The holiday cook’s potato repertoire typically consists of something like this: Buy a bag of supermarket Idahos, peel them, boil them, mash them, then obliterate any remaining trace of potato flavor by adding lethal amounts of milk, butter, and salt. Happily, traditions change. Today, thanks to innovation-mad chefs and the artisanal farmers who supply them, there are hundreds of tubers to choose from, giving home cooks fields’ worth of options for doing a little innovating of their own.
Spud experts divide potatoes into three categories: starchy, waxy, and all-purpose. Starchy potatoes, such as Russets, have a high-starch and low-moisture content. That makes them well suited to mashing (they blend smoothly and absorb butter and cream well), baking (the flesh stays dry and fluffy), and frying (they crisp nicely—perfect for latkes). Waxy potatoes, such as the smooth-skinned Round Reds and Round Whites, have a high-moisture and low-starch content. That makes them best for roasting (they stay moist) and boiling (they hold their shape). All-purpose potatoes, such as Yukon Golds and Red Golds, have a nice balance of starch and moisture.
Peter Hoffman, the chef-owner of Savoy and a Greenmarket habitué, features numerous potatoes on his menu. “I particularly like the Carola or German Butterball for mashing and serving with turkey,” he says. “They’re older varieties with a full, rich flavor.” But his favorite is the South American Papa Amarilla. It has a bright yellow color and a creamy texture, and its rich, nutty flavor means you don’t have to slather it with butter, he says. When it comes to roasting, “I like fingerlings, in particular the Russian Banana and the Ozette,” Hoffman says. “They’re creamy, not grainy.” Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in upstate Roscoe grows 21 heirloom potato varieties and supplies the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Wylie Dufresne. One of Bishop’s favorite spuds is a fingerling called Ratte or La Ratte, considered la crème de la crème by the French. “It’s universally adaptable, and the best potato to boil alone and stand alone on a plate—not too starchy and not too waxy, with a creamy color and a nutty flavor,” Bishop says.
When buying potatoes, Bishop says, look for those that are firm and heavy for their size. Potatoes that are soft or have soft spots are starting to rot, and potatoes that are light are starting to dehydrate. Avoid potatoes with any green or black on their skin. Green denotes exposure to light and a sign that a bitter-tasting mild toxin has developed; black indicates a fungus. If a potato has started to sprout, which often happens in the spring, don’t buy it. The growth indicates that the potato is past its prime. Remove potatoes promptly from plastic bags when you bring them home (plastic traps moisture, which speeds rot), and keep them in a cool dark place or in an open brown bag. Potatoes should not be refrigerated or kept at a temperatures below 45 degrees. The starch will start to convert to sugar, and it takes at least ten days at room temperature to reverse the process.
Where to Buy
Mountain Sweet Berry Farm, Paffenroth Gardens, and Berried Treasures have excellent selections of specialty potatoes (all sell their products at the Union Square Greenmarket; from $1 to $4 per pound). Whole Foods markets (various locations) and Eli’s Manhattan (1411 Third Ave.; 212-717-8100) carry a wide selection of potatoes, many of them organic from local farmers (from 99 cents per pound).