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Picking the Perfect Potato to Mash, Bake, or Boil

mashed potatoes recipe
Ultimate Mashed Potatoes


from Fine Cooking
Issue 21

When I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm, deciding what type of potato to use was easy. He grew russets in his big vegetable garden, and that was what we used—no matter what we were making.

Today the choice isn’t so easy. There’s a huge variety of potatoes to pick from: white, yellow, red, brown, or purple; tiny as marbles or weighing up to a pound; oval, perfectly round, or long and narrow. But don’t choose a potato for its color, shape, or size alone; the most important criterion for selecting a potato is its starch content.

Starch determines a potato's purpose

Knowing the starch level of a potato can help you choose one that will bake up fluffy and light or hold its shape in a salad.

High-starch potatoes have a light, mealy texture. They’re best for baking, mashing, and french-frying. According to food scientist Harold McGee, the cells of a high-starch potato separate when cooked. That means fluffy baked potatoes and mashed potatoes that readily soak up milk and butter and hold plenty of air when whipped. But highstarch potatoes also absorb water, so they fall apart when boiled, making them not much good for salads.

Medium-starch potatoes are called all-purpose potatoes. They’re moister than high-starch potatoes and hold their shape a bit better. I like them best roasted or made into gratins. They’re superb when cut into chunks, seasoned with olive oil and garlic, wrapped in foil, and roasted in the oven or in the ashes of a low fire.

Low-starch potatoes are best for potato salads. Often called waxy potatoes, these have a more cohesive cell structure and hold their shape better than other types of potato.

Potato varieties

Russets (high starch) are the consummate Idaho “bakers.” They’re ideal for making potato pancakes, french fries, shoestring potatoes, and heavenly mashed potatoes.

Yellow Finns (medium starch) have the best flavor of the all-purpose potatoes. These golden-yellow, creamy-textured potatoes are great for gratins or roasting, and they combine beautifully with russets to make mashed potatoes or with roasted garlic as a filling for ravioli.

Purple potatoes (medium starch) have always been used in the Peruvian Andes, the ancestral home of most modern potatoes. They’re good steamed, and they make delicious potato salad, too. Or turn them into a smooth-textured purple purée.

White potatoes (medium starch) may be round or oval (called long white potatoes). Both are ideal all-purpose varieties. They’re perfect for gratins. Try boiling them just until tender and then cut them into chunks and roast them in a hot oven for tender-fleshed potatoes with irresistibly crisp skins.

Red potatoes (medium to low starch) hold their shape when boiled and sliced. Steam and butter them or use them in potato salads. These are especially attractive and delicious when “new.” Leave the tender skins on to contrast with their white interior, or peel off a spiral band of skin before cooking. Larger, more mature red potatoes tend to have a slightly higher starch content.

Yukon Golds (medium to low starch) are similar to Yellow Finns in shape and color, but they’re slightly waxier and better for steaming or boiling. They’re not the best for gratins or salads because they tend to fall apart if even slightly overcooked.

Photo: Deborah Jones

Ruby crescents (low starch) are among the many slender fingerling types. They have reddish-brown skin and fine-textured white flesh that holds its shape well—perfect for potato salads. Other fingerling varieties to look for are Russian Banana, Butterfinger, and Rose Finn Apple, with its rose-pink skin and yellow flesh that's blushed with red.

New potatoes really are new

The term “new” refers to freshly harvested, immature potatoes of any variety. Look for them in late spring or early summer, at the very beginning of the potato harvest. They have thinner skins and slightly moister flesh than more mature potatoes. Choose hard ones with almost translucent skins. New potatoes are very perishable; use them within a few days of purchase. New potatoes of any variety are delicious steamed or boiled, mixed in salads, or roasted in foil.

“Creamer” is a term used to describe any potato less than an inch in diameter. The designation refers only to size. Creamers may be new potatoes or fully mature small ones.

Pick firm potatoes and keep them in the dark

Regardless of variety, all potatoes should feel heavy and firm, never soft, wrinkled, or blemished. And try not to buy potatoes in plastic bags since it’s hard to evaluate them.

Store potatoes away from light in a place that’s cool (but not cold) and dry. New potatoes can be refrigerated for a few days, but any potato that’s stored too long at such a low temperature will take on an unpleasant sweetness as the starch converts to sugar.

Refuse to buy potatoes that show even a hint of green. They’ve been “lightstruck.” The green indicates the presence of solanine, which is produced when potatoes are exposed to light, either in the field or after harvest. This mildly poisonous alkaloid has a bitter flavor that can cause an upset stomach. If your potatoes turn green after you get them home, peel off all traces of the colored flesh before cooking.

Cook potatoes with their skins intact

Potatoes cooked in their skins will be more flavorful, hold their shape better, and absorb less water. Also, the skins come off much easier once the potatoes have been cooked.

If you must peel potatoes before they’re cooked (when making a gratin, for example), put the peeled potatoes in a bowl of water with a bit of lemon juice or vinegar to prevent them from turning brown. But remember that they’ll absorb water, so don’t leave them there too long.

Photos, except where noted: Scott Phillips


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