Americans enjoy potatoes in all sorts of ways: boiled, mashed, roasted… fried, baked, twice baked. Indeed, there are hundreds of varieties around the world to meet the demand—but knowing which spud to use when isn’t always obvious. Here’s a guide to help you identify the most popular varieties, as well as suggestions for preparations in which they’ll shine.
You’ll see, for example, that Idahos are best for smooth, lump-free mashed potatoes, thanks to their large starch granules that swell up and become light and fluffy when cooked. But be warned: If you boil Idahos vigorously, they fall apart—good for thickening soups, not so good when you’re making potato salad. The easiest way to tell if a potato is starchy, and therefore eminently mashable, is to cut it in half with a large chef’s knife. If it sticks to the blade, it’s high in starch. If it falls away and doesn’t leave any milky residue on the blade, you have a low-starcher, better for home fries, salad, or boiling. When selecting a potato, choose one that’s firm when squeezed and heavy for its size—a sign that it hasn’t dehydrated and is fresh. Pass on potatoes that are cracked, blemished, sprouted, or tinged with green. And select carefully: you may see red or white boiling potatoes mismarketed as “new potatoes,” but genuine new potatoes are freshly dug, usually in early spring, and have thin skins. Sweet potatoes, which are high in vitamins A and C, can act as a healthy substitute for white potatoes in a number of standard dishes, such as stews, casseroles, and curries.
Illustrations by Sarah Ferone