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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.
http://oregonstate.edu/potatoes/potli...

One of the few sites that had some note of flavors and an incredible list of pototo varieties
http://potatoes.wsu.edu/varieties/var...

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?
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/294032

Why'd they forget how to grow, POTATOS?
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

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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
        http://www.napa.ufl.edu/2004news/lowc...

        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.
                      (snip)
                      . . . 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.
                      (snip)
                      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.
                  http://www.chow.com/ingredients/69

            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.

                    2. You live in a big city -- search out Peruvian and Bolivian potatoes. You will not believe the stunning variety they come in, even here in the U.S. -- and what's available here is only about a hundredth of what's available in Peru (haven't been to Bolivia).

                      The potato is to Peruvians what rice is to the Japanese... and like the Japanese with their rice, they have found an astonishing number of things to do with the potato.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                        Yeah, it would be really interesting to check out the potatoes in those countries ... well, if a potato can be interesting. I read an article that said genetically all potatoes can be traced back to Peru.

                      2. In my opinion potatoes are like grits: a vehicle for butter and other tasty fats. The flavor largely depends on how you prepare them and what you add to them. The choice of starchy vs. waxy is dictated by what I am going to make, i.e., latkes vs. potato salad. I will buy organic because of the lack of pesticides, but I don't find much if any difference between the flavor of an organic or conventional russet or Yukon gold, however. I like to buy different varieties of heirloom potatoes, especially Peruvian varieties, when I can find them because of their varying colors more than anything else. The quality of the butter I put on them is critical, however. That said, I did order some old fashioned grits from Anson Mills (both yellow and white) along with polenta and oat meal based on a recent Chowhound rec. I'll see whether they're really worth the exorbitant price I paid to have them shipped to me.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Ellen

                          Agreed - potatoes are like rice: a relatively bland (in a good way), starchy staple that really shines when it absorbs (and thus provides an interestingly textured vehicle for) flavors provided by other elements of a meal, e.g. meat drippings, sauces, butter, salt, etc.

                          If you're a potato lover like I am, you appreciate the subtle differences in flavor and texture that different varieties provide, but you're never going to find a potato that - by itself - offers the intense, distinct flavor of a pungent herb, fruit, meat or whatever. That's just not what potatoes are for.

                          Personally I like the way that Yukon Golds (and similar varieties) provide a sweet backdrop to all sorts of mashed-potato preparations (lots you can do with mashed potatoes, but the bulk of the flavor variation comes from the other ingredients), the faintly metallic flavor that true new potatoes (all varieties) have when boiled, lightly smashed, and served with butter and herbs, the crisp/soft character that fingerlings get when roasted in pan drippings, etc.

                          I also like the way that different varieties look - appearance is part of the experience of eating a meal.

                          But even so I wouldn't trust myself ina blind taste test of different sub-varieties (i.e. different fingerlings) prepared identically. Probably some folks have taste buds that can make that differentiation, but even if that's true I doubt many people would argue that the difference between a Russian Banana fingerling and a French fingerling is as dramatic as the difference between, say, a scallion and a leek.

                          1. re: GDSwamp

                            Potatoes ARE a lot like rice -- and just like I can instantly tell the difference between Thai jasmine rice and Uncle Ben's Nutritionally-Void Converted Rice-Shaped Rabbit Pellets, I can tell the difference, even boiled and mashed, between your typical matte brown supermarket russet and a Yukon Gold.

                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                              I'm sure you can. But I'm not sure that relates to my point.

                              More re: the OP's post. I was in France recently (not to sound nonchalant - I'm not in France very often) and had some very delicious potatoes. But I wouldn't say they were MORE delicious than a nice organic Yukon Gold. They have some YG-esque varieties that are smaller and make for excellent roasting. But again, a potato is always fairly potato-ish

                              1. re: GDSwamp

                                That comparison to rice is a good one.

