Potatoes are high in fiber content and contain quality complex carbohydrates that will fill you up but not fill you out. A medium-sized baked potato contains around 90 calories, about the same as an apple.
However, potatoes drenched in butter or smothered in gravy or the fat in the steak you eat with a potato will thicken your waist.
Potatoes can be cooked in almost every way: boiled unpeeled, boiled peeled, parboiled, steamed, mashed, smashed, baked, stuffed and baked, oven-roasted, pan-roasted, fried, deep-fried, grilled, sautéed, and puréed.
There are more than 3,000 varieties of potatoes. The potato is a perennial that is cultivated as an annual. It is a weak-stemmed plant with leaves similar in appearance to tomato leaves. The potato plant produces swollen tubers that grow underground from the plant’s roots. Potato tubers range from bite size to about a pound (0.3 kg).
Potato varieties are often categorized by their harvest time: early (late spring), midseason (summer), and late-season (fall and winter) potatoes. There are two main potato crops grown each year: one for late summer harvesting—usually called new potatoes–and the second to store for winter use—usually called mature potatoes.
Mature potatoes can remain in the ground in regions where the ground does not freeze. Potatoes that are stored in the ground are harvested before they start growing again in the spring.
Choose. Select firm, unblemished potatoes that show no sign of sprouting or green patches. Avoid potatoes that are wrinkled, cracked, soft, or spongy. Green patches on potatoes are caused by an alkaloid compound called solanine. Solanine develops when potatoes are exposed to light for long periods. Solanine can be toxic.
Choose for Cooking. Choose potatoes for the style of cooking you have in mind. Use high starch potatoes for baking, frying, and mashing. Use medium starch potatoes for steaming, baking, roasting, grilling, and au gratin dishes. Use low starch potatoes for boiling, roasting, grilling, sautés, stews, salads, and au gratin dishes.
You can determine how starchy a potato is by cutting it with a knife. If the potato clings to the knife or if the knife is coated with a creamy white substance, the potato is starchy.
Store. Potatoes should be dried or cured before they are stored. Cure potatoes for a period of 4 to 5 days at 60-70ºF (16-21°C) in high humidity; this will allow cuts and surface injuries of the tuber to “heal.” Afterward curing potatoes, store them in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area for up to 6 months.
Well-matured potatoes without defect are the best keepers. Store them in paper not plastic—which allows the moisture to escape and protects the tubers from light.
Use new potatoes within a week of purchase. Prepared or new potatoes freeze well.
Prepare. Green fleshed potatoes will be bitter and inedible. Cut out any green flesh. Cut out any “eyes” that are starting to sprout. Scrub potatoes that are to be cooked with their skin. You do not need to peel early or new potatoes. You can cook them after scrubbing.
Serve. You can boil, steam, bake, fry, mash, roast, sauté, or cook potatoes au gratin. Potatoes must be served cooked because they contain high levels of indigestible starch. That starch is converted to sugar during cooking.
- Potatoes can accompany meats, poultry, and fish. They are featured in aligot, goulash, Swiss rösti, and Irish stew. Add potatoes to soups, stews, soufflés, and omelets. Potatoes are an essential ingredient in croquettes, quenelles, and gnocchi.
- Potato starch is used in the making of pastries, cold meats, and pudding, and as a thickening agent.
- Boil new potatoes for 12 minutes with a spring of mint; drain, toss in butter, eat cold or hot in salads.
- Bake and serve a whole potato with butter and or sour cream.
- Stuff baked potatoes with tuna and spinach.
- Slice thin and sauté or grate and sauté potatoes to make hash browns.
- Cook cubed and sautéed potatoes with onion and green pepper and serve with breakfast eggs.
- Add cubed, cooked potatoes with other vegetables to an omelet or frittata.
- For light and fluffy mashed potatoes, use hot milk–not cold–or add a teaspoon of baking powder.
- Mash potatoes with another puréed vegetable such as celeriac, chestnuts, or parsnips.
- Cut potatoes into ½ inch (1.3 cm) strips, wash in cold water, drain, dry, fry until golden brown in a shallow frying basket in a pan one third full of oil at 250ºF (121ºC).
Flavor partners. Potatoes have a flavor affinity for butter, chicken, herbs, mayonnaise, olive oil, onions, pork, salads, shallots, and vinaigrette.
Season potatoes with salt, pepper, onion, garlic, dill, basil, oregano, mustard seed, caraway seed, celery seed, bay leaf, parsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme.
Serve baked potatoes topped with flavored butter or margarine, sour cream, or plain yogurt, chives, grated or melted cheese or cheese sauce, stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, white sauce, cooked bacon, ham or mushrooms or a combination of these.
Health note. When potato tubers are exposed to light, an alkaloid, solanine, forms. The amount depends on the length of exposure, intensity, and quality of light. Solanine tastes bitter, and the ingestion of large amounts of solanine can cause sickness and in extreme cases, death.
Nutrition. Potatoes are a good source of vitamins B and C and minerals—most of which are located in the skin or immediately below the skin. Potatoes are high in carbohydrates and low in sodium. A medium-sized boiled potato contains 76 calories; a larger baked potato contains 139.
Potato facts and trivia. Potatoes have been cultivated for as many as 7,000 years and they have changed history.
Potatoes were used by sixteenth century explorers to ward off scurvy as they circumvented the globe and discovered new lands. They were promoted as the “bread of the poor” in pre-revolutionary France, and the failure of the potato harvest in mid-nineteenth century Ireland started waves of immigration to Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Potatoes are native to Peru. Spanish explorers brought them from the New World to the Old World. The Spanish word for potato is papa–that is also the original Peruvian name. The word potato is a corruption of the West Indian name batata.
The popularization of the potato came at the urging of the eighteenth century French agronomist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. Parmentier persuaded Louis XVI to promote the cultivation of potatoes and introduced mashed potatoes served with butter.
Today, Parmentier is a culinary term for dishes garnished or made with potatoes.
The botanical name of the potato is Solanum tuberosum.