IT'S EASY TO GET passable roasted potatoes on the table with a minimum of effort: Just cut your potatoes into chunks, toss them in a roasting pan with some oil and salt and pepper, and slide the pan into a preheated oven. But there’s a big difference between simply passable roasted potatoes and truly great ones. I had the latter in my sights, but I didn’t want to jump through hoops for a simple side dish.
The best part of a roasted potato is its flavorful browned exterior, but cranking up the oven to achieve good browning often leaves the insides of the potatoes dry and grainy. I tried a few recipes that got around this problem by boiling the potatoes until they were almost done before quickly roasting them, or by covering the pan with foil for the first part of roasting and then uncovering it so the spuds could take on browning at the end. Both of these methods worked, but I sought a simpler way.
These potatoes hit all the marks: creamy interiors, nicely browned cut sides, and tons of flavor—all with an easy method that, as a bonus, made cleanup a breeze.
The recipe that called for covering the roasting pan with foil got me thinking about the French method of cooking foods en papillote, or in parchment-paper pouches. Foods cook very efficiently in these packets due to the trapped steam. I tried making a parchment packet for 2 pounds of potatoes (to serve six people), but it was tricky to handle such a large pouch made of delicate paper, and it took some finesse to crimp and seal the edges. Making the packet out of aluminum foil was far easier. I made three packets, one for each type of potato I wanted to test: russets, Yukon Golds, and red new potatoes, all cut into smallish chunks. I placed each pouch on a baking sheet and popped the sheets into the oven. After the potatoes had baked at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes, I cut into each packet (carefully, since a blast of hot steam can be dangerous) to find perfectly tender but barely browned potatoes; of the three samples, my tasters preferred the halved red potatoes for their beautifully creamy texture.
The potatoes needed more browning and a lot more seasoning. To increase the browning, I lowered the oven rack so the potatoes were closer to the heat source. I also added some butter to the packet, which helped with both browning and flavor. Fresh thyme and rosemary added a deeply fragrant herbal presence, and a good bit of sliced garlic brought sweetness and depth. Finally, these potatoes hit all the marks: creamy interiors, nicely browned cut sides, and tons of flavor—all with an easy method that, as a bonus, made cleanup a breeze.