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Potatoes
From Wikibooks, the open-content textbooks collection

A potato is a tuber. Originally from South America the potato is now grown and used as a foodstuff in most parts of the world, and is valued for its relative ease of growing and its high carbohydrate content. It is also extremely versatile in the kitchen, and can be served boiled, roast, baked, shallow-fried or deep-fried. There is a large number of varieties of potato, each of which has its own qualities and uses. Finally some potatoes are harvested while still relatively immature ('new potatoes') while others ('old potatoes') are left to grow to their maximum size. This also affects the texture and flavor.

Sprouts and green parts, caused by light exposure and age, can be very poisonous. (they contain solanine) You should discard any such potatoes. A single green potato can give a dangerous dose of poison. If you insist on eating such potatoes anyway, at least peel them and deep-fry them at 170 C (306 F). Poisoning symptoms include gastrointestinal and neurological effects.

Buying potatoes

For practical purposes, potatoes can be put into three groups, although the distinctions between them are not clear-cut, and there is much overlapping. While the Russet Burbank baking potato is probably the most pleasing for general use, potatoes with oddly-colored flesh often provide antioxidants like beta-carotene and lycopene. Odd colors may hide greening and rotten spots though.

  • The term new potato is most frequently used to describe those potatoes freshly harvested and marketed during the late winter or early spring. The name is also widely used in later crop producing areas to designate freshly dug potatoes which are not fully matured. The best uses for new potatoes are boiling or mashing. They vary widely in size and shape, depending upon variety, but are likely to be affected by "skinning" or "feathering" of the outer layer of skin. Skinning usually affects only their appearance.
  • The term general purpose potato includes the great majority of supplies, both round and long types, offered for sale in markets. With the aid of air-cooled storage, general purpose potatoes are amply available throughout the year. As the term implies, they are used for boiling, frying, and baking, although many of the common varieties are not considered to be best for baking.
  • The term baking potato means a potato grown specifically for baking quality. Both variety and farm location are important factors affecting baking quality. A long variety with fine, scaly netting on the skin, such as the Russet Burbank from Idaho, is commonly used for baking.

With new potatoes, look for firm potatoes that are free from blemishes and sunburn (a green discoloration under the skin). Some amount of skinned surface is normal, but potatoes with large skinned and discolored areas are undesirable. For general-purpose and baking potatoes, look for reasonably smooth, firm potatoes free from blemishes, sunburn, and decay. Avoid potatoes with large cuts, green spots, bruises, decay, sprouting, or shriveling. Potato injuries tend to increase the level of solanine, a deadly poison.

Cooking techniques

Boiling

Old potatoes normally need to be peeled before boiling. Many new potatoes are better when boiled in their skins, but you should of course wash them first. Small potatoes can be cooked whole. Larger potatoes will cook more evenly and quickly if you cut them into roughly egg-sized pieces. 

Put the potatoes in a large enough pan and add enough water to cover them easily. Add a little salt if you like. Bring to the boil. Potatoes will take around 20 minutes to cook through. To test whether they are done, press the tip of a cook's knife into one. It should be able to slip in and out easily. Serve with butter if you're not worried about your weight, with salt if you're not worried about your blood pressure, or with a sprinkling of chopped chives if you want them to look nice.

Mashing

Boil a suitable variety as above, but keep cooking for about 25% longer than needed. Drain the cooking water and attack the potatoes with a knife so that they are cut into small pieces. (This is very therapeutic.) You then need to add some milk and butter (according to taste and waistline) and puree all ingredients. Use a potato-ricer for best results or a hand held masher for possibly lumpy mash. You can use a food processor if you want to produce horrid slime. You can add salt and pepper or other herbs and spices as you wish.

Roasting

Roast potatoes are a good and traditional accompaniment to roast meat. Prepare the potatoes as for boiling, and parboil them for just a few minutes. Then put in the roasting dish around the meat, and baste them with the juices as cooking goes on.

Baking

On a cold day, few things are nicer than a baked potato. Use a large potato, with its skin on. Preheat the oven to very hot (gas mark 7) and put in the potatoes for about an hour. Especially when using an electric oven, it is important to protect the potatoes from drying by covering them with foil or coating them in oil. A lid over the whole batch will do, saving on foil and oil. 

You may put a metal skewer through the potato to help distribute heat evenly. Trial and error are, as usual, your friends. Serve the potato as hot as you can stand it. Fillings can include butter, grated cheese (something strong like cheddar or red Leicester), baked beans, pesto - you name it. And eat the skin - it really is good for you, like your mum said.

Microwave

Perforate the skin with a fork in many places to prevent the potato from exploding. it is important to protect the potatoes from drying by covering them with a damp paper towel or coating them in oil. A low power setting may be a good idea, but you wouldn't be using the microwave if you didn't want fast cooking! Trial and error are, as usual, your friends. Serve the potato as hot as you can stand it. Fillings can include butter, grated cheese (something strong like cheddar or red Leicester), baked beans, pesto - you name it. And eat the skin - it really is good for you, like your mum said.

Deep frying

When you deep fry a potato you turn it from one of the most virtuous vegetables into the tasty, evil, fat-soaked trollop that is the chip (or French fry, if you must). Chips are great, and if you're in the UK, you're probably better off getting them from your local chipshop, where they have the proper equipment, the mountains of salt and the lakes of non-brewed vinegar-like condiment that you need for best results. Deep frying at home is never the same, and it can easily cause a house fire. When things go wrong, the flames commonly stand 2 or 3 feet tall.

But if you must, here's the basic method. Chop the potatoes into chips and leave them in some cold, preferably icy, water for at least twenty minutes. Drain them and dry them as thoroughly as you can with kitchen paper. Use good quality lard or cooking oil with a high smoke point and heat it in a deep-frying pan until it's hot enough. How hot is hot enough? 

The traditional guidance is that a cube of day-old bread should brown in a minute. If you don't have any day-old bread to hand, drop one of your chips in; if the fat's hot enough it will start to cook. Add the chips, using a frying basket. The temperature of the fat will drop sharply, so keep the heat high under the pan. Cook until the chips are browned. Remove the frying basket, and allow the fat to get a little hotter. Then plunge the basket back in for a few minutes to complete the cooking. Keep a fire blanket nearby at all times.

An alternative and safer method is to use a specialist deepfat fryer.

 
 
 
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