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Dec 7, 2006 05:52 AM

The unbearable sameness of potatoes

No matter how many potatoes I buy, they all seem to taste the same. All potatoes in their category ... baking, boiling, roasting ... just seem the same. The subtlties are lost on me.

A local market had a variety of potatoes from a top notch farm that has been growing 22 varieties of potatoes since 1922. So I bought one of each the six types available that day ... Durango, Kennebunk, Huckleberry, Viking Blue, Chieftan, German Butterball ... boiled them and did a side by side taste test.

Other than color and texture there really wasn't all that much difference in flavor.

The one exception was the Kennebunk which along with texture that would be great for a French fry, was very sweet and had more intense flavor.

I don't know. Potatoes don't seem to be about flavor. This site has hundreds of links about pototoes and flavor is rarely mentioned about each variety.

One of the few sites that had some note of flavors and an incredible list of pototo varieties

In all the years I've tried potatoes only the Yukon Gold has been a bit different with a buttery flavor.

Here's a couple of old Chowhound posts one of which says in Europe the potatoes are tastier.

What's wrong with potatoes in America?

Why'd they forget how to grow, POTATOS?

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  1. Like rice, there are subtle differences in texture and flavour. Starch and sugar content can help determine the best use of each type of potato. I like to use Yukon Golds for mashed presentations because it is so much creamier, while I use other potatoes for frying.

    Hybridisation has removed so much natural character from our produce in pursuit of uniform colour, shape, and shelf durability. However, we have lost the beauty of flavour in so many things, most apparent in tomatoes. Look for the heirlooms, as it looks like you have. Asked the farmers - they will be able to explain the differences.

    As with wine - a lot has to do with the environment - the "terroir" if you will. A sweet onion from Georgia, tastes different than one from Walla Walla or Maui. It's not just the breed, it's the soil, water and climate. What a great opportunity to get to know the potato better!

    1. I'm not sure if I am understanding this correctly. Are you saying that you don't find a difference between, lets say... a purple peruvian fingerling and a monstrous, scabby Russet? I'm confused. They couldn't be more different. Flavour, texture, sweetness, etc are all nonsimilar.

      14 Replies
      1. re: krushdnasty

        No what I'm saying is all fingerlings taste like any other fingerling and all baking potatoes pretty much taste alike.

        I did learn there is now a low carb potato

        1. re: rworange

          ohhh. gotcha. Hmmmmm. I don't neccessarily agree, but I have Irish blood and so might be genetically adept at finding these differences! ;-P

          jk! Seriously though, imho I think that there are subtle diffrence between the yellow flesh fingerlings, red rose and purple peruvian. Its an intrigung point you riase though. I may have to get my GF to help with a blind taste test of these three varieties to see if its all in my mind.

          1. re: krushdnasty

            I know you know this, but potatoes come from the Andes where the highest variation is still found. Relatively few potatoes went to Ireland.

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              And therein my friend lies the rub. If the Irish HAD brought in lots of diferent varieties of pototatoes then they probably wouldn't have suffered so greatly during The Famine. This is a prime example of how monocropping with one varietal had devastating consequences for more than just our palates. :-/

              1. re: krushdnasty

                I can't remember what the disease was that keyed the famine, but my guess is that it was probably something like a bacterial leaf blight that was exacerbated more by Irish agro-climatic conditions than by reduced gentic variation. More varieties would not necessarily have been a solution; alathough large-area potato monocropping would have made matters worse as youo mention.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  yes it was a leaf blight (I thought it was a virus, but I could be mistaken). and yes the altered climactic conditions of Ireland relative to Peru made it particularly suceptible to blight. But different varieties of plants have differing suceptibilites to disease based upon their genetic differnces. Sortof like the case with grape vines last century. If the Irish had had several different, hardy potoato varieties then they might have been able to rely on one that wasn't so suceptible to disease. Of course having some food other than potatoes would have helped also! ;-)

                  just checked and it wasn't a virus or bacteria. it was a fungus according to Wiki (for what thats worth!)

                  1. re: krushdnasty

                    Fungal diseases are also sensitve to the ag environment. Most of the Peruvian landraces of potatoes wouldn't necessarily have had much difference in terms of resistance. The jump in agroecological conditions and the possible monocropping would have been bad enough. In terms of grapes, remembr also that it was plant breeding that provided nematode resistant root stock that many benefitted from, including my plantings in Tarija, Bolivia.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Ahhhh... good point. I didn't think about the selectivity not being present in Bolivia/Peru. Well said.

                      "including my plantings in Tarija, Bolivia"

                      You rascal, you just tossed that last part in to make me wish I was also relaxing in a sun drenched hammock watching the grapes grow. :) Well... yes, in fact I do wish that! Just please tell me that your grapes don't go toward making Pisco!!! ;-P

                      1. re: krushdnasty

                        Now you make me sad. I lived in Bolivia in the 70s when the wine industry in Tarija (esp the two Kohlberg and Arce wineries were strong). A weakened currency in Argentina in the 80s killed us. I went to live in Asia for 14 years and have been in Colombia for 12. But, yes, the hammock (between prunings, grafting, tall double trellising, weeding,...) and the peace of southern Bolivia! And it was for good wine (better than the Argentinian stuff) and not for pisco--although we drank a lot of thaat while in the hammocks of course.

                    2. re: krushdnasty

                      read a wee bit further down on that Wiki entry to get to the scholarship on the English export of food OUT of Ireland DURING the famine years. Fungus is not the story.

