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The disaster of Christmas dinner...my scalloped potatoes..what went wrong?

Our traditional Christmas dinner is beef tenderloin with scalloped potatoes. This was the 9th Christmas I've made scalloped potatoes and they were a disaster and I have no idea why.

The basic recipe is 3 pounds Yukon golds, peeled and sliced thin. They are layered with heavy cream (a quart) and a pound of white cheddar. They are baked at 375 for 45 minutes covered and then an additional 30 minutes uncovered. I also always let them sit 30 minutes before serving.

This year they were soupy and the potatoes were not even close to done. I increased the temp to 400 and baked another 30 minutes and the potatoes were a bit better but still al dente. The sauce tasted great (cheese and cream, how could it not?) but it's a soupy mess. Ive never had this happen before.

The only change from previous years is that Dh got organic Yukon golds instead of non-organic.

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  1. Could your oven thermometer be on the fritz?

    4 Replies
    1. re: rockandroller1

      Before putting the potatoes in the baking dish I put them in a big bowl and add some sliced onion and flour and give it a good toss. I don't normally measure the cream but just add until it comes to the top of the baking dish. I have also found that sometimes I have to bake it longer than the recipe suggests in order for it to firm up.

      1. re: millygirl

        Sounds like the potatoes were the problem, though I use organic potatoes sometimes and they seem to cook the same.

      2. re: rockandroller1

        I did a lot of baking with no problem...I don't think it was the oven.

        1. re: Janet from Richmond

          I doubt the organic nature of the potatoes made the difference, it must have just been those particular potatoes; maybe they were picked before they should have been? I don't know much about gardening or growing vegetables. But it just seems like an oven problem if they were also soupy in addition to being not done, that to me says things weren't cooking properly.

      3. Happend to to the wife a few years ago not a clue why as well....


        1. Did the cream break, was there any curdling? I have had that happen, and now always make a base white sauce first, add cheese to sauce. Can't think of another thing that could cause that.

          1 Reply
          1. The "variable" are pretty limited here -- cooking time/temp and the ingredients. It is possible that the potatoes themselves were somehow 'different' (maybe they had gotten frozen or something?) but more likely someone (or something) was futzing with your oven. A few extra "peeks" by well meaning busy bodies can really lenghten cooking times. Another that can happen is some how the oven gets sets to the wrong "mode" and doesn't really attain the temp you want for the length of time called for -- in some cases this is not a "malfunction" as helpers are notorious for not putting the oven into the mode you really need -- bake, not time bake or speed bake or convection bake or sensor bake or what have you...

            You could go all "Capt, Queek" on your family/guests and inquire as to who did what, but the easier thing to do is make a second batch in a few days or weeks-- in the intrest of verifying the operation of the stove. Like has been said, the cream, cheese, and taters won't go looking for takers...

            1 Reply
            1. re: renov8r

              The potatoes came from Fresh Market and were purchased on Saturday and kept in the pantry until used on Tuesday. Dh and I were the only ones there while they were cooking and the oven was only opened to remove the foil between the cooking time covered and uncovered. I think the issue is the taters themselves, but not sure what the issue was. They seemed normal when I was peeling and slicing.

            2. Organic or not, potatoes can be a month old or almost a year old, and vary in quality. Since you've made this successfully so many times, it sounds like you got a funky batch of potatoes!

              1. There's a Joel Robuchon recipe where you gently boil the sliced potatoes in milk for about 5-10 minutes before you assemble them in the gratin pan with the other ingredients. This should eliminate the "raw" problem. Adds another layer of richness too.

                2 Replies
                1. re: whs

                  There is also a Cooks Illustrated recipe where the sliced potatoes are simmered for a brief time in the white sauce before being layered in the gratin dish. This works very well and insures that the potatoes will be cooked. Were your potatoes sliced any thicker than normal, perhaps, Janet?

                  1. re: cookingschool

                    Nope...they were thin and even the thinnest ones weren't done any more than their slightly thicker counterparts.

                2. I don't think it's anything you did. I have had this problem before too, and no amount of cooking seems to solve it - it's something to do with the potatoes themselves - they just don't want to cook properly and absorb the liquid. Maybe russets would be better choice for a recipe like this, since they do tend to be a little more floury, but that's all I could suggest!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Alice Q

                    Thanks...I think next time (right now it's hard to imagine a 'next time' <g>) I will go back to a safe bag of russets.

