From Scratch: Potato Primer

October 6, 2011

Potato and Grater
Photo by Sarah Shatz

Not all potatoes are created equally. They come in thousands of sizes, shapes, and colors, each of which has its own texture, taste, and cooking characteristics. The best way to sort out how to cook a spud is to determine its starch content. Once you know whether a potato is starchy or waxy, you can decide whether it’s better for salad or soup, smashing or roasting.

Potato starch litmus test

  1. Slice the potato in half.
  2. Does the knife cling to the potato like a bad ex? If it has separation anxiety, it's higher in starch.
  3. Check your knife blade for white film. If you see it, you've got yourself one starchy guy.
  4. If your knife slips easily through the potato, it's low in starch. Don't worry -- it will score high marks in other tests (like the taste one).

High-starch potatoes

  • Fluffy, dry, and mealy texture when cooked.
  • Perfect for classic baked potatoes, luxuriously creamy mashed potatoes, and tender potato gratins.
  • Able to absorb plenty of milk, cream, and butter. 
  • Collapse and fall apart when cooked, especially when simmered in liquid, making them the perfect choice when you want a creamy, smooth potato-based soup. 
  • Great for French fries -- light, dry interior contrasts with the satisfying, crispy exterior of the ideal fry. 
  • Varieties to look for: Russet, German Butterball, Idaho, Long White.

Medium-starch potatoes

  • All-purpose potatoes
  • Enough starch to make fluffy mashed potatoes, but require less liquid (and fat) than high-starch. 
  • Hold their shape better than high-starch when cooked, making them a good choice for salads, roasting, and sautéing. 
  • Excellent for potato gratins, their medium-starch content allows them to absorb enough liquid to become tender but not so much as to lose their shape and texture. 
  • Varieties to look for: Yukon Gold, Peruvian, Yellow Finn.

Low-starch potatoes

  • Firm, dense texture with thin skin.
  • Hold their shape when cooked, so suited to boiling, steaming, roasting, salads, and sautéing.
  • Low-starch potatoes are a good choice for chowders and other soups that require chunks of potatoes to retain their shape. 
  • Often referred to as "waxy" potatoes, they have a smooth, almost slippery texture when cooked. 
  • Varieties to look for: Red Creamer, Ruby Crescent, and new potatoes in general.

Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese A Medley of Roasted Potatoes with Homemade Za'atar & Aleppo Pepper
Photos by Sarah Shatz

Some of our favorite potato recipes:

Roasted Swiss Chard and Potato Cake
Potato Galette
Lemon Herb Pesto Potato Salad
Potato and Leek Soup with Brie Croutons
A Medley of Roasted Potatoes with Homemade Za'atar & Aleppo Pepper (pictured above, right)
Mashed Potatoes with Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese (pictured above, left)

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Perfecting Pilaf.

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