Back in 1998 when I signed on to co-write a potato cookbook, I did so with some trepidation. I liked potatoes well enough, but I was nervous about the possibility of spud overload. In the end, I had the opposite experience: I went from simply liking potatoes to loving them.
The process of developing all those recipes (there are 300 in the book) forced me to go beyond the realm of russets and Red Bliss to discover and appreciate other, more interesting varieties, like fingerlings (so named for their knobby, narrow shapes reminiscent of fingers) and the oh-so-cute little red, white, purple, and Yukon Gold potatoes. In addition to their charming shapes, diminutive sizes, and pretty colors, they have incredible flavor and appealing textures—and they’re increasingly available at the grocery store. If you’ve bypassed them because you weren’t quite sure how to cook them, I urge you to pick up a couple of pounds next time you’re shopping and discover just how good they can be.
Red, white, and yellow potatoes are dense and creamy and extremely versatile. With the exception of purple potatoes, most small potatoes can be classified as waxy, which means they tend to have a firm, dense, creamy texture, and they hold their shape well when cooked, making them ideal for salads and for braising, roasting, and sautéing—but not for mashing, where you want fluffier potatoes, like russets. Baby whites and reds are the creamiest of the bunch. They have a mild, sweet flavor that adapts well to just about any seasoning. Baby Yukon Golds and fingerlings are still considered waxy, but their texture is a bit drier, with a richer, fuller flavor.
I like to braise fingerlings because the simplicity of this technique shows off the potatoes’ rich flavor. I also like the way baby red and white potatoes get all creamy inside when roasted. And I use baby Yukons for the salad because their buttery flesh stands up to the sharp vinaigrette and chopped bacon. But these potatoes are so versatile, you’ll get equally satisfying results if you braise Yukon Golds, roast fingerlings, or make a salad with baby reds and whites.
Purple potatoes are drier and denser and are best roasted or sautéed. Purple potatoes (sometimes called blue potatoes), including purple Peruvian fingerlings, stand slightly apart in taste and texture. They have a nice earthy flavor, but their relatively low moisture content makes them drier, almost like a russet. This means that purple potatoes are more likely to fall apart when cooked, so you need to pay extra attention when braising or boiling them for salads. They’re at their best sautéed or roasted, because they become wonderfully crisp on the outside and dry and soft inside.
Cooking a colorful potato medley
Many cooks like to toss together two or three small potato varieties for a colorful dish. And I do, too—but with a few caveats. Baby reds, whites, and Yukon Golds all have similar textures and cooking times, so they cook beautifully together. Fingerlings, with their odd shape, tend to cook at a different rate and are best cooked alone. So are purple potatoes, which fall apart more easily when boiled or braised. Roasting is the one technique where you can mix all varieties with no worries, as they roast more or less at the same rate.
Look for heirlooms
If you shop at a farmers’ market or specialty food store, you may find an even greater variety of potatoes than the ones we use here. Lately, potato growers are expanding their offerings to include colorful varieties with winsome names like Rose Finn Apple, Butterball, Nosebag, Ozette, Ruby Crescent, and Désirée. For the most part, these new-sounding spuds are actually antique varieties (thus referred to as heirlooms) that are coming back into fashion. For cooking purposes, heirloom potatoes tend to range from small to medium, with low to medium starch content. They are perfectly suited to all the recipes here.
Are these “baby” or “new” potatoes?
Grocery stores often use the terms “baby” and “new” interchangeably when identifying small potatoes, whether red, white, yellow, or purple. But neither term is accurate. These potatoes may be diminutive, but they’re no younger than their larger counterparts. This is because every potato plant produces full-size spuds along with a few smaller ones, which are mature and fully grown, just not as big as the others. Nevertheless, we call for baby potatoes here because that’s how you’ll find them at the grocery store.
True “new” potatoes are young potatoes that have just been dug from the ground. They have paper-thin skins and are as perishable as spring onions and summer squash. About the only place you’ll find new potatoes is at a summertime farmers’ market or in your own garden. Most potatoes you find in grocery stores are harvested when they’re mature and are held in a humid place at temperatures between 45° and 60°F for about two weeks. This process, called curing, thickens their skins and heals minor bruises incurred during harvest, making them last longer.