                    1. re: Alice Q

                      I've also had this happen on several occasions. It's so discouraging... b/c quite frankly, scalloped potatoes are a somewhat laborous endeavor. I consider myself to be an experienced cook, but I no longer make them b/c of the few failed attempts I've had w/o explanation.

                      I feel your pain, Janet. You're not alone!

                    2. I had a similar menu last night. I use Julia Child's method (which she got from Chez Panisse). I simmer the thinly sliced potatoes plus a smashed garlic clove, 2 bay leaves, salt and white pepper to taste in a havy skillet, with the potatoes covered in cream. Cook just below simmer for an hour, or until potatoes are tender. Potatoes and cream are then moved to an oven proof dish, sprinkled with a bit of grated Gruyere or other cheese, and baked at 425 until brown on top and bubbling. One of the benefits is that you'll know very soon if your potatoes are cooking or not.

                      1. The last time I made scalloped potatoes I had your same problem. This time I sliced russet potatoes on the mandoline about 1/4 " place them in a large oval dish that had been sprayed with non-stick. I salt and peppered each layer as I went. Then I had a solution of 2 cups heavy cream mixed with one cup chicken broth. I poured enough liquid over the layer to cover then sprinkled my grated cheese liberally over this layer. I repeated until the dish was 3/4 full, ending up with cream and cheese. I covered the dish and put it into a 350 oven for one hour and 50 minutes. Then I removed the foil and put some extra cheese on top and put the dish back into the oven for 10 minutes when the cheese was slighly browned and the whole dish was bubbling. Perfect potatoes!!

                        1. Since you've done exactly the same thing in the past, it's hard to pin point exactly what went wrong but this article has a lot of good information on making scalloped potatoes, to whether rinsing is good, or what to do if you have too much water (which is what it sounds like with your problem--potatoes vary, obviously, and maybe the weather caused moister potatoes or something).


                          1. I'm voting for the potatoes also. I make a version of gratin from Fine Cooking, and usually use the Yukon Golds, but once used red potatoes- and they did exactly what you describe.

                            So, I did a little search on potato varieties, and the starch content between varieties can make a huge difference. So my guess here is that this batch of Yukons were different that the ones that you've used in the past. Lower starch means they will be waxier, and do what yours did, if I remember correctly.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: cheesemonger

                              cheesemonger, something you said just clicked in my head....there are more than one yellow-fleshed potato variety out there. However, Yukon Gold is the name that people recognize. Also, what with cross breeding of varieties and all, it could be, in searching for a more versatile potato, a more starchy potato was crossed with what we know of as a Yukon Gold, or vice versa. The reason I say it that way, is that when I first heard of, and tried Yukon Golds, I thought they were more of a waxy potato, and in more recent years, they've been more starchy. (I remember seeing, on some tv show, the chef highly recommending the "buttery looking and tasting" Yukon Golds for mashed, yet when I cooked them, I found them to be more suited to a potato salad) As Janet used organics, I wonder if they were maybe of the older variety.


                            2. Are you sure you've done it exactly this way in the past? 375 degrees for 45 minutes does not seem nearly long enough. I'd think 90 minutes at this temperature.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: pikawicca

                                I made scalloped potatoes essentially the same way yesterday and was also unsatisfied. My potatoes were Maine. Cooked for about 90 min - still too firm.
                                Note that the Patricia Wells Bistro Cooking recipes I was looking at all called for russets. Wish I had read the book before sending my husband to the store. Judging by past experience, I think that one of the recipes calling for cooking the potatoes first in milk until tender, then layering and baking would have worked better.

                                1. re: pikawicca

                                  plus thirty minutes uncovered, then thirty minutes of sitting time - that sounds right, as long as the potatoes aren't too waxy.

                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                    It was 45 minutes covered, then 30 minutes uncovered and then they sat for 30 minutes. And yes, I've done it this exact way many times. I do think the issue was the potatoes...

                                  2. I par-simmered some 3/16" sliced Yukons recently for 10 minutes, then layered them in circles in a heated cast iron pan...
                                    Butter, potatoes, bacon crumbles, scallions, paprika for color, cheddar, swiss, 'pre-heated' cream, S&P, and some garlic powder...

