Most of us buy potatoes based on how we’ll be cooking them, as opposed to a specific cultivar. For the ultimate mashed potatoes, you'll want starchy russets, but there are many more varieties of floury (starchy) potatoes to discover!
Floury (Starchy) Potatoes
High in starch, low in moisture and sugar content, floury potatoes are the ones you want if you’re baking, roasting, deep-frying, or mashing. There are a few telltale signs that give you a clue to the potato’s starch content. When you slice a potato, sometimes a potato slice sticks to the knife, and other times it cuts easily and falls off the blade. The ones that stick to the knife are much starchier, while the waxier ones slide off effortlessly. A more home-science way of determining starchiness is by dunking the uncut potato in a brine of salt and water (1 part salt to 10 parts water). If it sinks, it has a starchy persona; if it floats, it’s waxy.
Russet: Around 1870, Luther Burbank, an American botanist and horticulturist, introduced the granddaddy of floury types, russet potatoes, and more specifically the cultivar called Burbank. This is a late-summer-into-fall crop with a brown, almost coarse, tough skin and white, dense flesh. It is by far the most cultivated of all potato crops in the United States. Russets are harvested as late as November and store well even if not used until June of the following year. This versatile tuber is great for baking, french frying, and mashing (as they are fluffy when boiled, dried, and riced).
Yukon Gold: This hybrid, formulated in Canada, is by far the best-marketed potato in North America (named after the Yukon River in Canada and with a nod to the gold rush of the West). Gold-skinned and -fleshed, this medium-starch potato is a great multipurpose tuber that has fried, baked, and boiled its way into millions of kitchens. These potatoes are also much higher in vitamin C and potassium compared with other baking cultivars.
Purple creamer: Genetically rooted in Peru, these beautifully tinted tubers are simply known in the United States as purple potatoes. Medium in size, they have dark purple skin and deep purple flesh, which, when sliced and soaked in cold water, lightens up to a beautiful soft shade of purple (if it were a paint, it would have a froufrou name, perhaps Petulant Patagonia). Purple creamers are more readily available now in supermarkets than they once were. With medium starch and a subtle hint of chalkiness (in my opinion), they are a visually stunning presence in any recipe in which they appear. Great for roasting, baking, and in stews, purple creamers are high in antioxidants (anthocyanin to be exact) as well.
Yellow finn: No relation to tuna, these pear-shaped potatoes have a speckled light yellow skin and gold-hued flesh. Yellow Finn is a versatile cultivar, similar to Yukon Gold, but far sweeter in taste. Higher in starch, too, they work better fried, baked (love this potato in the recipe for Hasselback Potatoes with Cardamom Butter on page 192), or in casseroles. They originated in Europe but lately have gained popularity in North America.
Kennebec: Versatile and perfect for making chips, this thin-skinned potato is oval in shape with a flesh color ranging from white to a very pale yellow. It is similar to the Yukon Gold in terms of culinary use, adapting well to mashing and baking as well as boiling because of its medium starch and moisture content. As the name suggests, it is a hybrid that originated in Maine and is named after the Kennebec River.
Onaway: Named after a Michigan town, this is an oval-shaped, rough-skinned, hearty potato that is quite desirable among cultivators because of its high resistance to disease and extreme temperature. Quite prolific, multiple crops a year are common. The first time I tasted an Onaway was at an organic potato farmer’s stall in Canada. It has white flesh and a high nutrient level, and is a great baking potato. It’s an ideal mate for pot roasts and even stews.
Shepody: A 1980 cultivar that was primarily created in New Brunswick, Canada, to be the best french fry potato, this tuber was exclusively owned by McCain Foods (page 178) for a number of years. Once the ownership expired, it became available for world use. It is long in size (just right for a french fry), has smooth skin and white flesh, and is moisture-balanced and high in starch content. Because the growing season is short, multiple crops are possible in a year.
Maris Piper: One of Ireland’s own, Maris Piper is considered the largest cultivated potato in the United Kingdom. Harvested late in the summer, these potatoes are oval-shaped with a light yellow skin and high starch content. They remain the best choice for french fries in the UK. Although I found them at a farmers’ market in Canada, they are not commonly available in North America. They are comparable to the russet and Kennebec.
King Edward: Oval with shallow eyes (shallow eyes are far more desirable in the potato world than deep-set ones), light brown speckled skin that is slightly thick, and a light pinkish flesh, King Edwards are great for baking. According to the English cook and TV star Delia Smith, they are perfect for making gnocchi. A few farmers are now growing them in the United States as well although it is not a mainstay cultivar in North America. There are now pink-skinned Edwards with a white flesh, very floury and high in starch, being cultivated all over the UK.
Bonus Recipe: Ultimate Mashed Potatoes
The secret of perfect mashed potatoes lies in the right floury potato (the russet), a potato ricer, and of course indulgent fats like cream and butter. Singlehandedly the most comforting of foods (no wonder it was touted as an effective cure for hangovers), this cloud-soft fluff is the perfect bed for any and all kinds of herbs, spices, sauces, meats, and even vegetables. Serves 6
2 pounds russet potatoes
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into chunks
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) salted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea or kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely cracked black peppercorns
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh chives
1. Peel the potatoes and give them a good rinse under running water. Cut them into quarters, place them in a medium-size pan, and cover them with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and gently boil the potatoes until they fall apart quite easily when pierced with a fork, 20 to 25 minutes.
2. While the potatoes cook, pour the cream into a small saucepan and add the cream cheese, butter, salt, and peppercorns. Simmer over medium heat, uncovered whisking occasionally, until the cream bubbles, the cheese softens and becomes smooth, and the butter melts, 5 to 8 minutes. Keep the cream warm over very low heat until the potatoes are done.
3. Drain the potatoes in a colander and give it a gentle shake to remove excess water. Return the potatoes to the pan. Dry them out over low heat until the surface appears dry, stirring occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
4. Working in batches, if necessary, transfer the potatoes to a ricer and press them through into a serving bowl. (If you don’t have a ricer, use a potato masher and fluff them very thoroughly with a fork when completely mashed.) Pour the pepper-speckled cream over the potatoes and sprinkle with the chives. Fold together with a spatula just until the liquid is incorporated. Don’t overmix it.
5. Serve hot. A guaranteed crowd pleaser!
Add Ins: MASHED POTATOES AROUND THE WORLD
The cloud-soft texture of mashed russets is the perfect bed for a world of flavors. You may want to try any or all of these combinations.
Swirl 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary and 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves into the just-heated cream.
Add ½ cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves just before you fold the liquid into the potatoes.
As you boil the potatoes, add 3 or 4 large cloves garlic and a small onion, coarsely chopped. Rice them all together for an earthy base.
Toast 3 or 4 dried red chiles (such as chile de arbol; stems discarded and seeds left intact) and a tablespoon of coriander seeds in a tablespoon of oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once the chiles blacken slightly and the coriander seeds are reddish brown, 2 to 3 minutes, transfer them, oil and all, to a mortar and pound the mix to an intoxicating but simple blend. Fold this into the cream as it simmers instead of the peppercorns.
Toast a jalapeño or two over an open flame, holding them with tongs and turning them around to blister the skin on all sides. Discard the stems and add the chiles to the potatoes as they boil. Do not discard the seeds from the jalapeños; mashed potatoes are an excellent medium for modulating the heat of the capsaicin in the chiles. Rice the potatoes and chiles together for a pleasant green color and some smoky heat.
The above is excerpted from Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked--and Fried, Too!: A Celebration of Potatoes in 75 Irresistible Recipes., (c) 2016 by Raghavan Iyer. Reproduced by permission of Workman Publishing. All rights reserved.