An essential guide to the most popular types of potatoes. With so many choices available, there are key characteristics in flavor and texture to look for when selecting. Learn the differences and uses to make the right decision for cooking.
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The culinary applications of the beloved potato are endless. From fried, mashed, roasted, boiled, steamed, and baked, the versatility of this vegetable is impressive. It’s no surprise that these edible tubers Solanum tuberosum from the nightshade family is one of the highest consumed crops around the world.
Types of Potatoes
There are an estimated 200 varieties of potatoes sold in the United States, which can be classified into a number of categories based on the cooked texture and ingredient functionality. This can lead to head-scratching questions about how to choose what is right for recipes.
Also known as “mealy,” starchy potatoes, which include Russets, Idahos and many yams and sweet potato varieties, are, as the descriptor says, high in starch. They are also low in moisture, fluffy and absorbent, making them ideal for baking, frying, boiling, and mashing. Because the flesh flakes and separates easily after cooking, they do not hold their shape compared to waxy potatoes.
Waxy potatoes are low in starch, high in sugar and moisture, and tend to hold their shape, even after cooking. They have thinner skin, a smoother texture and are generally smaller and rounder. Common varieties include French fingerling or Red Bliss. They hold their shape well after cooking, they’re ideal for boiling, roasting and incorporating in dishes like gratins or potato salad, where you’ll want the potato to stay intact.
All-purpose potatoes, like Yukon Golds, fall somewhere in the middle. They are less starchy than your typical high-starch potato and hold their shape better than them, too. But they are decently absorbent and fluffy, making them suitable for any type of potato dish, especially in a pinch. These can be used for mashed potatoes, as well.
Popular Potato Varieties
Russets (Burbank) or also known as Idaho potatoes are oblong and large in size, have a rough brown skin and mealy flesh. In my opinion, are the best for mashing, baking, and frying. Especially for homemade mashed potatoes, they fall apart easily when boiled and hold their shape once whipped and stay light and fluffy in texture.
Sweet Potatoes and Yams (Starchy)
These tubers are like dessert! The welcomed sweetness can commonly be purchased in two types. The oblong-shaped and pointed tip red sweet potatoes (featured above) have a reddish-brown skin and sweet, moist orange flesh.
The other is Cuban, white, or boniato that has light tan skin and yellow, more dry flesh. Both work well for roasting, baking, steaming, boiling, mashing, or pureeing, and are used in desserts like pies, muffins, and bread. If you’ve cleaned and dried the thick skins well, you can roast them for a crispy treat, plus they pack fiber and nutrients.
Yams are less sweet compared to sweet potatoes. They can have a flesh that is white to even deep red in color and can be substituted for sweet potatoes depending on the application.
Red Potato (Waxy)
These round, small, red thin-skinned potatoes have white and waxy flesh that is creamy when cooked. They can come in the Red Bliss, Norland, and Red Pontiac variety. They work well for crispy roasted potatoes, boiled, steamed, or simmered for soups and stews.
White and Yellow Potatoes (All-Purpose)
These round or oblong potatoes have a thin golden-colored skin, with a yellow or white flesh that is waxy in texture. These are also known as all-purpose potatoes (featured above) and come in White Rose or Finnish yellow varieties. They can be boiled, steamed, roasted, or sauteed.
Yukon Gold is another variety of white potato that is round, medium-sized, with a thin tender pale yellow skin. They are prized for their creamy golden flesh, which has a buttery flavor. They can be boiled, baked, roasted, or fried. I like to add them to mashed cauliflower potatoes for a richer nutty taste.
Purple Potatoes (All-Purpose)
These vibrant and regal-colored spuds have a thin deep purple-colored skin and bright purple, firm, and starchy flesh, with an earthy and slightly nutty flavor. When cooked the skins darken, while the flesh slightly lightens in color. They can be roasted, boiled, simmer, and steamed. Larger purple potatoes are good for baking and light mashing.
What’s unique about the potato is the extra antioxidants coming from anthocyanins in the purple flesh and skin for extra plant nutrients! Add these to your diet for added benefit. They come in Purple Majesty, Purple Peruvian (fingerling variety), All Blue, and Purple Viking to name a few.
When picking potatoes, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Choose ones that are heavy and very firm, with clean skin and a just few eyes (indents). They should be void of soft spots, cracks, or cuts.
Any tuber with a green tinge or sprouts should be avoided–they have been overexposed to light (remember, potatoes are at home in the ground) and therefore released too much solanine, a toxin that can make you sick. Potatoes should never taste bitter, either.
To store, they should be kept in a cool, dark area of the house–ideally at 50 to 65°F 10 to 18°C). You want to avoid warmth and humidity, as this will cause them to sprout or go bad. Do not refrigerate potatoes!
Temperatures below 40°F (4°C) convert the starch to sugar, resulting in a sweeter taste and potential burning when fried, and streaks or gray appearance after cooking. Starchy and all-purpose potatoes should last for up to two months, and waxy potatoes a few weeks when properly stored.
Most potatoes will come with some dirt attached to the skin, so you’ll want to get a brush and give them a light scrub with water. Another way is to fill up a large pot with water, put the potatoes in, and let them soak for a bit right before cooking–most of the dirt will fall to the bottom of the pot.
Give them one last rise, and you’ll be ready to go. After peeling potatoes, especially Russets, immerse in a bowl of water to prevent enzymatic browning on the surface.
Not only do potatoes taste delicious, but they also have some health benefits! They are very easy to digest complex carbohydrates, with very little to no fat. They contain a good source of minerals and vitamins, especially potassium and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) which is a coenzyme that assists in the breakdown and utilization of carbohydrates.
- Mashed Potatoes
- Crispy Garlic Roasted Potatoes
- All-American Potato Salad
- Thai Coconut Sweet Potato Soup
- Chicken Broccoli Stuffed Baked Potato
- Fingerling Potatoes with Lemon Herb Dressing
- Stuffed Sweet Potato with Barbecue Chicken
- Oven Baked Potato Wedges
What are your favorite kinds of potatoes and how do you like to prepare them? Do you see any I should add to the list? I can’t wait to hear!