The potato is one of the most important agricultural crops in the world, ranking 5th. Long revered by ancient cultures in South America, it is believed that potatoes have been cultivated as a food source for over 2,500 years. During the Age of Exploration, the potato was valued not only as a durable food provision, but also as a medicine. Potatoes as medicine? Potatoes contain a significant amount of Vitamin C which helped to end the scourge know as scurvy. As people began to migrate from Europe to America, they brought their beloved potatoes with them. An American Horticulturalist, Luther Burbank, sought to breed a better potato, creating a stronger, more resilient variety with a better ability to ward off blight and disease. This potato is now what we know as the Russet Burbank.
So what about sweet potatoes? While not in the same botanical family, they are often prepared using identical cooking methods.
Produce 101: Potatoes — Types
There are many types of potatoes grown commercially, all are classified in a multitude of ways; size, skin color, flesh color and use. However, the two most important factors in determining which type of potato to use are the starch and moisture content.
Oblong in shape with a brown, netted skin, Russets are a high starch/low moisture potatoes, making them the best option for baking, frying and/or mashing. Russets are packed by size/weight, with a the sizing referring to the number of potatoes that will fit into a standard 50 pound case, with a small variance allowed. Russets, along with other potatoes, are assigned a quality grade as well as a sizing grade, this is based mainly on physical appearance and some specific quality indices, the two main grades are #1 and #2. When a whole potato is required for presentation, the #1 grade is the better choice, as the potatoes will be much more uniform in size and shape. However, if you’re choosing to process the potatoes, making French Fries, hash browns, mashed potatoes, etc., the #2 grade will work better and may even save you some money.
Just as the name suggests, these are a round, red skinned variety. Reds have a waxy texture and a low starch content that makes them a great choice for roasting or stewing/boiling. Because of their texture, red potatoes will remain firm throughout the cooking process. The sizing of red potatoes, and other round varieties, is based on the diameter of each potato, most commonly designated by letter, but with sometimes by a size descriptor. As with Russets, red potatoes are also assigned a quality grade, #1 and #2, and the same factors can be used to decide which grade standard is the best option.
White potatoes are not as popular in the kitchen as they once were, seemingly relegated now to making the perfect potato salad. These are medium starch potatoes, which serves as a natural, built in thickener for your potato salad recipes, but they can also be used as a boiling or mashing potato. The same sizing and quality grades as the red potato apply.
Yellow potatoes, with Yukon Gold being the most popular, are a more recent addition to the potato line-up. A great mashing potato, the golden flesh makes for a visually impactful presentation. However, the skin is rather unique and becomes very crispy when cooked using a dry cooking method such as grilling. The same sizing and quality grades as the red potato apply.
This is a very broad category, encompassing purple, fingerling and petite/marble potatoes. They offer a veritable pallet of colors, flavors and textures for any menu. With the exception of petite/marble potatoes, this category has no USDA standard. Looking for a unique mashed potato? Use the purple flesh. Want a different roasted/baked potato? Consider the fingerling. What about a twist on the traditional potato salad using the petite size? The sky is the limit with these beauties.
Produce 101: Potatoes — Storage
- Cool, dry and dark
- Avoid storing below 50 degrees F, as the potatoes will begin to convert their starch into sugar. You can store them colder, but you will need to temper the potatoes before cooking to avoid over browning
- Don’t wash prior to storage, wash just prior to cooking
- When exposed to light, potatoes undergo a reaction resulting in the formation of an alkaline compound known as Solanine. In large quantities, this can cause illness.
- If there is greening on your potatoes, either cut the green portion out or throw the potatoes out
- Sprouts are indicative that a potato is trying to grow
- Storing them in a dark cool environment minimizes this from happening
- Cut any sprouts or eyes before cooking
Check out Dan talking about Produce 101: Potatoes
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Content provided by Chef Daniel Snowden, the Director of Culinary Development for FreshPoint Central Florida. He has been in the produce industry years almost 20 years, and loves getting geeky about food. Follow FreshPoint Central Florida on Facebook and Instagram. Additional contributions by Lisa Pettineo.
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