Potatoes are a staple of the WFPB diet. Also called “pomme de terre,” or apples of the earth, they are delicious carb-filled energy bombs that make the perfect base for a multitude of additional flavors. I eat them on an almost-daily basis in the form of oven-fries, my favorite go-to side dish for my work lunches. What follows are my favorite types of potatoes for different culinary uses, as well as me dropping some knowledge on how potatoes are grown and their nutritional value. I hope this inspires you to try cooking a new potato recipe this week!
How they’re grown
For those of us who might not have a green thumb, where do potatoes come from? Potatoes are grown in soil that is progressively “hilled” around the plant. First, a seed potato is halved or quartered, then planted in a small hill in a row. Throughout the season, as the potato plant grows above ground, soil is piled up around the stem of the plant. As the potato plant comes in contact with the soil, it starts to grow more seeds underground (which are the potatoes we eventually eat!). At the end of the season, these holes are dug up and the potatoes are sifted out.
(Fun fact: This is a shared characteristic of many plants in the nightshade plant family, including tomatoes, that when their stems are buried in soil they will grow new roots from the stem.)
I don’t put a lot of stock in the recommended daily values of nutrients, so here is a percent composition of nutrients in a potato: 79% water, 17% carbohydrates (88% of which is starch), 2% protein, and a negligible percentage of fat. 100 grams of raw potato yields 77 Calories. In its raw form, potatoes are a rich source of vitamin B6 and vitamin C, both water soluble vitamins, containing approximately 25% of the recommended daily value of these nutrients. However, when cooked, these nutrient amounts drop dramatically. The nutrients in potatoes are concentrated in the skin, as is the case for most veggies, so make sure you keep the skins on (or find a way to incorporate them in a different part of the meal, such as boiling them with other vegetable skins to make veggie broth).
In a whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet or lifestyle, potatoes are an ideal source of starch, which is a complex carbohydrate. Not to drop too much chemistry knowledge on ya, but starch is a polymeric carbohydrate, one of the few natural polymers. In a nutshell, this means that starch is a polysaccharide composed of multiple glucose molecules bound together. Plants use starches as a source of energy storage, similar to how our own bodies use glycogen. Special enzymes in our digestive system progressively break down starches into their monosaccharide building-blocks, which our small intestine can then absorb as a source of energy.
To learn more, you should check out The Starch Solution by Dr. John McDougall!
Potatoes are a staple for Henry and I. Most frequently, we use them to make oven fries. If you boil new potatoes in a salt brine or veggie broth, you get a tasty alternative to potato chips: salt potatoes. Another alternative to potato chips are Hasselback baked potatoes. If you boil a waxy type of potato in veggie broth and blend with a stick blender, you’ll have an excellent “creamy” base for your favorite cream soup. You can also cube potatoes and add to a soup for a more filling meal. If you’re feeling really creative, you can try making potato gnocchi. And we mustn’t forget about hash browns and latkes!
Best All-Around Potato: Kennebec
I was first introduced to Kennebec potatoes when I worked on a small family farm in upstate New York. The farmer sold them to restaurants all the way into the middle of winter! It turns out that Kennebec potatoes have just the right sugar/starch balance and oblong shape to make perfect French fries.
When I took the small or misshapen ones home to do my own cooking, I found Kennebec potatoes to be the all-around all-star potato for any kind of cooking. They creamed up beautifully in soup, made delicious oven fries, or could be chopped up and fried in a simple everyday breakfast hash. They are the most versatile potato I‘ve found!
Kennebec potatoes can be hard to find at your local grocery store, so your best shot is probably your local farmer’s market. If you find a grower who does Kennebecs, consider buying wholesale/bulk, since potatoes keep well if you store in a dark, cool place (they don’t have to be in the ‘frige). Simply use the ones with small blemishes first, and the ones with intact skin will store well for several weeks. Be vigilant, however, because there are few things in the world more gross than rotten potatoes.
Best Potato for Whole Baked Potato: Tie between Russet and Sweet Potatoes
The two clear winners for the whole baked potato are Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes, but each are winners for different reasons. Baked sweet potatoes are an incredibly versatile potato, lend themselves well to desserts or sweetbreads, and when frozen make a superbly creamy (and nutritious!) addition to a peanut butter smoothie.
Russet potatoes are the classic baked potato. Their skin becomes crispy and separates from the starch inside, leaving a mild carb-a-licious center that forms a perfect base for added flavors such as chili or caramelized sweet onion.
Best Potato for Oven Fries: Tie between Red Potatoes and Yukon Gold
Red potatoes, and to a lesser extent Yukon gold, fall into the category of waxy potatoes. They contain a slightly different type of starch and have a much higher water content, which both play a role in allowing them to maintain their shape much better when cooked. They do not work well for frying in oil, but are perfect for boiling or mashing. When mashed, they do not need as much oil to achieve a wonderful creamy texture.
Due to their water content and ability to hold their shape, they make far-and-away the best oven fries. Yukon gold are slightly sweeter than most potatoes, creating the perfect base flavor for many kinds of dipping sauces. Red potatoes bake with a crispy outside and a creamy inside, giving them the best balance for oven fries.
Best Potato for Salt Potatoes: Local “New” Potatoes
New Potatoes are generally a mixture of potato types that are harvested early, so their sugars have not yet converted into starches, giving them a sweeter taste. Their skin has also not fully developed, so it is thinner and more palatable. New potatoes are delicious baked, sliced into a stir fry, or can even be cooked in the microwave in a covered microwaveable container. They are the most delicious, however, as boiled salt potatoes. When boiled in a salt brine (or, if you are staying away from salt, in salt-free veggie broth), they can be popped in your mouth as a tasty alternative to fried and oily potato chips.
Best Potato for a “Wow!” Factor: Blue Potatoes
Anthocyanins give blue potatoes their color and mild, nutty flavor. Blue potatoes add a fabulous “Wow!” Factor to any potato dish. Think Shepherd’s pie with blue mashed potatoes, oven fries with some blue potatoes added to the mix, even latkes with blue potatoes and a curry sauce topping! As the saying goes, we taste first with our eyes, so try using blue potatoes to make your potato meals “pop”.
Potatoes are yet another example of how, when we focus on the wonderful taste of vegetables as the centerpiece of a meal, there are so many creative and tasty opportunities available. All you need is the right potato for the job, and you are on your way to another delicious WFPB meal! Hit us up in the comments with your favorite potato recipes.