It is really pretty hard to find a vegetable that is more versatile than the potato. Potatoes can be baked, boiled, mashed, fried, roasted, steamed, broiled, grilled, sautéed; they can be served whole, cubed, sliced, julienned (or cut into strips), stuffed; they can be made into salads, French fries, home fries, chips, puffs, and sticks. Potatoes are served as a side dish in some of the most elegant and expensive restaurants in the world, as well as at your local fast food joint. They can even be used to produce vodka, or to take a broken light bulb out of a socket!
The potato plant is botanically classified as Solanum tuberosum in the Solanaceae family of nightshade flowering plants, and what we commonly refer to as a potato is the tuberous root vegetable which the plant produces. Generally speaking, the starchy root vegetable is the only edible part of the plant for humans; both the flesh and skin are edible. Although sharing the same name, the potato and the sweet potato are completely different vegetables; in fact, the potato is more closely related to the tomato than the sweet potato.
The potato is believed to have originated in the Andes Mountains region of what is now Southern Peru, and has been domesticated throughout that region dating back to between 8,000 and 5,000 BC. Widely cultivated throughout South America, it was brought to Europe by both British and Spanish explorers in the late 16th century, and by the mid-18th century had become a staple crop (particularly for the poor) throughout Europe. It spread quickly to Asia and Africa and is today considered a staple food in many parts of the world.
Today, the potato is the 4th largest food crop grown in the world – behind only corn, wheat and rice – and the number one non-grain crop. Almost 400 million metric tons of potatoes are commercially grown each year with China the largest producer, followed by the European Union, India, Russia, and Ukraine. The United States is the 6th largest producer, accounting for just over 20 million tons annually; major potato producing states include Idaho and Washington (which together produce more potatoes than the rest of the states combined), Wisconsin, Oregon, North Dakota, Michigan, California, and Maine.
Depending on whom you ask, there are between 4,000 and 5,000 different cultivars of potatoes in the world today. They are commercially cultivated on every continent with the exception of Antarctica and are known to be grown in at least 159 of the 195 countries on earth. Potato plants are generally extremely adaptable and will grow in most climates and types of soil, making them among the most popular vegetables with home gardeners the world over. Potatoes are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, particularly late blight (Phytophthora infstans) which caused the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849, and resulted in over 1,000,000 deaths. Scientists and horticulturalists continue to work on more disease-resistant strains, and new cultivars are released on a regular basis.
Generally speaking, most potatoes fall into three broad culinary classifications: starchy, waxy, and all-purpose. While technically potatoes can be eaten raw they almost never are, as both the texture and flavor will be quite unpleasant to most people and the starch isn’t digested well in its raw form. Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamins B6 and C as well as calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. Some cultivars also have good levels of antioxidants.
So what are some of the most popular types of potatoes available today?
Also known as the Burbank Russet, Idaho Russet, Idaho Baker, and Netted Gem, the Russet potato is the most widely cultivated type of potato in the United States and Canada, and by some estimates account for over 70 percent of all potatoes grown in North America. The basic Russet variety, the Burbank Russet, was first developed by a Massachusetts potato farmer named Luther Burbank in the mid-1870s, and originally marketed to growers in the Western United States several years later as Burbank’s Seedling. Today, the Russet is widely cultivated throughout Idaho, Washington State, and the other major potato-producing states, as well as Europe and parts of Asia. Generally speaking, if you are eating a baked potato or French fry, you are probably eating a Russet.
Russet potatoes come in a variety of sizes and are generally among the largest of all commercially cultivated types. They will usually be elongated and cylindrical, with a rough, ‘russetted’ brown skin that can be either light or dark and will often have a few shallow ‘eyes’ here and there. The flesh is white, quite firm, and dense prior to being cooked; after cooking, the flesh will become fluffy and moist and have a slightly buttery, earthy flavor. Generally speaking, the longer the potato is cooked, the softer the flesh and the crispier the skin will become.
Classified as a starchy potato, the Russet is most often baked, fried, mashed or roasted as they will not hold their shape particularly well after cooking. Along with their use as baked and French fried side dishes, they can be used to produce fluffy mashed potatoes, chips, or sliced to produce hash browns or home fries. A relatively durable and adaptable potato, the Russet is widely grown by home gardeners throughout North America and Western Europe and will often last up to a month when stored away from direct sunlight. They should not be refrigerated.
Red potatoes are probably the most widely commercially cultivated potatoes (outside of the United States) in the world today, and one of the potato varieties first introduced to Europe from South America by the Spanish and British explorers in the 16th century. They have also been a favorite with home growers in North America and Europe for hundreds of years due to their relatively high yield and ease of growth. After centuries of cross-breeding and genetic enhancement (often to produce a particular or unique shade of red in the skin), today there are hundreds of red potato varieties widely available in markets throughout the world.
Generally speaking, red potatoes are small, round or oval, and have a thin, smooth, red skin; some varieties will have some brown specking, and a few indentations and ‘eyes’. The flesh is white, firm and crisp prior to cooking. After they are cooked, the potato takes on a waxy texture (which, of course, classifies them as a waxy type of potato) and the flesh becomes quite dense. Red potato varieties tend to have a mild and buttery flavor that is slightly sweeter than many other types.
