids will love blue mashed potatoes, they may freak out - they're kids after all. But it's another option in your culinary arsenal - use it!

Fried Potatoes

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Photo by

Blue Waffle Chips

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Photo by


Frying a potato is no different than frying any other food - it's all about temperature. There are three temperatures to be concerned with when frying potatoes - whether you want chips or fries or something else - and what you want to end up with. Three. 325F. 350F. 375F. They're very specific and you need a thermometer. Period. Get one. You'll use it all the time and the success you have will skyrocket. Worth the $20 any day of the week. I don't have many hard and fast culinary rules - but this is one and I'm not budging on it.

For potato chips you're going to go middle ground - the universal deep frying temp of 350F. What type of potato is not as important here, because the texture you want will come from the method instead of the variety of potato. With that said, all kinds can be fried, but the mealy or in betweens are my preferred ones. Even sweet potatoes, which are actually yams and have a stringy texture, can be sliced and fried beautifully for chips. If it's called a potato, slice it and fry it and it'll be delicious. IF - and only if - your oil is 350F.

This will ensure the potato is cooked, crisped perfectly and browned. Lower temps will result in floppy and soggy bits, which is nasty. Higher temps will overcook them, so they'll taste burned. Stick with 350F. After that's it's easy peasy - simply fry in small batches until golden, drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt while they're still hot. You'll look like a genius.

French fries are a little more involved - whether shoestring, waffle or home-style. For this you want to use a method called blanching. It's still simple though. Start with the oil at 325F. Yes - this results in soggy potatoes - that's ok. You want it at this point - the lower temperature allows for the potato to get cooked all the way through before the outside is crisp. The end result is a fluffy, fully cooked interior and an insipid, soggy exterior. Fry them in batches, drain them and set them aside.

Enter step two - once all of your potatoes are cooked through at this lower temperature, turn up the heat under your oil until it reaches 375F. Because your potatoes are already cooked through, all you want is to crisp the exterior. This higher temperature does it beautifully - and quickly - so watch out. Fry the cooked potatoes a second time, and the result will be a perfectly cooked potato - white and fluffy on the inside, and golden brown and crispy on the outside. At the end of the second fry-time, drain and sprinkle with salt and any other seasonings. Now you know the secret. Shhh.

Roasted Potatoes with Lemon Vinaigrette

Photo by .michael.newman. via Flickr.
Photo by .michael.newman. via Flickr.


Roasting a potato is about halfway between boiling and baking. You cut them into uniform pieces, then take advantage of the dry heat of the oven to fluff the interiors and crisp the exteriors. The result is almost always fabulous.

An oven temp of 375F will give great results nearly all the time. Start with 30 minutes, and test one. The exact time of course will depend on the size of your pieces. Really small pieces won't need longer than this - roasted home fries can take 45 minutes or more. About halfway through the cooking time turn them or toss them on the sheet. Otherwise this method is as hand-off as baking.

All potatoes like to be roasted. You can season before or after or both, although they'll always greatly benefit from a toss in oil for the crust, and a sprinkle of salt for flavor. Dried herbs work well for seasoning before cooking, but hold fresh herbs until the potatoes are cooked, otherwise they can burn and taste bitter. Before cooking use an oil with a higher smoke point for helping to crisp the exterior, then use more delicate oils - walnut, truffle or virgin olive - to drizzle on as a dressing once cooked. Think of roasting as your go-to method - quick, simple and endlessly adaptable.

The one trick is not to overcook - so keep an eye on your end times. Do that and your results will be great everytime.

Steamed Potatoes with Herbed Butter

Photo by
Photo by


The difference in steaming and boiling is that with boiling the food is submerged in boiling water - while in steaming the food is suspended over boiling water. There are reasons to use both.

Boiling is fast and requires nothing more than a pot. Steaming takes a bit longer, and does require some sort of steamer or steaming insert and a lid. With steaming there's little opportunity to get flavor into the interior of the potato itself, so seasoning at the end must be more aggressive. It does however allow for the retention of far more of the nutrients in a potato - since nothing is lost to the cooking water. Otherwise, if you choose to steam, then you can proceed exactly as you would if you were boiling. It's all good!

Sweet Potato Muffin with Maple Butter

Photo by TheCookingPhotographer via Flickr.
Photo by TheCookingPhotographer via Flickr.

Baked Potato Soup

Photo by via Flickr
Photo by via Flickr

And even more...soups, purees and casseroles

I've outlines some of the more basic techniques for cooking potatoes - no matter which varieties you have. Instead of starting with a recipe and trying to find the ingredients, I hope now you'll be able to start with your ingredient and then decide how best to highlight it.

There are many more ways to work with potatoes - one of the reasons they are so widespread is because they are endlessly adaptable. You can use them in soups as an ingredient or a thickener, use them in a variety of breads in place of all or part of the flour, puree them and use them partially as you would a sauce - even use a foamer and produce amuse bouche worthy of current five star culinary trends.

But in the end what I hope is that I've given you tools with which to use this beautiful food in your everyday cooking - taking advantage of all that it has to offer. It's not going on 11 millenia of human consumption for no reason.


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