                                    Tossed into a 475F oven for an hour...
                                    The top and bottom got crusty and brown from the hot oven and the cast iron...

                                    They looked real good in the cast iron skillet too...

                                    It was a scene man...

                                    If you add too much cream, the heat of a 375F oven might not reduce it in an hour...
                                    And cold cream won't help...

                                    Thinner taters, hot ingredients, just enough cream, not too deep a cooking vessel...
                                    I think that's the combo...

                                    I do a cheesy bechamel when I do Mac & Cheese---- I haven't tried it with scalloped potatoes yet since they came out so good the few times I did 'em...

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Mild Bill

                                      I am definitely going to warm the cream next time and simmer the potatoes.

                                      1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                        I've had this problem before. It happened when I doubled the recipe and cooked in a larger than normal baking dish.

                                    2. The potatoes probably had a higher water content. My recipe calls for sprinkling each layer with a bit of flour. Try that next time just to be on the "safe side".

                                      1. Janet from Richmond, I just wanted let you know that the other night, and this is the first time that this has ever happened to me by the way, I could not get the potatoes to cook through no matter what.

                                        I did make a different dish, lemon potatoes, with garlic and red onions.
                                        I have made these oodles of times, and even made them for a large party which they were delicious, cooked and puffed on the outside creamy on the inside
                                        The russets I used would not cook, I started them covered with foil in a convection oven. After 45 minutes I uncovered them and to give them 15 minutes more. Nope. They should of been done.

                                        I transferred them to the gas oven, following the same steps as before, but added more lemon juice since now the lemon juices was probably cooked off. By this time the DH is really hungry (dieting). Not wanting to give up, I tried another 35-40 minutes.
                                        Forget it. They never cooked and were the consistency of hard rubber. These were russets newly purchased by the pound. I have no way to know their real age though, purchasing from a market.

                                        I hope that this report on my experience is helpful, my feeling is that you did nothing wrong with the scalloped potato dish, it was the potatoes that were the problem.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: chef chicklet

                                          Yes it is. And I am sorry that happened to you....it is so frustrating.

                                        2. some potatoes are APpotatoes - some are bakers and some are boilers and it all has to do with starch content. It makes a huge difference in how moisture is absorbed and in texture. Apply the wrong type of heat to the wrong type of potato and you get undercooked or mealy poatoes.

                                          1. I've been thinking about this post a lot, which just shows what a geek I am.

                                            As I mentioned weeks ago, I think it's the starch content.... but why would a potato type that used to produce such fabulous results now be so different? Why would a variety that used to be starchy be so waxy now?

                                            My theory is this: potatoes (like most produce) are most likely to develop more sugars in the product the longer they are on the plant/in the ground. As potatoes develop, they use sugars for growth "tuber bulking", and then there are the sugars are stored during "tuber maturation". This way, the produce has plenty of time to develop to be what we expect. And starch is just a complex sugar.

                                            Unfortunately, the trend is to pick produce *before* it's fully ripe to extend shelf life, and therefore that produce never ripens fully- never has the opportunity to get the sugars from the plant that make them properly vine ripened.

                                            I hypothesize that potatoes are being harvested earlier (at tuber bulking) to maximize profits by minimizing dirt time. Therefore, we are all having issues with waxy potatoes because we are all eating less ripe potatoes, that haven't gone through maturation and starch development.


                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: cheesemonger

                                              p.s. Did you know there was a scientific journal called "Potato Research"? Well there is. Anyway, I found an article that found that starch increases during growth to a maximum, and then decreases. So, as with most produce, there is an optimum harvest time.

                                            2. For all the love organic products get, this is one of their (many IMO) drawbacks. They are less consistent.

                                              I think you were burned by an aberrant batch of organic potatoes.

                                              1. It seems as though you have two problems: a. the potatoes wouldn't cook and b: it was soupy. the solution for b. as mentioned before, is to make a white sauce instead of just using cream. the solution for a. would seem to be to precook by boiling particularly stubborn potatoes, although it would be frustrating because how do you know they're "particulary stubborn" until after you've made the dish? Then there's always solution c., which is to start all over again another time, which is what I do when the myterious kitchen gods are angry for whatever reason, and try to break it down piece by piece until i can zero in on the problem.