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A Potato Primer: Beyond the Russet Burbank

In the Pantry

The average American consumes 124 pounds of potatoes each year. Sounds like a lot--until you consider the myriad of culinary possibilities a chef has with this humble little tuber. Whether it's baked, fried, mashed, roasted, in a salad or soup, potatoes epitomize versatility. However, their ubiquitous nature often leads chefs to forget how to breathe new life into their potato creations. Read on to learn how to take your spuds from lackluster to spectacular.

Potato Chemistry 101

Why is it that some potatoes disintegrate while boiling and others hold their shape perfectly, even when overcooked? The answer lies in a potato's starch to sugar ratio. The driest, or starchiest, potatoes (like Russet Burbank) hold up well to french fry and chip processing. If you're making a potato salad or pan-frying, however, you want a potato that is relatively moist (most red varieties are useful here). Cooking up the perfect mashed potato? Waxy spuds, with a moderate starch to sugar ratio, are the way to go (think Yukon Gold).

Fundamentals of Potato Art

Gone are the days when a plateful of potatoes demanded a snappy garnish. With the wide array of colorful varieties on the market today and carefully chosen recipes, potatoes can easily liven up any plate. Choose from deep blue and lavender to red, yellow, and (of course) white potatoes to complement your meal. Looking for a break from round and oval potatoes? Try cooking with flavorful fingerlings, a lesser-known branch of the potato family whose oblong, finger-like shape lends itself well to roasting, baking, or grilling. No matter which color or variety you choose, be sure to store your potatoes in a cool, dark place with plenty of ventilation.

Introduction to Potato Geography

If you're ready for some fresh ways of cooking up potatoes, look to international cuisine for some inspiration. Although potatoes were first cultivated over 7,000 years ago by Pre-Columbian cultures in South America, they are now a culinary staple worldwide. Consider some of the following global ideas when you want a new way to prepare potatoes:

  • Gnocchi, an Italian classic, are dumplings often made from leftover mashed potatoes. Try a simple pesto cream or brown butter sage sauce to complement this hearty comfort food.
  • Aloo Gobi, an Indian curry made with potatoes and cauliflower, makes a delicious main dish or a welcome addition to an international feast.
  • Latkes, or potato pancakes, originated in Eastern Europe and are a staple of Hanukkah celebrations. To vary the traditional latke recipe, try adding sweet potato, carrot, or zucchini.
  • Tortillas de Patata, Spanish omelets, combine potatoes, egg, and onion, and can also feature ham, fresh herbs, and a variety of vegetables.
  • Moussaka, the Greek classic, can be made with potatoes instead of eggplant and is a great choice for a dinner party or potluck.

No matter how you slice them, potatoes are an endlessly versatile ingredient. Put your culinary skills to the test as you experiment with new potato varieties and unique recipes for this culinary staple.

Sources:

Oregon State University, Variety Selection

Wisconsin Potatoes, Fun Facts

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