Food & Drink

When picking potatoes, it's more complicated than white or sweet

Wooden Box of Potatoes
Wooden Box of Potatoes Getty Images/Hemera

If you are preparing potatoes for dinner tonight, select carefully.

Unless you know the difference between a russet and a red-skinned potato, your mashed potatoes might not be as light and fluffy as you desire.

According to Cook's Thesaurus, a cooking encyclopedia, potatoes with a high starch content, such as russets, bake well and yield light and fluffy mashed potatoes. Those with a low starch content, such as red-skinned potatoes, hold their shape after cooking and are great for making potato salads and scalloped potatoes. Medium-starch potatoes are called all-purpose potatoes, and they'll work in most potato dishes.

The great thing about potatoes is they keep well for long periods; farmers are still selling them at the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturdays at Victorian Square.

When you take them home, store them in a cool, dark, dry, well-ventilated place. Don't refrigerate them, because doing so converts some of the potato's starch to sugar. And don't expose them to direct sunlight, which turns them green and makes them bitter. Scrape away any sprouts or green spots because those might contain a mildly toxic compound called solanine.

The farmers market often has heirloom varieties that aren't common, so ask the vendor for the best way to cook them.

At the supermarket, potatoes are often not labeled for use, so this guide will help you select the best potato for your recipes.

■ Best for baking: russet.

■ Best for potato salads, gratins and scalloped potatoes: yellow Finn, new, red-skinned, white round and purple.

■ Best for mashing: russet, Yukon gold, Caribe and purple.

■ Best for soups and chowders: Yukon gold, yellow Finn, red-skinned, white round and purple.

■ Best for pan-frying: red-skinned, white round, new and fingerling.

■ Best for french fries: russet, purple and Bintje (an heirloom Dutch variety, yellow-fleshed potato).

■ Best for purées: fingerling.

■ Best for roasting: new and Bintje.

■ Best for steaming: new and Yukon gold.

When we cooks get bored with potatoes, we often turn to sweet potatoes.

There are many varieties of sweet potatoes, and their skin color can range from white to yellow, red, purple or brown. The flesh also ranges in color from white to yellow, orange or orange-red.

Sweet potato varieties are classified as firm or soft. When cooked, those in the firm category remain firm, while soft varieties become soft and moist. It is the soft varieties that are often labeled as yams in the United States. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams are starchier and drier.

According to the Library of Congress Web site, firm varieties of sweet potatoes were produced before soft varieties in the United States. When soft varieties were first grown commercially, there was a need to differentiate between the two. African slaves had been calling the soft sweet potatoes yams because they resembled the yams in Africa. Thus, soft sweet potatoes were referred to as yams to distinguish them from the firm varieties.

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term yam to be accompanied by the term sweet potato. Unless you specifically search for yams, which usually are found in an international market, you probably are eating sweet potatoes.

Most sweet potatoes are sold loose in bins and often are not marked according to variety. The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission says we can identify them by color.

■ Covington: A favorite for mashing or roasting, it has rose-colored skin and super-sweet orange flesh.

■ O'Henry: It has a pale copper skin, and its white flesh is sweet and creamy, ideal for soups and stews.

■ Japanese: It has red skin and dry, white flesh, and it is best roasted.

Here are recipes to help jazz up your potato offerings.


Lemony smashed potatoes

3 pounds small red new potatoes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

Coarse salt and ground pepper

Set a steamer basket in a saucepan with 1 inch simmering water. Add potatoes, cover, and cook until potatoes are easily pierced with a paring knife, about 25 minutes. Lightly smash potatoes, toss with oil and lemon zest, and season with salt and pepper.

From Martha Stewart

Roasted fingerlings and green beans

11/2 pounds fingerling potatoes (see note)

11/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon salt, divided

3/4 teaspoon cracked pepper, divided

1/2 pound tiny green beans (haricots verts)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut fingerlings in half lengthwise, and place in a large bowl. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Place potato halves, cut sides up, in a jelly-roll pan. Toss green beans with remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and place in another jelly-roll pan. Bake potatoes for 30 to 32 minutes, or until tender and browned. Remove from oven, and let potatoes stand in pan.

Bake green beans for 12 minutes. Arrange green beans around roasted potatoes on a serving platter. Drizzle with a creamy tarragon dressing.

Note: For potatoes, 11/2 pounds small red potatoes, halved, may be substituted, with a bake time of 35 minutes; 11/2 pounds russet potatoes, quartered, also may be substituted, with a bake time of 40 minutes.

From Southern Living

Sweet potato and cabbage slaw

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon lime juice

11/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups coarsely grated peeled sweet potato, (about 1 large)

3 cups thinly shredded Napa or Savoy cabbage

4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon finely minced serrano or jalapeño pepper with seeds (optional)

Whisk canola oil, lime juice, sesame oil and salt in a large bowl. Add sweet potato, cabbage, scallions and serrano or jalapeño, if using; toss to combine. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: Refrigerate dressing and slaw separately for no more than 1 day; toss together just before serving.

From Eating Well

Maple roasted sweet potato medley

1 pound sweet potatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds

2½ cups cauliflower florets (about 1 head)

9 ounces Brussels sprouts, halved (about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt

1⁄8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On rimmed baking pan, evenly scatter sweet potatoes, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. In small microwavable bowl, place butter, maple syrup, salt and pepper; microwave until butter is melted. Pour over vegetables; stir. Cook in oven until tender, about 40 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Makes about 5 cups.

From North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission

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