Po-tay-to, po-ta-to

I had a question regarding my Black Truffle Scalloped Potatoes recipe – specifically what kind of potato I used. The answer is…whatever was in my pantry at the time. I know there are big differences in the world of taters – one stop by the bins in the grocery is enough to confuse even me. I know some potatoes make great home fries while others make perfect, creamy mashed potatoes.  Some types hold their shape better in potato salad and some disappear when put in chowders and stews. (As a matter of fact, I made some delicious ham and potato soup the other day that ended up completely smooth with no chunks which probably means I used the wrong potato for the job and is why I typically put potatoes in my clam or chicken/corn chowder in two stages – one in the beginning to thicken the soup and a second, diced small, added toward the end for texture.) 

Why so many differences? Which is which? And for that matter, what is a baking potato? Is a “red russet” really a russet? Is a sweet potato even a potato and what about yams? Such a simple food, yet such a complex list of questions. I decided to do a little research.

I went straight to http://www.potatoes.com/, the home of the Washington State Potato Commission, to dig into the facts (ha ha, dig…potatoes…get it?)  By the way, everyone thinks of Idaho when they think potato, but according to the WSPC, “Washington State potato growers rank first in per-acre yield of potatoes, far above other potato-producing states and countries, and 57 percent more potatoes per acre than that other potato-producing state.” Sorry Idaho…

On the potato page, I found a handy chart (see below) dividing potatoes into six main groups: russets, whites, yellows, reds, blue/purples and fingerlings (different from “new” potatoes which are actually immature regular potatoes). I likewise learned that potatoes are either “floury” or “waxy” based on the ratio of their starch components (there are two types). Floury potatoes (like russets, yellows and blue/purple varieties) are more starchy and work better in roasting, baking and mashing. Waxy potatoes (reds and fingerlings) have less starch allowing them to hold their shape better during boiling. (Whites seem to fall in the middle of the spectrum and are recommended for a wider range of uses.)

But, back to answer the questions that sent me on this tuber tour…

-According to the potato commission, whites or reds are the preferred potato for soups, potato salad, scalloped and au gratin potatoes. (I probably used russets which are the most commonly seen in the 10lb bags I usually buy.)
-Baking potatoes are plain old russet potatoes of a large and consistent size
-Reds and russets are two different varieties of potato.  ("Russet" is defined as a shade of dark brown with a red-orange tint.)   
-Although sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) come in orange, yellow, purple and white varieties, they are not a potato.  Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are in the same genus as tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and egg plants (Solanum melongena). 
-Sweet potatoes - even though the names are often interchanged - are not even remotely related to any of a wide variety of yams (genus Dioscorea).

However one slices, dices, shreads, chops, or mashes them, potatoes (peeled or not) are packed with nutrition including loads of potassium, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, zinc and more - along with a surprising amount of vitamin C - all for only 100 calories and zero fat.

Delicious, and nutritious…and diverse!  I've got to get more potatoes into my daily diet.  Hey, vodka is made from potatoes, isn’t it? 

For more information, see the following links:

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