As the potato keeps its shape after cooking, red potatoes are often boiled or steamed, and widely used in various soups and stews. They are also frequently roasted, mashed, used in gratin potato recipes, and as the main ingredient in potato salads –, particularly in the United States. Red potatoes will not last as long as some other types – including the Russet – and will usually need to be used within two weeks. Popular types of red potatoes include the Norland, Red Bliss, Colorado Red, Red Rebel, and Red Pontiac.
While various types of yellow potatoes have been (and continue to be) grown throughout Europe and North and South America for centuries, the US and Canadian yellow potato markets have been dominated for the last 25 years by the Yukon Gold variety. Developed at the Ontario Agricultural College in 1966 by agricultural scientist Gary Johnston and released to the market in 1980 after numerous improvements, the Yukon Gold is widely commercially cultivated throughout Canada and the Western and Midwestern United States. If you purchase a yellow potato at your local supermarket or farmer’s market, the odds are pretty good you are buying a Yukon Gold.
Generally, yellow potatoes (including the Yukon Gold) will be oblong and medium to large in size – although not quite as large as most Russets. They will have a smooth, thin skin that will range from golden yellow to light brown, and few if any ‘eyes’. The flesh will be varying shades of yellow and firm, waxy and moist. After cooking, yellow potatoes usually have a creamy consistency and a buttery, earthy flavor. A very versatile potato, they can be grilled, fried, mashed, boiled, and will stand up to baking better than most other waxy potato varieties. Yellow potatoes can usually be stored for up to two weeks. Along with the Yukon Gold, other popular of yellow potatoes include the Dutch Yellow and the Yellow Finn.
While they have been highly valued in their native South America (where they are sometimes referred to as ‘food of gods’) for centuries and widely used throughout Europe for decades, the purple potato is a relative newcomer to the US culinary scene. Only becoming popular (and commercially cultivated) in the US starting in the 1980s, they can still be hard to find in some parts of the country.
Very rich in antioxidants due to a high concentration of anthocyanin – which also accounts for their coloration – purple potatoes will range from small to medium in size, and will usually have a smooth to slightly russetted light to dark purple skin, depending on the variety. The flesh can be solid purple, purple with white lines running through it, or a deep violet with white marbling and will generally have a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. With most varieties, the skin will darken and the flesh will get lighter when cooked.
Purple potatoes can be classified as both a starchy and all-purpose potato, and are often baked, roasted, fried, braised, mashed and boiled. Popular uses include serving them baked or mashed as a side dish, pairing them with yellow and red potatoes for colorful potato salads, and using them in soups, stews, and gnocchi. In recent years, purple potatoes have also been used as a natural food coloring in vitamin water, ice creams, and fruit drinks. Popular varieties include the Vitilette, Purple Majesty, Purple Peruvian, Congo, and Purple Viking.
Though they have decreased significantly in popularity in North America since the introduction of the larger, hardier Russet, white potatoes are still widely cultivated throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada – particularly in the states of California, Idaho, and New York. Considered an all-purpose type, white potatoes are usually round or oblong, and will generally be quite a bit smaller than most Russets. The thin skin is usually smooth and off-white to light tan with brown speckles, while the firm flesh is usually cream to light yellow in color with a buttery, slightly sweet flavor.
As an all-purpose variety, white potatoes can be used in most culinary applications calling for potatoes, but are particularly well-suited to boiling, steaming and mashing. They are often used in soups and stews, as well as in potato salad recipes. They are also widely used in gratin dishes. As they have a natural resistance to many potato diseases and pests, they are quite popular with home growers throughout North America and Europe. Popular white potato varieties include the California White, American Giant, White Rose, and Wisconsin Pride.
Fingerlings are a catch-all phrase for a number of types of potatoes that are substantially smaller when they are fully grown than other common types of potatoes. Fingerling potatoes can be red, white, purple or yellow, will normally grow to between 1 and 3 inches in length and about an inch in diameter, and – in many cases – resemble a human finger. Some varieties of Fingerlings are naturally occurring and originated in the Andes Mountains region of Peru, while others have been developed by horticulturists through crossbreeding. Generally, Fingerling potatoes will retain the taste and texture qualities of the color potato they resemble (white, red, purple, etc.). Considered a delicacy throughout Europe, and particularly in France, Fingerlings are considered specialty potatoes in the US and can be quite hard to find, although in recent years they have been gaining in popularity. Popular varieties include the pink-skinned French Fingerling, the yellow Russian Banana, the Swedish Peanut, and the Purple Peruvian.
Sometimes confused with Fingerlings, new (also sometimes called baby) potatoes are any variety of potato that is harvested in the late spring or early summer before it has fully matured, in some cases to make room for a second potato planting. New potatoes will generally be round and about the size of a golf ball. Because they have not matured when harvested, they will normally have thinner skins, a sweeter, less starchy flavor, and a creamier texture than their fully-grown relatives. New potatoes are best suited to roasting, boiling, and steaming and will hold their shape well in stews and soups. New potatoes do not store well, and will normally need to be used within a few days of purchase.