                                Throughout this topic, even the fans of different varieties, don't name specific varieties that ring their personal bells. The most named are Russet and Yukon Gold which are distinct in their classes ... I am fairly certain in a blind tasting ... really blind ... closing my eyes ... I could pick out a Yukon Gold from its fellow class like butterballs or a gazzilion fingerlings.

                                I like the blue/purple varieties for the color novelty and the fact that they have the same health benefits of any blue produce like blueberries.

                                That seems to sum it up ... a potato is always fairly potato-ish.

                              2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                I don't think I've ever eaten Uncle Ben's rice, but if it is just parboiled, two things come to mind: a) all those Bangladeshis can't be wrong, and b) parboiling drives the nutrients normally lost at milling into the grain where it is readliy available when further cooked.

                          2. Have you ever tried blue fingerling potatoes, not sure what the varietal is called? I'm not sure what their prime season is, probably right about now, because I remember serving them for Xmas Eve dinner one year. They have an elusive nutty sweetness that is delicate and delicious. I have roasted them, and I've made skin-on smashed potatoes with them (beware the mash will be purple). So good!

                            1. I must have a dead tongue as far as potatoes go, because I just can't discern much difference between varieties in terms of taste, either. Or it could be that nearly all the potatoes I've eaten have been grown within 30 miles of where I live, so they're bound to taste the same irrespective of variety. OTOH, *textures* vary widely, mostly due to the differing levels of starchiness.

                              1. I'll agree with the posters about preparation. When preparing them in various ways, either by cooking means or adding other ingredients, the texture and flavor differences become more pronounced.

                                But then you get back into preference, and those differences are not extreme anyway.

                                1. Have you ever tried Japanese Yams? They look a bit like regular yams from the outside, but when you cut into them, they have the white/yellowish color of a regular potato. They are a little sweet, but not overly so like regular yams/sweet potatoes.

                                  I like to slice them and roast them in the oven with some olive oil and salt.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Melanie

                                    I had some with oden yesterday. My favorite part of it actually - creamy, slightly sweet. Much better than reg sw. potatoes, yams.

                                    1. re: Melanie

                                      Yes Melanie I have tried Japanese Yams. However, yams/sweet potatoes are a different thing with distinct tastes. I would guess in a blind tasting I could identify by taste (and a little texture) alone which was the Jewel, Beauregard, etc. There's this Japanese purple sweet potato I really like. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find the farmer who grew them for a few years now.

                                      1. re: rworange

                                        Okinawa purple potato....delicious!

                                        Have you searched philipino markets for ube, rworange?

                                    2. Boiling potates is the best way to kill their flavor. What is the point? You can bring out their flavor (kennebuck & german butterballs &russian or bananna fingerlings are favorites) by steaming them gently and then tossing in a hot pan with butter until the brown slightly. Or roast in a hot oven with olive oil. Or roast in a hot over with salt.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: JudiAU

                                        Good point about boiling killing flavor. I'm going to have to play with roasting, etc. It would also be interesting to take the same variety and prepare in in different ways ... boiled, steamed, roasted, baked, fried and see how different it would taste ... if at all. Of course, the oil in roasting or frying would skew those preps in term of flavor.

                                        I might try the Kennebec to start with. I was really impressed that it had a distinct flavor ... ALTHOUGH ... it was the biggest potato and didn't cook to the center. I'm wondering if that left a little more flavor and taste.

                                      2. a couple of observations -

                                        yes, potatoes are fairly bland and similar in flavor (more differences in texture/use) it is a subtle thing like rice.

                                        the floury potatoes we used to get in scotland were fabulous - they were smaller than those here and still had dirt on them. I believe that our commercial practices, long storage, standardization militate against the best fresh flavor.

                                        A couple weeks ago I bought a bag of yukon golds which we cooked, mashed lightly with skins and sprinkled with a bit of olive oil and rosemary. We commented on how fantastic they were in flavor and texture.

                                        Im never going to be found eating potatoes every day, but we will be putting them back into the rotation a bit more.

