Creamy? Fluffy? Smashed? How to choose the perfect potato for the job

Creamy? Fluffy? Smashed? How to choose the perfect potato for the job

It happened to be a potato-y few weeks in the L.A. Times test kitchen. Between testing Ali Slagle’s recipe for Crushed Potatoes With Leek-Peppercorn Butter and developing a recipe for Corned Beef Hash and the ensuing photo shoot, we probably went through 15 to 20 pounds of potatoes. I’m Julie Giuffrida, here to give you the skinny on cooking with potatoes, because while sometimes a cigar may be just a cigar, a potato is never just a potato.

We tend to classify the thousands of types as baking potatoes, boiling potatoes, white potatoes, red potatoes, yellow potatoes, fingerlings, blue potatoes, new/baby potatoes and the like. In my mind, all potatoes are on a spectrum from high-starch to low-starch (a.k.a. waxy).

At the starchy end are russets — the most common starchy potato found in America — which are also called baking potatoes and, when they have been grown there, Idaho potatoes. Best used for baked, mashed, French fries, latkes and pureed soups, they have a grainy texture and low moisture content and when cooked they are light and fluffy.

At the opposite, waxy end, are red and baby/new potatoes. These are thicker-skinned potatoes that have a high moisture content and retain their shape well when cooked. They are best used for roasting, boiling, steaming and skin-on potato salads. They can get gummy if mashed. These are good candidates for the Crushed Potatoes With Leek-Peppercorn Butter, as boiling is the cooking method for the recipe.

Yellow potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), fingerlings, white and purple potatoes fall in the middle of the starchy-waxy spectrum. They hold their shape well when boiled or steamed and get creamy in the center when cooked. They can bake up light and fluffy and are also good mashed. These are also good candidates for the Crushed Potatoes recipe because after being boiled, they are slightly smashed and so need to both retain their shape and also have some give once cooked.

For the Corned Beef Hash, the potatoes are diced, boiled briefly and then fried in a skillet. The potato needs to hold its shape well and have a soft, fluffy or creamy interior after frying and crisping the exterior. While both russets and Yukon Golds worked with the recipe, I preferred the creamy, buttery interior of the yellow potatoes to the fluffiness of the russets as well as the added assurance that they wouldn’t fall apart in the pan.

Here are a few more examples of how the type of potatoes you choose will affect the dish.

Julia Turner’s German Potato Balls require a starchy potato — either russets or Yukon Golds will work — as they get mashed before being rolled into marble-size dumplings that are then gently sauteed in butter until golden brown. Which to use comes down to whether you prefer creamy to fluffy and/or the buttery flavor of the yellow potatoes.

Yukon Golds make a slightly creamier mash than russets, but if you like it fluffy, stick to the high-starch option. Andy Baraghani suggests either in his recipe for Labneh Creamed Potatoes With Sizzled Garlic. The labneh gives the mash a distinct, almost refreshing tang to go along with all that buttery creaminess.

Similarly, in his recipe for Perfect English Roast Potatoes, Ben Mims offers the option of Yukon Golds or russets. In this case, after boiling until partially cooked, the potatoes are intentionally “roughed up” (by shaking them up in a covered pot) for the purpose of creating craggy edges so they will have more surface area to get crisp when they are gently tossed into a shallow oil bath and then roasted at a very high temperature. The result is extra crispy outside and fluff, fluff, fluffy on the inside (if you use the russets; using Yukon Golds, they will be creamier).

Crushed Potatoes With Leek-Peppercorn Butter

While you could toss potatoes with a pat of butter and enjoy them heartily, a few small steps will accentuate their specialness. Start by softening leeks and toasting black peppercorns in the melting butter. Crush the peppercorns yourself just until they break apart for bolts of crunch and spice among the sweet leeks and creamy potatoes — pre-ground pepper won’t have the same electricity. Then, lightly crush the boiled potatoes until their skin splits in spots to help the butter settle into the flesh.

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Cook time: 40 minutes

Crushed potatoes with leek-peppercorn butter

(Yudi Ela Echevarria / For The Times

Corned Beef Hash

What makes this dish great is the play of textures and flavors from the crispy-on-the-outside-creamy-on-the-inside potatoes, caramelized onions and browned corned beef. If you don’t already have leftover corned beef on hand, you can purchase a chunk unsliced from a deli. Alternatively, it is easy to make at home. Purchase a corned beef from the grocery store, rinse it well, put in a large pot with water to cover along with the enclosed pickling spices and simmer gently until it is fork tender, about three hours.

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Cook time: 45 minutes

Corned Beef Hash

(Yudi Ela Echevarria / For The Times)

German Potato Balls

This family recipe for German potato dumplings — an adaptation of kartoffelklösse — is prepared for holidays. It makes about 75 dumplings and can easily be doubled or tripled for a big holiday meal. The dumplings freeze well too, if you want to serve some and freeze the rest for later. Rolling and boiling the dumplings works best as a two-person project, one person rolling and one person monitoring the wiggle-woaggling.

Before boiling all the dumplings, you may want to test two or three to be sure they hold together. If they come apart, mix more flour into the dough in 1-tablespoon increments and retest until the dough coheres.

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Cook time:2 hours 40 minutes

Potato dumplings still in the pot

(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Labneh Creamed Potatoes With Sizzled Garlic

Tangy labneh adds a sour freshness to traditional mashed potatoes, here served with a pool of fragrant garlic butter. The garlic slices used to infuse the butter crisp up when cooled and add a textural crunch against the silky smooth potatoes. You can make the garlic butter ahead of time, but strain out the garlic before storing so it stays crisp. Rewarm them together just before serving.

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Cook time: 45 minutes

Sizzled Garlic and Labneh Creamed Potatoes by Chef Andy Baraghani

(Jennifer Chong / For The Times)

Perfect English Roast Potatoes

This style of roasting potatoes, commonplace in the U.K., creates roast potatoes that are fluffy inside and exceedingly crunchy outside, thanks to a shallow fry in hot oil while in the oven. They’re best eaten hot out of the oven, and this recipe makes enough for four people. But if you don’t have that many mouths to feed, chill any leftovers in the fridge for up to three days. Rewarm them in a 350-degree oven or re-crisp them in a skillet the next morning and top with a fried egg.

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Cook time: 1 hour 15 minutes

A plate full of English roast potatoes.

(Ben Mims / Los Angeles Times)

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