Russet potatoes – otherwise known as Idaho potatoes in North America – are in many ways the consummate potato. A large all-rounder with mealy white flesh and dark brown skin, they’re great for baking, mashing, roasting, french-frying – the lot. They’re also perfect for potato chips (or crisps to the Brits).
And so, in honour of National Potato Chip Day in the US, let’s take a deep dive into the humble russet – its origins, its uses, and how to get the very best out of it in your cooking.
Russet Potatoes: Origins, Uses and Varieties
The russet potato has its roots in the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century. The American botanist Luther Burbank developed a new breed of potato with the intention of creating one highly resistant to the potato blight that ravaged Irish agriculture.
That potato, the russet Burbank – so called because of its russeted skin (and the name of its creator, of course) – remains the most widely cultivated potato in the United States. It has also spawned over 40 other varieties of russet potato, with the next most common being the russet Norkotah. (More on that later.)
Chefs like cooking with russet potatoes for several reasons. Their long oblong shape makes them great for French fries (they’re the potato used in McDonald’s fries). Their thick skin goes deliciously crispy when baked or roasted. Their mealy white flesh makes perfectly fluffy mash. And they also have very few 'eyes' compared to other types of potato, so they’re visually appealing as well.
Difference Between Russet Burbank and Russet Norkotah
Russet Burbanks and russet Norkotahs are very similar but have subtle differences.
Russet Burbanks have what is known as a 'higher specific gravity'. That’s just a fancy way of saying they have a more solid flesh and, consequently, store less water. Russet Norkotahs taste pretty much the same as the Burbanks, but their lower specific gravity makes them slightly better for baking, mashing and roasting.
Russet Burbanks are also fine for those things, but slightly more suited to making fries or potato chips, where it’s essential they hold their thin shape.
How to store russet potatoes
With proper storage, potatoes should last for at least a few weeks before sprouting, shrivelling, or losing their flavour. Fortunately, it isn’t difficult to do. Just follow these easy steps.
Only potatoes in tip-top condition should be considered for storing long-term. Check for sprouts, mould, softening, or damage. Throw out the worst offenders and consider eating the imperfect but edible ones that evening.
Make sure the container for your potatoes is well ventilated. Cardboard boxes, baskets, and paper or mesh bags are all suitable. Plastic bags are a complete no-no.
Store your potatoes somewhere cool, dark, and preferably humid. An unheated basement or pantry is ideal. Be careful not to go too cold, though. Refrigerator temperatures mess with the starches.
One bad potato can ruin the whole bunch. Be sure to check your potatoes regularly and remove any that have gone bad. Sprouting potatoes are okay to keep so long as they haven’t shrivelled.
How to Prep Russet Potatoes
Preparing potatoes for cooking generally comes down to peeling and soaking.
Should you Peel Russet Potatoes?
For some people, there’s nothing quite like a crispy potato skin. For others, the thought of eating skins just makes them feel icky. So it often just comes down to personal taste. With that said, there are pros and cons to both skin-on and skin-off russets, and most of those apply to other types of potato too.
First, it’s important to note that most of a potato’s nutrients are in its skin. Leaving the skin on is simply the healthier option (just makes sure to clean them thoroughly and cut out any nasty looking blemishes).
Not peeling also provides a more rustic touch – look no further than those fashionable skin-on fries for an example. Leave the skin for chunky soups, stews and chowders.
However, peeling has its advantages too. For instance, you’ll find achieving a consistent all-over crisp to your roast potatoes is much easier with peeled potatoes, even if they end up looking a bit store-bought. But the one recipe where peeling is essential is mashed potatoes. Good luck making those silky smooth with bits of resilient potato skin in the mix.
Should you Soak Russet Potatoes?
This one has a much simpler answer: yes. At least, almost always.
You see, soaking your chopped potatoes in a large bowl of cold water will rinse off any excess starch, which will help your russets crisp better in the pan or oven. You can soak them for anywhere between 30 minutes and all night. Just be sure to dry them off before cooking.
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