Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pondering the Perfect Potato

(photo from Wikipedia)
I wanted to share a recent revelation about the baked potato. All my life, I've been told "russet potatoes" make the best baked potato. Fine. All my life, I've thought a russet was a russet and the baked potato was a nice, bland meat accompaniment that is always improved with a little salt, pepper, sour cream, chives, bacon and cheese.

But when you're making an earnest (though not always perfect) attempt to avoid sour cream, bacon and cheese, that potato had better make an equally earnest effort to impart some flavor without having to get all tarted up for you. It took 41 years for me to find a potato that tastes delicious completely naked (the potato, not me, you perverts) and I want to shout it to the world!

Drooling with anticipation about where to find this earthy gem (that's a hint)? You need go no further than your local Whole Foods. That's where I found baked potato nirvana. On my last visit, pumped with endorphins from a ride on the bike trail, I mustered up the courage to ask the produce guy why their russet potatoes were so sweet and flavorful.

First, I pointed to the bin where I always found the special russets. I wasn't sure what exactly I was pointing at because they now had what appeared to be two different potato types in one stack. One was mottled looking with a smooth, glossy skin and the other had a dusty, netted brown skin.

He pointed to the dusty, netted one and said, "That's what you're looking for."

"Is there a special name for this type? Is it a particular variety of potato? Where is it grown? It's-so-sweet-I-love-it-Please-don't-ever-stop-carrying-it."

"It's called a netted gem and these are from California." He relayed that several customers had commented on the flavor, and that a group of elderly ladies told him it was "too sweet for mashed potatoes." I beg to differ, ladies, and I say that with the utmost respect. Still, isn't it remarkable that we're discussing the flavor of a potato and we haven't even gotten to the toppings yet?

I bought some, repeated the name "netted gem" several times out loud and not at all like a crazy person and finished my shopping.

Later that evening, I Googled "netted gem potatoes", which appear to be synonymous with Russet Burbank potatoes, and were discovered by a man named Lon D. Sweet. Ok, so, um, shouldn't it be named the Russet Sweet instead of the Russet Burbank? I mean, c'mon, he discovered it and it's so sweet and his name is Sweet.
According to Luther Burbank the Russet Burbank was originated by a man in
Denver, Colorado, who evidently selected a chance sport out of Burbank. Burbank
stated that, "These Burbank potatoes raised by Lon D. Sweet of Denver, Colorado,
have a modified coat in a way that does not add to their attractiveness. It is
said, however, that this particular variant is particularly resistant to blight,
which gives it exceptional value." Read more.
Oddly enough, I didn't come across any mention of the netted gem's superior flavor. Well, I have been accused of being a bit of a "super taster", so maybe I'm picking up this subtle sweetness when to many, russets all taste the same. But wait, remember the elderly ladies? They found the netted gem too sweet for mashed potatoes. I'm not imagining this! I'd love more people to try the potato and report back. Any chefs or potato farmers or foodies reading this?

This being a gardening blog, you're probably expecting me to encourage you to grow your own netted gems. Nah. You can't grow everything and potatoes seem like a lot of work. Is Sacramento lovingly referred to as Sacrapotato? No, it is not. It's Sacratomato. Live with it. Plus, the netted gem is reportedly difficult to grow in the home garden. Just buy them at Whole Foods and ask around for them at your local farmers' markets.

I'm also guessing there's more to this potato story than one produce man and Google can provide. If anyone is more up on their potato history than I, please feel free to comment. And were these potatoes really grown in California and not Idaho?

If you decide to make mashed potatoes out of netted gems, please let us know how you like them and what recipe you used. Can you taste the difference? Might want to test drive a batch before Thanksgiving. I'm betting your potatoes will be the talk of the table. Rats, I've been asked to bring green beans this year.

Dec. 13 edit: Check out the Cooks Magazine Potato Primer. It's a PDF download.


  1. The netted potato sounds yummy! I also like my baked potatoes on the sweet side.

    To make it even sweeter - try cooking your baked potatoes in a crockpot. Wash them, prick them, salt them, wrap them in tin foil, and throw them in the crock pot on low for 10 - 12 hours. The sugars in the potato will caramalize. The flesh will be darker and sweeter than usual.

  2. Thanks for this post - maybe we'll find the netted ones here, too. We seem to buy the Gold ones more than any other potatoes, because they don't really need a lot of toppings to taste good.
    Kasmira's recipe sounds intriguing, too - but with the foil wrapping - won't the skins stay soft? I love them on the grill and crunchy.


  3. Crockpot potatoes... sounds intriguing, Kasmira. Annie, I too love Yukon Gold potatoes. They even taste buttery without butter. Tastewise, they're tops. As you can tell, I was pretty excited to find a russet with some of that Yukon Gold sweetness and flavor. I tried a bag of fingerling potatoes recently and wasn't impressed. They're super adorable but flavor was blah.

