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There’s a reason potatoes were the only sustenance for millions of Irish people in the nineteenth century.  The potato is one of the only foods around that won’t leave a person with vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. They can be easily grown in a home or community garden, and are inexpensive and easy to find at any market. I bought a bag of potatoes every week when I was first on my own at nineteen, but I found cooking them perplexing. They exploded in the oven, they disappeared when I boiled them, and my hash browns never looked like the crispy wonders I could get for a dollar at my corner cafe.

Today, forty years later, I can get my whole household out of bed in the morning with the smell of pan-fried potatoes, my children love “cottage fries” with their burgers, and I can make hash browns to knock any cafe out of the water. Potatoes have revealed their secrets to me.

The Potato

photo credit: <a href="">Peter Thorin</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

There are two main kinds of white potatoes widely available. Thin skinned “new”, and thicker skinned russet. Thin-skinned potatoes come in many varieties: red, white, yellow, even purple. My favorite variety of thin-skinned potato is the Yukon. It has a golden flesh, and an almost buttery flavor. Thin skinned potatoes are good when boiled whole, roasted or pan-fried without removing the skin. Thick-skinned potatoes are the kind sold as Russets, or “Idahos”, the kind that most of us think of as baking potatoes. They can be baked, boiled, roasted or pan-fried, although for some recipes, peeling them is preferable.

Here’s a tip we learned from our friend farmer, Phil after our he showed our kids how to dig potatoes out of the ground:

Store potatoes in a mesh bag in a cool place, hanging if possible to allow air to circulate around them. Leave the dirt on them until you are ready to use them. There’s a protective barrier that is broken when this potatoes are washed which will cut down the shelf life substantially.

Baking Potatoes

Common mess up: Potato explodes

Solution: Prick the surface of the unpeeled potato with the tines of a fork or the tip of a knife to make holes for the steam to escape, before putting it in the oven.

Common mess up: Mushy, waterlogged potato

Solution: Bake potatoes at 400 to 500 degrees. I know it sounds crazy, but baking at a  higher temperature results in drier more flaky insides, a crisper skin, and concentrates the flavor. They will bake in less time then you’re probably used to—30 minutes for a small potato, 45 minutes for a large one.

Boiling potatoes

Common mess up: Potatoes fall apart or turn into mush

Solution: Boil them just until the tines of a fork slide into the flesh easily. Generally, about 25 minutes. If your potatoes are really small, they may cook in as little as 15 minutes. Remove them from the water as soon as they are tender. Put them in a bowl and cover it with a clean dish towel. Allowing the steam to release for a few minutes before serving will give you a flakier texture, and more concentrated flavor.

photo credit: <a href="">stijn</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>Pan Frying

Common mess up: Soggy hash browns

Solution: If you are cooking raw grated potatoes, you must squeeze the water out after you grate them. Put the grated potatoes in a clean dish towel, gather it together at the top, and twist to make a tight ball. Use your hands to squeeze out as much water as you can. It will surprise you how much there is! This may discolor your dish towel. I keep one or two to use specifically as “water squeezers”.

Solution two: This is my preferred method for making hash browns: Peel and parboil (meaning partially cook) your potatoes, whole, for 8 minutes. Take them out of the water and put them in a bowl of cold water to make them cool enough to handle. Grate the parboiled potatoes and cook them as you wish.

Potatoes in Casseroles

photo credit: <a href="">Giant Ginkgo</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Common mess up: Potatoes in casseroles are hard or don’t cook thoroughly

Solution: While some recipes, such as scalloped potatoes, say you can use raw sliced potatoes in a casserole, they must be sliced very thinly in order to cook properly. If you parboil your potatoes for 8 minutes before you slice them, you don’t have to slice them so thinly for them to cook evenly.

Potato Recipes

Mastering basic potato cooking techniques will give you all sorts of possibilities for meals. Here are a few of our kitchen-tested home recipes to get you started:

photo credit: Maider and Michael via photopin cc
photo credit: Peter Thorin via photopin cc
photo credit: Giant Ginkgo via photopin cc
photo credit: stijn via photopin cc