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Pick the right potato
A guide to that special spud for that special dish
Potatoes come in many varieties, all with unique characteristics. - photo by Tom Reed

Know your potatoes

Russet: High in starch, this potato variety is suitable for baking, mashing, frying and roasting
White: These varieties have smooth, white or off-white skins and white flesh. They have less starch than russets and as a result, they work well boiled, steamed, mashed, fried, roasted, scalloped or au gratin, in soups or in salads.
Red: Waxy, round potatoes with smooth red skin and white flesh, they are lower in starch than russets or whites and are good for boiling, roasting, steaming and putting in casseroles (scalloped and au gratin), soups and salads.
Yellow: These golden-skinned potatoes are growing in popularity because of their color, creamy texture and buttery flavor. Excellent to mash, steam, bake, boil, roast or fry.
Blue/purple: These varieties have an earthy taste to them. Good for boiling, steaming, baking and heating in the microwave.
Fingerling: These small, slender potatoes are becoming all the rage at fancy restaurants. They are waxy, firm and flavorful and good for boiling, baking and steaming.

One potato, two potato, three potato — more?

When you have a hankering for some potatoes, which make for a great meal when the chill of winter takes hold, it's also good to keep in mind the best uses for whatever type you're cooking.

Depending on the starch or water content of the potato variety, some are better for boiling and roasting, while others are good for baking and frying.

Jennifer Lee, who grows herbs on her farm in Maysville, said she gets heirloom varieties from a friend and encouraged others to seek out unique varieties.

"I love the little, tiny, small varieties. They can be just so delicious cut up," she said. "You can cut them quartered or sliced and sauté them in a pan with different sweet peppers and olive oil."

But if you're lucky enough to find friends who grow their own potatoes, you're lucky. Hartwell farmer Michael McMullan said because of the potato's origins in the mountains of Peru, it is a vegetable suited for cold climates — much colder than what we experience in Georgia.

And while the yield for potatoes is about 85 percent, he said — in other words, the amount of energy put in versus the final product you pull from the ground — growing them is still tricky. In recent years the nine varieties of potatoes he grows on the fifth-generation family farm has declined to five.

Next year, McMullan said he hopes to grow some blue-hued potatoes. He's also tried Russian banana fingerling potatoes, but because they are used to growing in Siberia, the yield wasn't enough to make it viable.

But boy, were those potatoes good.

"It's described as the highest quality of culinary potato," he said. "But you cannot take something that grows near Siberia and expect for it to do exceptionally well in Georgia."

So if you're like most, headed to the grocery store for some potatoes, certain varieties are almost guaranteed to come from Idaho, said Tommy Fleetwood of the North Carolina Potato Association. But the yellow and red varieties may be grown right up the road in North Carolina.

"What we grow here in North Carolina - we have the round white; the red, which would be the red skin, white flesh; and the Yukon gold, which is sort of a yellowish skin but the flesh has a yellowish color to it, like a butter color," said Fleetwood, who is marketing supervisor for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the executive director of the potato association.

"The Yukon golds are good boiled, roasted and you can fry them," he added. "You can cook them just about any way you want to cook them."

The classic russet potato — the potato that put Idaho on the map — is pretty much used for frying or baking, he said. And in North Carolina, Frito Lay has developed its own variety of potato that it uses exclusively for all its products.

"They're really not a good potato — like, if you wanted to take one and bake it," Fleetwood said. "It really doesn't work well for that."

According to the Washington State Potato Commission, russet potatoes are suitable for baking, mashing and frying because of their high starch content. This means that during the cooking process, the potato absorbs the internal moisture as it cooks, expanding into fluffy granules that create fluffy baked potatoes.

White and yellow potatoes are good all-purpose potatoes, with low to medium starch content. With these potatoes, though, a rule of thumb for their use is to prepare them in dishes that require the potato to hold its shape through the cooking process.

But have you ever tried to make french fries out of a red potato? The result is a limp stick of a fry.

Because red potatoes have a high moisture content, it turns to steam as the potato cooks.

And new potatoes? Those are just freshly harvested, tiny potatoes of any variety, according to the Washington State Potato Commission. These are best used right after they are harvested — boiled, steamed or roasted.

McMullan agreed that yellow-skinned potatoes are good, all-around potatoes; the variety he grows is called the yellow German. He also grows red skinned and a lesser-known variety called a rose gold.

"A red potato's OK. It's just consumer demand. The yellow German is known as the brandywine (tomato) of the potato family," he said while scrubbing dirt from some fresh-picked potatoes.

But it's the rose gold that the customers seem to crave.

"It's one of only two potatoes in the world with a red outside and a yellow inside," he said. "I sell way more of those than anything else."

Which brings us to McMullan's main point: As long as you have a quality potato, it will taste good any way you cook it.

"Each potato has its own special, unique characteristics that can be used in different ways," McMullan said. "Some make a better potato salad than others, some are dryer, (some are) moister. But if you start with a good potato, it doesn't matter what your recipe is."