  4. I love potatoes must try these...Yukon Gold have always been my fav. Have a Whole Foods close by..I love that store!

  5. OK, I've figured out that potatoes differ in flavour, but I've also noticed that some potatoes are drier, more 'floury', than others, ie some potatoes get 'watery' when cooked/baked etc. Any thoughts on that? As I prefer the 'floury' potatoes for most of my recipes, anybody have a variety to suggest?

  6. Here are some tidbits from the Idaho Potato Commission's FAQ's that might help you achieve fluffiness:

    What is a Burbank potato?
    The Russet Burbank variety is the most prevalent type that comes from Idaho. It is known for its high solids (starch) and low moisture which yields a dry fluffy baked potato and crisp French fries. It was named after Luther Burbank, a famous scientist.

    Do different methods of cooking potatoes produce a different taste?
    Yes, for example some people make their mashed potatoes from baked potatoes hollowing out the cooked insides and they get a very dry almost roasted flavor. Boiling steams the potato and some of the nutrients are lost, especially if boiled whole. We suggest cutting into large chunks then boil. Microwaving keeps a lot of the moisture in the potato which can yield less potato flavor.

    How do restaurants keep baked potatoes hot and yet fairly crispy over a period of several hours?
    Ideally the restaurant bakes them without foil as this steams the potato. Also, the convection oven provides a nice even temperature and this dry heat is ideal for a crispy skin. To hold the potatoes they typically use warming oven units such as used for keeping bread warm and batch cook the potatoes rather than fix them once in the afternoon and try to hold during the dinner serving period.

    I boiled potatoes to take to a dinner. Once there I reheated them and peeled them and added butter and milk. They were like glue no matter what we did to help them. What did I do wrong?
    Traditional boiling methods are generally not effective with Idaho® Potatoes. A better method is to pre-cook potato chunks in 140°F water for 20 minutes, then bring to a full boil and continue until done. This process, called retrogradation prevents separation or breakdown of the potatoes.

    Why are mashed potatoes lumpy and sticky at times and not at others?
    The individual potato cells are susceptible to breaking down based on the amount of starch in the potato. Higher solids (starch) potatoes have larger cell size and tend to not break down as easily when over mixed versus a low solids potato (such as a red or yellow skinned variety) which has smaller potato cells. Among russet varieties the Russet Burbank from Idaho has usually had the highest solids and lowest moisture so turns out dry and fluffy. In Idaho we are required to list the potato variety on the bag or box.

    What's the best way to boil Idaho Potatoes?
    When boiling potatoes, it is best to leave the skin on while cooking--the potato will retain more nutrients and flavor. Skins can be removed as soon as the potato is cool enough to hold. Potatoes should be scrubbed before boiling, rather than soaked. Soaking potatoes in water can sap nutrients and flavor. To enrich the flavor of potatoes boil them in a favorite stock, or for a mild, sweet taste, boil in milk. Potatoes boiled in milk should be peeled thinly when cooled. To prevent potatoes from discoloration after cooking, add a touch of lemon juice to the water.
    Potatoes should be placed in the cooking water before it is heated. An alternate method is to place fresh potatoes in salted, already--boiling water. Steaming is another popular cooking method that has a similar effect to boiling, but the potato tends to retain more nutrients when steamed because it is not immersed in water, though boiled potatoes do retain more vitamin C. Seasonings of various kinds can be added to the water while steaming potatoes to give them a unique flavor.

    Should I wrap my Idaho Potatoes in foil when baking?
    For conventional oven baking, the most common folly is to wrap the potato in aluminum foil. Covering the potato holds in moisture, steaming the potato. The result is a less crispy skin and the texture of a boiled potato. The best way to bake a potato is to scrub it, pierce the skin two or three times with a fork, and place the potato directly on the oven rack, at 450°F for 50 to 60 minutes. For a crispier skin, rub the potato skin with a light coating of vegetable oil, olive oil, margarine or butter. If potatoes have been baked to doneness and are being held for over 10 minutes, wrap those potatoes in foil for holding. This will enhance the appearance of the skin by reducing shriveling.

    And here is OChef's take on potato textures and uses.

    Man, there are a lot of potato varieties out there.

  7. Reading this post I envisioned you on an episode of Alton Brown's Good Eats...your post was so detailed and educational, just like his show! And he tends to lurk in the produce aisle as well...

  8. LOL, Christine. Guilty as charged. I am a complete info junkie with a probably abnormal desire to lurk in the produce aisle.

    But I can explain! Fruits and veggies are so beautiful and delicious! The produce aisle is like Food Disneyland for a gardener... isn't it? Not to mention, produce is very photogenic. Ok, am I creeping you out yet? ;-)

    Mainly, I'm trying to eat healthfully these days and I have nada in my veggie garden. I'm taking a break and may wait till Spring to resume.

    Ok, I admit it... I'm a foodie.

  9. tulefine11:42 AM

    An old potato grower friend of ours was adamant that you never bake a potato in aluminum foil. He said when you do that, you are in effect steaming the potato. If you want a flaky potato, bake it without foil. Sometimes I scrub them up good and rub a little butter or oil on the skin before baking them.... but then we prefer to eat the skins and this keeps them softer.