In terms of human consumption, potatoes are the third most important food crop in the world. They’re inexpensive, full of nutrients, can be stored for a long time, and are deliciously versatile.
You’ll find numerous varieties of potatoes at the store. They’re all worth your time, but they’re not all created equal. To learn how to pick the right potato for the job (and how to store it optimally), dig in below.
THE THREE MAIN TYPES OF POTATOES
For cooking purposes, we can group potatoes into three categories.
- Baking potatoes are high in starch and lower in moisture. They’re best for, yes, baking, but also other dry heat methods like roasting or frying.
- Boiling potatoes are low in starch and high in moisture. They’re great for…surprise, boiling! And steaming.
- All-purpose potatoes are somewhere in between, starch-wise. They won’t make the best French fries around, but are handy for most everything else.
THE MOST COMMON POTATO VARIETIES
There are thousands of varieties of potatoes native to the Andes (where potatoes originated), and hundreds of varieties bred for cultivation. What we see in a grocery store represents just a tiny fraction, but we still have more diverse selection than we did even ten years ago.
Here are the most common varieties you’re likely to see:
Also known as bakers or Idaho or Burbank potatoes
When you imagine a potato, this is probably it. Oblong and tapered, russets have dull tannish-gray skin that’s slightly rough and netted. Once cooked, their flesh becomes mealy and floury. The majority of potatoes grown in the US are russet varieties. And most of these are commercially processed into French fries or potato chips.
Best for: Baking, roasting, frying. Russets will make excellent fluffy mashed potatoes, too.
Yukon Gold Potatoes
This variety was bred in Canada in the 1960s, and, since its commercial release in 1980, has become a popular all-purpose potato. Its yellow flesh cooks up creamy yet not dense, and its skin is thin enough to leave on in cooking.
Also known as redskin or red bliss
Named for their red hue, these potatoes have waxy, dense flesh and thin skins. They’re usually rounded or slightly flattened. Usually, these are cooked with their skins still on.
Best for: Boiling or steaming. Red potatoes are lovely for potato salad or mashed or smashed potatoes. You can roast these, but they tend not to brown as much as other varieties.
Named for their elongated shape, fingerling potatoes are not any one variety. They’re on the small side, and can be red, purple, yellow, white…you get the idea. Their skins are thin, and their flesh is usually dense and creamy.
Best for: Roasting, boiling. These tend to cost more than other potatoes, and a lot of their appeal is their funky shape, so use them in recipes where you’re showing it off. Typically you cook these whole or halve them.
Years ago, the idea of easily encountering purple potatoes at the grocery store would have been about as likely as seeing a purple cow grazing in a pasture. But now purple potatoes are de rigueur. And why not? They look cool and are loaded with naturally occurring pigments that provide anti-inflammatory antioxidants. They have a higher starch content and more floury texture than other similarly-sized potatoes.
Best for: Roasting, boiling, frying.
Awesome as they are, these are not potatoes! Fellow members of the nightshade family, sweet potatoes are from another plant entirely. Many of the storage considerations are the same, though.
Baby (or Petite) Potatoes
Baby potatoes are named that because of their size, not their age. Sometimes they are called “creamers.” Any type of potato can appear in “baby” form; their texture and flavor will be just like that of their larger kin.
Best for: Boiling, steaming, roasting. Their skins are part of their appeal—why even bother to peel them?
A small potato is not necessarily a new potato—it could simply be a mature potato that happens to be small. But new potatoes are actually immature potatoes with thin, feathery skins. You may see them at a farmer’s market, but it’s not likely you’ll see them at a grocery store. They haven’t had a chance to develop much starch, so they are not well suited for dry-heat cooking like baking and roasting.
Best for: Boiling, steaming. These are most commonly dressed simply in butter, with maybe some fresh herbs tossed in.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING POTATOES
- Look for smooth, firm, heavy potatoes that aren’t loaded with eyes.
- Keep an eye out for bruises and blemishes. You can always cut out and discard these during prep, but you’ll be wasting time and potatoes.
- Avoid green potatoes. If you have one you’ll need to peel it, as the green parts can be bitter and contain a toxin.
MULTI-BLEND BAGS OF POTATOES
You may have seen colorful packs of tiny potatoes—red, white, gold, purple. Since they’re all selected to be the same size, they can save you prep time (if they do require knife prep, it’s likely it’s only halving or quartering them). Plus they look cool.
You’ll pay a premium for them, so use them when you’ll be showing them off. They’re great in sheet pan dinners.
A WORD ON ORGANIC POTATOES
Potatoes are on the Environmental Working Groups “Dirty Dozen” list of produce most contaminated with pesticide. In fact, potatoes have some of the highest amounts of applications of pesticides. This pesticide is absorbed not just into a potato’s skin, but its flesh, as well; scrubbing or peeling can make a difference, but won’t remove all the pesticides.
If you can afford it, buy organic potatoes. Or buy organic potatoes when you can. Just be aware that your money spent on organics goes further with potatoes than it does with other produce. (See the “Clean Fifteen” for the least-contaminated produce, the stuff you can get away with buying conventional.)
HOW TO STORE POTATOES
Potatoes are alive! Isn’t that cool? In the right conditions, it’s possible to store potatoes for months, because it slows their metabolic process. For those of us without dedicated root cellars, a few weeks is realistic. Any longer than that and they tend to either shrivel or sprout.
Potatoes like it dark. (They grew underground, remember?) Light will nudge them to sprout, which is cool for potato reproduction, but bad for you. If you have a basement, that’s probably a fantastic place for your potatoes.
- Do not refrigerate potatoes! They have a temperature happy zone. Under 50F (10C) can lead to discoloration and soft flesh. But high temperatures (above 65F / 18C) aren’t good, either.
- Do not wash potatoes until right before you are going to use them. Moisture causes potatoes to mold; that’s why the bags you buy them in are mesh or have holes.
- Do not put potatoes in a plastic bag. A paper bag with the top open is fine, as is a bin that’s ventilated. Do not clamp a lid on it.
- Do not freeze raw potatoes. It just does not work. In certain circumstances, you can freeze cooked potatoes, but it tends to make them mealy, particularly chunks of cooked potatoes in soup. Mashed potatoes and par-fried potatoes hold up a lot better (in fact, most of the frozen French fried sold commercially are par-fried).
WHAT’S UP WITH RUSSET POTATOES WRAPPED IN PLASTIC?
We’ve all seen those russet potatoes individually wrapped in plastic and marketed as microwavable baked potatoes. I’ve always felt this was a wasteful hoax (they cost more per unit), as you can microwave a potato without plastic just fine. However, these potatoes are wrapped in special plastic that lets some, but not all, of the steam escape out during microwaving.
If you’d like to save a little money, just buy regular naked russet potatoes, poke them a few times with a fork, and microwave them wrapped in a lightly dampened paper towel.
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