If I were asked to name the food that best symbolizes American cuisine, I’d have to say potatoes. After all, each one of us eats an average of 135 pounds of spuds a year. If I were asked to be more specific, I’d say russets, which are by far the most popular potato in the United States. In fact, about three-quarters of the potatoes we eat are russets.
Russets are long, large, and easily recognized by their thick, rough, cork-like skin. Inside, the flesh is snowy white and very dry, almost floury. In fact, when identifying potatoes according to their starch content, russets are the standard for high-starch potatoes (often referred to as mealy potatoes), while other varieties, such as Red Bliss, are classified as low-starch, or waxy. This high starch content means low moisture and sugar levels, and this is what counts most in the kitchen. Imagine, for a moment, the perfect baked potato—always a russet. The outside jacket is dry and a little crisp. You slice it open and squeeze gently to expose the flesh inside, and there you have it, the essence of the russet—dry, fluffy, light, exceedingly thirsty and ready to drink up the butter, sour cream, crème fraîche, or whatever you choose to top it with. If you were to bake a low-starch potato, like a Red Bliss, the inside would be moist, dense, almost creamy, and certainly not dry enough to soak up much butter or sour cream.
Russets’ high-starch, low-moisture content makes them great in many dishes. They make first-rate mashed potatoes—soft and light and able to absorb an impressive amount of liquid or other enrichments. When sliced thinly, layered in a baking dish, and covered with milk and cream, russets bake up into a tender, toothsome gratin. The potatoes absorb flavor along with the liquid, so I like to infuse the cream with aromatics (like bay leaf and garlic). And finally, russets make the best french fries. Again, it’s their low moisture content. As the potato fries, what little moisture it contains gets pushed out, leaving the fry crispy outside and dry inside.
But when shouldn’t you use russets? They fall apart easily when boiled and can become waterlogged, so avoid using them for simple boiled potatoes or for potato salads. Also, they’ll absorb too much dressing if used in a salad. And though russets make delicious smooth soups (see the recipe for Creamy Potato Soup with Pancetta Croutons), it’s not a good idea to use them in any soup where you want the potatoes to stay in small, intact chunks.
Store potatoes properly
• Refrigerating russets turns their starches to sugars. Instead, store them in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place— in a paper bag in a low cupboard, for instance.
• Don’t wash russets before storing. Dampness can cause decay. Remove any rotten spots, as they’ll cause the other potatoes to spoil.
• Avoid storing russets near onions, which will cause both to spoil sooner.
Tips for better mashed potatoes
• Start the potatoes in cold water and bring to a simmer, which allows them to cook evenly.
• Simmer the potatoes gently. If they boil too violently, they’ll fall apart before they’re cooked.
• Test for doneness with a metal skewer. It’s more accurate than a knife and less damaging than a fork.
• After cooking, drain thoroughly, shaking to rid potatoes of excess water; return them to the pot over low heat and stir to dry them fully.
• The best tool for mashing is a ricer, but you can also use a food mill or a simple handheld potato masher.
• Never use a food processor to mash russets; you’ll overwork them and give them a gluey texture.
A russet by any other name
Though they’re best known as russet potatoes, these popular spuds are sometimes referred to as Idaho potatoes or baking potatoes. Other Russet varieties can be found at specialty and farmers’ markets. Look for Gold Nugget, Lemhi Russet, Russet Arcadia, Norgold, Russet Nooksack, Norkotah, and Butte. While they’ll all have the russet’s characteristic dry, fluffy texture, you can expect subtle distinctions in flavor and texture.
Most russets are harvested in the fall, then stored and sold throughout the year. A potato’s starch content is highest when first harvested. Over time, some of the starches convert to sugars, so you may find that russets bought in spring and summer aren’t quite as absorbent as they are in fall and winter.