Digging up the dirt: All you need to know about potatoes and their cookery
A potato is a potato is a potato. Or is it?
According to Rosemary Wotske of Poplar Bluff Organics, over 6,000 different varieties of potatoes have been identified in the gene bank in Peru, with more wild varieties regularly being discovered.
“There’s a tremendous amount of breeding being done, so 6,000 is probably conservative,” she adds. Having obtained her Bachelor of Science in physiology and biochemistry, a Master’s in plant genetics, and having grown potatoes for the past 35 years, Wotske knows better than anyone the diversity that exists when it comes to this staple food source. However, according to both Canadian and American statistics, only about 1/3 of potatoes grown are consumed fresh, with the remainder of crops going to processed applications like French fries.
Traditionally, potatoes have been divided into two different categories, starchy potatoes and waxy potatoes. Starchy potatoes, like Russets, have lower water and sugar content, but higher starch, as the name implies. This makes them ideal for applications in which you want the creaminess of the potatoes to shine through, or when you’re aiming for crunch. Starchy potatoes are thus great in everything from mashed potatoes to French fries, or even just a standard baked potato with all the fixings.
Waxy potatoes have the opposite makeup. They are higher in moisture and sugar, while being lower in starch, which allows them to hold their shape better throughout the cooking process. Varieties like fingerling and new potatoes all fall under the waxy category and are great for summer potato salads, or just boiled with butter. If you’re in search of something a bit different, keep an eye out for the Columba potato, a waxier variety that is excellent in potato salads, and has a buttery, almond flavour.
While this binary categorization of waxy versus starchy is typically used to classify potatoes as one or the other, Wotske cautions that the continuum between extremely waxy and extremely starchy potatoes is quite long, so you can’t treat all waxy or all starchy potatoes equally and lump them into one big category. She recommends thinking about it as more of a spectrum, with some varieties, such as Yukon Gold, falling more so in the middle, while others exist at the extremes.
Wotske attributes the lack of education and accurate information on potatoes to a couple of different factors. First, she has observed the extent to which consumers tend to make purchasing choices based on aesthetic factors over and above more practical considerations.
“I grow some varieties that don’t get commercial acceptance because they aren’t pretty,” Wotske notes. One of her favourite varieties, the Agria, came to Canada from Germany in the mid-1980s. While it has a vivid, yellow colour, its skin is lackluster and susceptible to blemishes, so it often gets overlooked. It’s a classic case of not being able to judge a book by its cover, because if you can get over the boring exterior, Wotske stands by her claim that Agrias make, “best mash you’ll ever make.” Chefs also love them for roasting, mashing, and even making gnocchi.
Another issue Wotske cites is related to consumer education. “I’ve had lots of calls over the years about people associating potato skin colour with makeup, for example, that all red potatoes have to be waxy,” she says, adding that, “Skin colour has absolutely nothing to do with texture.” She believes that the onus has to be on accurate marketing, giving consumers all of the information they need to make informed decisions about what they are eating, so they can better know what application it will be best suited for. Wotske finds it more helpful to label potatoes by their variety name so that consumers can go back and look for the same variety again, allowing their recipes to be consistent.
While all potatoes can’t be treated equally, “if you match the cooking technique to the potato you are using, you get amazing results,” Wotske states. As for the biggest faux pas she has witnessed when it comes to potato cookery, she advises against ever using Russets for potato salad. “They go to mush, and they taste like dirt, why would you inflict that on yourself?”
Be sure to try both of these potato recipes below - perfect sides for barbecue dishes, but we think they make darn good main dishes, too!