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Potatoes originated in the Andes of South America, where they were grown many varieties to a garden, maintaining their diversity and strength. Since European discovery, after much distrust of the potato, they soon began to be grown as a monoculture in such places as Ireland (resulting in the Potato Famine in the mid 1800s) and throughout much of Europe. Today in most countries where potatoes are grown, they continue to be treated as a monoculture crop. As such, both the diversity of the potato crop has been drastically affected, along with the need for increased use of pesticides to ensure the health of each potato crop. In more recent times, potatoes have been genetically modified to build in resistance to soil bacteria or commercial sprays and for commercial cooking preferences. Preservation of potato diversity remains of the utmost importance in a time of massive monoculture approaches to potato growing, to ensure strong genetic stock should monoculture varieties suddenly fail.
There are thousands of varieties of potatoes around the world but most consumers are only familiar with a few varieties that reach the grocery stores. Here are some of the varieties and their uses:
- Bintje: This is a potato with a pale, yellow flesh that is waxy. It's best boiled or microwaved. It's ideal for adding to potato salad.
- Bison: This potato has a red skin. It can be mashed, boiled, roasted, chipped, microwaved or fried; it's very versatile.
- Desiree (Desirée): With a yellow flesh and a pinkish skin, this potato is good for roasting, boiling and mashing.
- King Edward: The skin is usually a creamy pink colour. The flesh is floury and is best roasted, deep-fried or made into wedges. Also good for gnocchi.
- Kipfler: This potato has a longer shape. It has a yellow flesh and is fairly dry. It's ideal for adding to salads, as well as being baked or boiled.
- Nicola: Another potato with yellow flesh, this one has a buttery taste. It can be baked, boiled or mashed.
- Patrone: This potato has yellow skin and creamy flesh. It's oval in shape and is best baked or boiled.
- Pink Eye: This delicious potato has a purplish/pink skin and has a delightful waxy flesh. It's best for boiling, baking and steaming.
- Pink Fir Apple: This potato has a creamy flesh and a elongated shape. It's ideal in potato salads and can also be baked, microwaved or mashed.
- Pontiac: This potato has a pink skin and white flesh, which is floury. This potato is best deep-fried, roasted or made into wedges.
- Red Pontiac, also known as Dakota Chief, originally from the USA. Suitable for baking, boiling, mashing, roasting, in salads and microwaving.
- Purple Congo: A purple flesh and skin potato, this is a nice variation on the usual potato colours. It can be baked, added to salads, mashed, turned into chips and made into purple gnocchi or potato cakes.
- Russet (Idaho): A light pinkish skin with floury flesh. Good for most uses but not for boiling.
- Sebago: This white skin and white fleshed potato is good for baking, mashing, boiling and steaming.
Waxy and floury
For the cook, it's important to know the difference between waxy and floury:
- Waxy potatoes: These are translucent in colour. They have a high moisture content and are low in starch.
- Floury potatoes: These appear brighter and they tend to feel drier (they have a lower moisture content). They have a low sugar content and are high in starch.
Use waxy potatoes for salads, stews, roasting and boiling––they keep their shape well. However, don't use them for mashed potatoes as they don't mash well.
Use floury potatoes for mashing, baking, roasting, chips and gnocchi, where you need a more floury, fluffy texture. Floury potatoes are also best in bread. Floury potatoes tend to disintegrate if boiled.
All-purpose potatoes are potatoes that can be used in any recipe where a potato type has not been specified. Suitable all-purpose potatoes include Desiree, Nicola, Romano, Maris Piper, Pontiac, Pink Eye, Spunta, Wilja and Bintje. There are also real grotty potatoes that nobody likes.please clarify
When selecting potatoes to take home, look for:
- Firmness when touched
- No sprouts
- No blemishes
- Avoid green spots. Green on a potato indicates elevated, though not necessarily dangerous, levels of the toxin solanine.
Potatoes are best stored at room temperature. They need to be kept in the dark. Either store in a potato box or basket or keep in a paper bag. Never store in a plastic bag.
Potatoes should be scrubbed well to remove any dirt. Even if they have been washed prior to purchase, still clean them again. Cut off any eyes before using, as well as any small green parts (cut out completely). A potato that is greenish all over should not be consumed; in fact, some chefs and food experts advise not eating potatoes with any green on them.
Try to keep the skin on potatoes––most of its nutrition is just under the potato skin.
There are lots of ways to prepare potatoes, some more complicated than others. Typical methods include baked, roasted, boiled, streamed, diced and fried, shredded and fried, chips or wedges, mashed, croquettes (and other similar variants), hasselback, barbecued, and more. Cooked potatoes can also be turned in potato salad varieties, of which there are many.
Potatoes in the past
- Root Crops (NRI, 1987, 308 p.), Chapter 25
- For a good read on potatoes, see Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, the section specifically pertaining to potatoes.
- Wikipedia on potatoes - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato
- http://www.europotato.org/menu.php? - The European Cultivated Potato Database – helping to protect potato diversity
- http://varieties.potato.org.uk/menu.php? – The British Potato Variety Database