                                        1. The best potato I ever had was at a trout restaurant in the Black Forest in Germany. Freshly dug from the restaurant's garden, the flesh was deep yellow with a pronounced buttery flavor. One of the best meals I've ever had: Poached trout from their own pond, a simple salad of greens from their garden, and the steamed potatoes. Heaven!

                                          11 Replies
                                          1. re: pikawicca

                                            All that clarified butter drizzled over the blue trout and potatoes didn't either, no?

                                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                                              No butter, no way! My husband couldn't believe it either, so I dumped some potato out onto a napkin to see if any fat would be absorbed -- zero! It's pretty easy to determine if your restaurant food is fat-laden, but it's not pretty: You have to be willing to make a specatcle of yourself.

                                              1. re: pikawicca

                                                Ha! Sorry, the two times I've had plain blue trout (forelle blau) fresh from the pond with potatoes in Germany, it's accompanied by a whole gravy boat per person of clarified butter.

                                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                  "In einem Bächlein helle da schwamm in froher Eil die launische Forelle, worüber wie ein Pfeil..."

                                                  You're making me salivate. I haven't had forelle blau with potatoes and butter in YEARS.

                                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                    At the Forella Hof just outside of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, there was no butter in evidence, and it was not needed at all.

                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                      That is home to one of the most beautiful churches I have seen in my life.

                                                      1. re: kare_raisu

                                                        Yes, it is gorgeous (and surrounded by a wonderful farmers' market).

                                              2. re: pikawicca

                                                All the German potatoes my grandmother in Germany ever served were much more flavorful than anything I've had here. She bought a giant pile of them in the late summer or early fall and stashed them in her cellar, so they weren't freshly dug up, but wow, were they good. Those potatoes had amazing flavor. I have also tried potatoes from the farmer's market around here hoping to find something like that and haven't been able to so far. But honestly, we Americans have been busily breeding the flavor out of stuff for years, so it will all keep better. I tasted a melon in France this summer that was so sweet and delicious it almost made me pass out. After I got back I ran to the Farmer's Market to buy an organic cantelope and it was unbelievably bland. It used to be various cultures had to spice their food intensely so it would keep or mask off flavors, now we have to spice everything so it has some flavor. Ah, progress.

                                                1. re: suse

                                                  You should go to Australia and eat a banana: it's worth the trip. I couldn't believe the intensity of flavor! They grow many diferent types, all delicious.

                                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                                    Ha! I was always a little on the fence about going to Australia - long flight from the States and all....but the banana just put me over the edge. On the fruit front - go to China and try a strawberry in season. They're sad looking little half green things but pack a punch. Even organic strawberries in the States, while often fragrant, have had most of their flavor bred out of them. Sigh...

                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                      Bananas in south america also come in variety of sizes and colors all with different flavors and very delish.

                                                2. Last year, I found some Rose Finn Apple fingerlings at Berkeley Bowl. I sliced some into coins and fried them in duck fat. They were so good I kept slicing and frying until the duck fat was gone. And while I have to give the fat some credit, I do think they were the most delicious potatoes I've ever had. I'm trying to find words to explain why they were so tasty, and I'm failing miserably. Unfortunately, I haven't seen them again, but I look every time I go to BB...

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: daveena

                                                    That’s my favorite kind of potato, too. I wish I’d thought to fry them in duck fat. I'll try it next time.

                                                    If you don't mind ordering your potatoes from out of state, you might want to check out Wood Prairie Farms in Maine. There’s a profound difference in flavor between all their potatoes and what I can buy locally. (This was true even when I was living in the Boston area; I’m now in Austin, Texas.)

                                                    I found Wood Prairie’s Rose Finn Apple fingerlings to be especially good this year. Here's a link to their website:

                                                    http://www.woodprairie.com/catalog/in...

                                                    This small, certified-organic family farm is run by people who know their potatoes—and want me to love them, too. When I place orders, they always warn me about any varieties that didn’t do well that year and steer me to the best-tasting options.