The variety of potatoes in the farmers market and grocery store is enough to make a cook wonder what's what.
Potatoes originated in Peru, with an incredible array of them available there and in neighboring countries such as Ecuador. But they have been adaptable enough to be grown in many parts of the United States.
No longer is the Idaho ubiquitous. Nor is the little red potato always called "new" and the best potato for mashing the Russet.
In fact, the baked potato has fallen into some disfavor, with the fingerlings (many grown in Idaho) and "creamers" surging in popularity because they are such a quick fix and, when roasted, appeal to the urge for "crispy" without being fried. They also are delicious eaten as snacks, particularly the teeny creamers, boiled and kept in a low-calorie marinade in the fridge.
Many of the newly available varieties now fall into the category of "all purpose" as they can be used in multiple ways, so the cook can switch gears depending on the meal. Their names range from Russian Banana for a buttery-tasting fingerling to a Purple Peruvian. No one can think of them as "white" anymore, with their rainbow of colors.
As for often misnamed "new" potatoes, they are classified by their storage length. They are newly dug up, thin-skinned babies, low in starch and best steamed or roasted.
Some things are still the same: Their skins are nutritious, so they are healthier when served with them, and there are still three categories of potatoes, each with different cooking preferences. Here's a handy cooking chart by my intern from Johnson & Wales cooking school, Bea Shaffer.
Baking potatoes are starchier, drier potatoes that are usually long as opposed to round, with a rough, brownish exterior.
They are higher in starch than boiling potatoes and are light and fluffier after being baked, mashed or fried.
Baking potatoes are larger, brown potatoes with a relatively rough surface. Knobby, tuber-shaped Russets are a very popular variety, as well as Idahos, which tend to be long and skinny. Bakers are low in moisture and high in starch, which results in a light, fluffy texture whether baking, frying or mashing. They tend to crumble when boiled, which also is advantageous for thickening soups and stews -- a lighter approach than adding cream.
Recipe ideas: Whipped/mashed/riced potatoes, potatoes Anna, french fries, simple baked potato with various toppings.
Boiling potatoes are waxier and tend to be smaller and more round, as in round whites and round reds. They are high in sugar and moisture, and low in starch.
The waxy texture is caused by amylopection, which is comparable to the pectin in jam or jelly, and acts as glue to hold the potato together. Because they tend to hold their shape, they are great for recipes that require the potatoes to be soaking in liquid for a longer time, such as boiling, stewing, and for potato salads. These smaller potatoes also are excellent for roasting in the oven, becoming brown and crispy, and absorb pan juices and butter exquisitely.
Recipe ideas: Toss boiled potatoes in butter and freshly chopped parsley or dill, adding salt and pepper to taste, or with a couple of tablespoons of pesto; make a quick German-style potato salad by tossing warm boiled potatoes with any vinaigrette salad dressing on hand; roast the potatoes after boiling -- toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast until brown, 10-20 minutes.
These potatoes are a mix between baking and boiling potatoes. Their starch content is lower than baking potatoes, but higher than boiling, and their moisture and sugar content reside around the middle as well.
Yukon Gold is a very popular variety of all-purpose potatoes, particularly favored for mashing because of their rich color and flavor. Other varieties, such as fingerling, small creamers and purple Peruvian, are good for roasting, pan-frying and gratins.
Recipe ideas: Roasted fingerlings, potato cake, potato gratin.