Holiday Potatoes 101
Potatoes have an important supporting role at the holiday table. But good potatoes can go bad if you don’t know how to cook them, or if you choose the wrong variety at the wrong time. Our collection of proven holiday potato recipes starts with the basic mashed potato recipe, but includes show-stopper potatoes, potato casseroles, and cheesy potatoes that will feed a crowded holiday table.
Types of Potatoes for Side Dishes
This popular high-starch potato, also called Idaho, cooks up tender. Russets are praised for being absorbent, which makes them perfect for some holiday side dishes.
This versatile medium-starch spud has a delicious, buttery flavor. It cooks up tender and holds its shape, but it also has just enough starch to contribute creaminess without becoming mushy. Its skin can be tough and papery, so we recommend peeling them first.
We prefer these sturdy, waxy potatoes in many dishes because they hold their shape so well. Peeling them before cooking also ensures they will absorb flavorings, but their fiber-rich skin can also be left on. In some recipes, we prefer this—the skin is not unpleasant to taste, and it adds nice color to what can be a monochromatic dish.
Since potatoes seem almost indestructible compared with other vegetables, little thought is generally given to their storage. But because various problems can result from inadequate storage conditions, we decided to find out how much difference storage really makes. We stored all-purpose potatoes in five environments: in a cool (50-60 degrees), dark place; in the refrigerator; in a basket near a sunlit window; in a warm (70-80 degrees), dark place; and in a drawer with some onions at room temperature. We checked all the potatoes after four weeks.
As expected, the potatoes stored in the cool, dark place were firm, had not sprouted, and were crisp and moist when cut. There were no negative marks on the potatoes stored in the refrigerator, either. Although some experts say that the sugar level dramatically increases in some potato varieties under these conditions, we could not see or taste any difference between these potatoes and the ones stored in the cool, dark but unrefrigerated environment.
Our last three storage tests produced unfavorable results. The potatoes stored in sunlight, in warm storage, and with onions ended up with a greenish tinge along the edges. When potatoes are stressed by improper storage, the level of naturally occurring toxins increases, causing the greenish tinge known as solanine. Because solanine is not destroyed by cooking, any part of the potato with this greenish coloring should be completely cut away before cooking. In addition, the skin of the potatoes stored in sunlight became gray and mottled, while the potatoes stored in a warm place and those stored with onions sprouted and became soft and wrinkled. Sprouts also contain increased levels of solanine and should be cut away before cooking.
Storing Potatoes with an Apple
To determine if we could achieve even better results by storing potatoes with an apple, we stored two 5-pound bags of russet potatoes, one with an apple and the other without, in a dry, dark, cool, well-ventilated spot and checked on both bags every other day for eight weeks. The potatoes in both bags looked fine until the three-week point, when one of the potatoes stored without the apple began to sprout. Two weeks later all but one of the potatoes stored without the apple had sprouted.
By comparison, the potatoes stored with the apple remained firm and free of sprouts, though a great deal of condensation had built up in the bag. At the eight-week point the potatoes without the apple were largely soft, shriveled, and sad looking. The potatoes stored with the apple, on the other hand, were mostly firm (small soft spots had developed on two of them) and looked good.
Dr. Greg Porter, associate professor of agronomy, and Dr. Alfred Bushway, professor of food science and human nutrition, both at the University of Maine in Orono, concurred that the ripe apple gives off ethylene gas as it respires. Simply put, the ethylene gas, as well as other organic alcohols emitted by the apple, suppresses the elongation of the potatoes’ cells, which is what causes the sprouts to form.
Most recipes for boiled potatoes call for starting the spuds in cold water so that they will come up to temperature slowly and cook evenly throughout. In an attempt to shorten the cooking time, we tried letting water boil before adding the potatoes. In a side-by-side test, tasters preferred the potatoes started in cold water for their uniformly creamy texture.
All About Sweet Potatoes
Many grocery stores carry three varieties of sweet potatoes: Beauregards, Jewels, and Red Garnets. To see if we could detect any differences among the three, we tasted them in a simple mash as well as in our recipe for Sweet Potato Biscuits. Beauregards, the most common variety, made great biscuits—buttery-sweet and fluffy—and were tasty, albeit one-dimensionally sweet, as a plain mash. The flesh of the Jewels was less sweet than the Beauregards but with an equally firm texture. Red Garnets, decidedly more savory than the others, had an earthiness that tasters appreciated in the mash. Their loose, watery texture, however, made the biscuits slightly gummy.
Best for biscuits.
Less sweet, but fine for all applications.
Great on their own, but make for gummy biscuits.