                      "The export of bacon and ham increased. In total, over three million live animals were exported from Ireland between 1846-50, more than the number of people who emigrated during the famine years.
                      . . . almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847, when 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation and related diseases. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland: Ballina, Ballyshannon, Bantry, Dingle, Killala, Kilrush, Limerick, Sligo, Tralee and Westport.

                      During the first nine months of "Black '47" the export of grain-derived alcohol from Ireland to England included the following: 874,170 gallons of porter, 278,658 gallons of Guinness, and 183,392 gallons of whiskey.

                      A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas,beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues,animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed.

                      The most shocking export figures concern butter.
                      If the other three months of exports were at all comparable, then we can safely assume that a million gallons of butter left Ireland while 400,000 Irish people starved to death!"

                      stunning really, don't you think?
                      We are lucky with the bounty we have today...
                      and I taste a difference among new potatoes, yukon golds, fingerlings, bakers, etc . . .

                      1. re: pitu

                        hello, thanks for sharing the painful history of the Irish , I hope it's old familiar bad news to most; potatos, native to a very harsh environment(Andean) with a scarcity of fertile arable land, proved to be very adaptable to the marginal lands left to the Irish once the colonizers took the land and 'cream' of the crops. Foraging for shellfish and seaweed was another subsistence. We should also be thankful for all the gas we burn and reflect on how most of the people live/die in the lands where it's produced (coastal Louisiana included). cheers of season

            2. re: rworange

              Now I've seen everything - low carb potato.

              Is there such a thing as heirloom potato variety at all, like in tomatoes?

              1. re: notmartha

                heh. yeah, I didn't catch that before. I think thats crazy... like fat-free cream!

                1. re: notmartha

                  Yep. They are all over the menus in the SF Bay Area, even some touristy restaurants. Potatoes need an image consulant, they have no star power like tomatoes. Does the phrase 'couch tomato' ever come up? And yet a tomato is as inactive as any potato. So the menus just say 'heirloom potatoes' not 'heirloom red thumb and ozette potatoes'. At most, the only potato with name appeal is the Yukon gold.

                  Actually most of those thousands of varieties are heirlooms.

                  Now if they could come up with some cows that naturally produce fat-free milk for butter and pigs with cholesteral-free bacon parts to go with those low carb potatoes ... you'd have something.

                  A good article from Chow on potatoes that mentions wild potatoes ... something else to do ... stalking the wild potato.

            3. hello, since you boiled all your samples, you found the variety that showed it best in that prep; frying would probably show off another type, and so on, meaning, they're not the same, if I understand your quest. You also tried one single farm's products; if it's a huge spread with a variety of microclimates and soil/mineral variations, with the potato varieties matched up,that would accentuate the differences. The best spuds I had recently were from an organic farm that grows a variety of dependably tasty veg's,these were probably small yukons, but *they were dug the day before.* They were great simply boiled and added to an Indian chicken+veg dish for the last 20 min, and made A-1 garlic mashed another night. My version of homefries, when I've done a muti-color melange, usually brings out differences in the varieties, and involves boiling, pan frying,and oven browning. I go along with sanseidesigns on why our produce is generally less variable, and from what I saw in Italy, more growers depend on the close-by local trade, so uniqueness is valued over durability and shipping compatibility. There's less dependence on diesel power and adding lots of expensive chemicals to fertilise or suppress weeds/pests,and the limited arable land has been under continual cultivation for centuries longer than here. enjoy your winter holidays,r dub

              3 Replies
              1. re: moto

                It probably would have been better to simply prepare each potato in the method it was best suited, although I read somewhere that roasting brings out the best flavor in all potatoes.

                It also might have something to do with terroir as mentioned. It could be that California is wrong for potatoes just as it is not quite right for many apples. Another potato farmer who was doing everything right in terms of love just never had a potato that rang any bells for me.

                1. re: rworange

                  however, Calif. contains a huge range of growing conditions. It doesn't have the same depth of muti-generational farmers' wisdom that the northeast has for some crops like potatoes and apples (which it does for grapes of course). Since you mention apples...I've never farmed, but bought 100's of bushels from growers for handmade pies, and handled 1000s of fruits baking, and to my tastes it'd be difficult to surpass NY apples. They probably try to grow them in places here that don't have enough seasonal changes in temp/daylength, a factor that favors Washington state in comparison, but I've had some nearly equal to NY in Sonoma county (referring to dense, hard, crisp, complex, not Gravenstein).

                2. re: moto

                  I enjoy all kinds of potatoes and find differences based more on where they're grown. The best potato I ever had was over 20 years ago, a giant baked potato at the Hungry Moose Rest near Yellowstone. I couldn't believe I enjoyed it more than the steak, which was excellent too. Here on Long Island we can get them right out of the ground this time of year but our russets have never matched that one perfect potato that I still remember fondly!

                3. I find that the most flavor comes out, when I bake my potatoes. I love the texture of the skin also, crispy and a little browned.

                  And to me, yukon gold does have the most flavor, subtle as it may be.

                  1. I think that the biggest issue here might be over hybridzation and also the soil its grown in. I don't know if you have ever been to south america but, if you should ever find yourself in Bolivia, head down to the market. You would be amazed at the variety of potato to be found (hundreds) and if you happen to know a good local cook, she will prepare them in the way for which they are best suited, and then, indeed you will taste a difference. In the US food is grown so commercially that a lot of flavor is lost and becomes more generic. It is unfortunate.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: bolivianita

                      They aren't hybrids. It is just that few potatoes "made it" to other places for commercial production. Bolivianita, por que no nos menciono' los chunos?

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Me parecia mucho explicarlo a todos y no se bien que tipo de papa usan para hacerlo.

                        1. re: bolivianita

                          Quizas tengas razon. Hay varios tipos que se usan.