The type of potato can drastically change the final dish.
Po-tay-toes! Boil ’em, mash ’em, or stick ’em in a stew! Who doesn’t love a good potato?
But there are countless varieties of these tubers, and not all are created equal. So Samwise, which ones do you boil? Which ones do you mash? And which ones are best stuck in a stew? (We can definitely be friends if you get the reference. 😉)
There is one defining characteristic that changes how you use a potato: starch.
The amount of starch in a potato impacts the final texture and consistency you get. And that varying level of starch creates stark differences in how a potato cooks.
Here’s a summary of an explanation I first heard from Dan Souza. Potatoes are full of water and starch granules. And these granules are like balloons. 🎈 As potatoes cook, starch absorbs water and starts to swell—inflating the balloons. But eventually, they burst! 💥
Here's what you need to know:
So we can group potatoes into 3 main categories: low, medium, and high starch. It would be near impossible to categorize all potatoes out there, but I did my best to mention some of the main varieties, especially here in the US. If you aren’t seeing the type of potato found in your grocery store, just google it to find out its starch levels.
Low-Starch: Sometimes called waxy potatoes, common low-starch varieties include fingerling (like French or Kipfler), red-skinned varieties (like Red Bliss and Pontiac), Jersey Royals, Dutch Cream, and new potatoes.
What are new potatoes? Ones that aren’t old! Duh! 😉 New potatoes can be any variety. They’re just harvested in the Spring instead of the Fall. This means they will be smaller, sweeter, and have thinner skins than mature potatoes. They’re delicious. So keep your eyes peeled for them. 🥁
Medium-Starch: These are the Goldilocks of the mix. They are your all-around potatoes that can be used in just about any recipe. Common examples include Yukon Gold, Desiree, Sebago, and most blue and purple varieties.
High-Starch: Sometimes called mealy potatoes, these are probably the most “classic”. Well-known varieties include Russets (Burbank or Idaho), King Edward, and Maris Piper.
Quick note: Most varieties of sweet potatoes are higher in starch, though there are some denser varieties. I think of them as a whole different animal—a topic for another newsletter!
It depends on how you’re preparing them and what you like. Whatever you pick, the end result won’t be wrong. It will just be different.
You’re probably cooking the potatoes for a long time. So go with low-starch if you want the classic chunks of meaty potato. They hold together better!
Go with high-starch ones if (1) you want some potato bits to dissolve and thicken the soup/stew and (2) you want them to absorb more of the wonderful liquid around them.
Using low-starch potatoes you’ll get a salad with distinct chunks. It will be bound together by your dressing, but you could still separate the pieces.
If you use high-starch potatoes, they will fall apart after you’ve cooked and mixed them. You end up with a potato salad that’s on the verge of looking like a mash. Remember they will also be fantastic at absorbing all the dressing. You won’t end up with a pool of liquid at the bottom of your bowl like when you use low-starch potatoes.
The lower the starch content, the harder it is for the potatoes to crisp up. However, low-starch potatoes do end up with a delicious, creamy interior when roasted. Because they hold up better, you can also push the boundaries on how much you brown them. And more browning means more flavor! 🙌
High-starch potatoes will crisp up nicely since they have less moisture. Their crumbly nature also creates more nooks and crannies. And that extra surface area means more crispy bits! While you usually end up with a fluffy interior, it’s possible these potatoes will dry out as they cook. So be mindful of that.
You probably want to use high-starch potatoes here. You'll get a super fluffy interior. If you do use a potato with less starch, the interiors will end up waxy and sticky.
This one deserved a newsletter all to itself. Low-starch potatoes can create ultra-creamy mashed potatoes. But it takes a lot of work, plus cream and butter, to make it happen. Why? They are denser and therefore don’t mash easily. So really a medium-starch variety is your friend if you want a rich and creamy mashed potato. You can also use low-starch potatoes to make a rustic mash. It creates a fun, chunky texture.
On the other hand, high-starchers make great light and fluffy mashed potatoes. Plus, they are fantastic at absorbing cream and butter!
It’s not recommended to use low-starch potatoes when frying. You want lots of starch. Like with roasting, starch makes the potato crisp up nicely while keeping its fluffy interior.
Where did I learn this: Mostly from The Food Lab and The Science of Good Cooking. Also, Dan Souza’s video and Thomas Keller’s MasterClass.
P.S. Do you know what the most dangerous disease is for potatoes? Tuber-culosis! 😉