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Buying potatoes, the comeback kid

The potato has been bashed more often than mashed these last couple of years, as carbohydrate-phobic Americans pushed spuds off their plates and consumption took a nosedive. But low-carb diets are now pretty much passé, and starchy foods like potatoes are making a comeback. Available in many colorful varieties and convenient forms, potatoes are a versatile, flavorful, high-margin staple to keep in stock and on the menu.

The potato has been bashed more often than mashed these last couple of years, as carbohydrate-phobic Americans pushed spuds off their plates and consumption took a nosedive. But low-carb diets are now pretty much passé, and starchy foods like potatoes are making a comeback. Available in many colorful varieties and convenient forms, potatoes are a versatile, flavorful, high-margin staple to keep in stock and on the menu.

Russets: Named for the color of their skin, reddish-brown russets are the most common potatoes grown in the United States. The Russet Burbank is tops in usage; its large, oblong shape, earthy flavor, high proportion of solids and low moisture make it the preferred choice for drier, fluffy baked potatoes. This starchy variety is also well suited for hand-cut French fries and mashed potatoes, and processors favor it for frozen and dehydrated products.

The Russet Norkotah is a newer potato in this category. It has even-colored skin, a more pronounced oval shape and a lower percentage of solids. Operators looking for a starchy potato with a more neutral flavor profile, moistness and uniformity in shape and size are purchasing this variety, which can be baked, fried and mashed like the Burbank. Other russets include Nooksack (long storage properties due to low sugar content), Gem (a newcomer known for its high yield), Western (good flavor and slightly more moist than the Burbank) and Ranger (larger size geared to the processing industry).

White: Smooth-skinned white potatoes have lower starch content and more moisture than russets, making them a good all-purpose spud. They’re often classified as waxy potatoes and come in both round and long shapes. Whites adapt well to boiling, steaming, roasting and baking and in preparations such as salads, gratins and soups. The White Rose variety is large and slightly flattened, while the Cascade is more oblong in shape, making it convenient for making French fries.

Yellow: The golden flesh and buttery taste and texture of yellow potatoes appeal to chefs looking for a more distinctive spud. Yukon Golds are the most popular; the oval, thin-skinned potatoes keep their deep yellow color after cooking, making them an attractive addition to the plate. Operators have gravitated toward this variety since its “gourmet” image makes for positive menu branding. Yellow Finns are lighter in color but slightly sweeter and hardier than Yukon Golds. The dense, creamy texture and rich, mellow taste of both varieties make them well suited to boiling, mashing, baking, roasting or French frying. Other yellows on the market include Provento, Vivaldi and Satina.

Red: Round, waxy reds vary in diameter from 1 to 21⁄2 inches. They have smooth skins, white flesh and lower starch content than russets and whites. Their firm, crisp texture allows red potatoes to retain their shape during boiling and steaming; they’re perfect for slicing or dicing into soups, stews, stir-fries and salads. Red Bliss, Klondike Rose, Cal Red, Chieftain, Norland and Red La Soda are some of the red varieties available to foodservice.

Blue/Purple: The darlings of trendsetting chefs, these vibrantly colored potatoes are native to South America but are now grown and harvested in the United States. Their skins range in color from blue to dark purple and the flesh is finely textured and nutty in flavor. Varieties like All Blue, Russian Blue and Purple Majesty are purplish blue through and through, and the latter keeps its deep hue when cooked. Blue Pride and Purple Chief have white flesh. Buy purple and blue spuds to make a striking contrast with red and yellow potatoes in salads, roasted combos, soups and sautés. Or menu them on their own as mashed or baked potatoes that stand out on the plate.

Fingerlings: Firm, waxy and flavorful, these small, slender potatoes are finger-sized (2 to 4 inches in length) and range in shape from teardrops to bananas. Varieties are now being grown in every color—red, gold, yellow and purple—with flavors that run the gamut of their larger cousins. Buy fingerlings to mix and match with other baby vegetables or to compose small plates, tapas and inventive sides and salads. Two types with wide distribution are Russian Banana (cream-colored skin and yellow flesh) and Ruby Crescent or French Fingerling (reddish skin and yellow flesh with a red crescent in the center).

New: Small red potatoes are sometimes mistakenly called new potatoes, but true new potatoes are tiny spuds of any color and variety that are sold soon after harvest and not put into long storage. They can be cooked and served skin-on. Operators focusing on local, seasonal produce often specify new potatoes.

Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes are botanically different than other potatoes, but they’re often served as a similar starchy accompaniment or ingredient. North Carolina (the primary commercial producing state) is growing and breeding more varieties and larger crops, so a colorful array of sweet potatoes is becoming available to foodservice buyers.

Orange sweets, the ones most Americans call “yams,” are the most common, though a true yam is a starchy tuber or root vegetable. Orange sweet potatoes have russet skins and light to dark orange flesh that turns out moist, sweet and fluffy when cooked. But farmers are branching out into white, cream and yellow-fleshed semi-sweet varieties, particularly to tap into the growing Asian and Latino markets and the restaurants that are serving those cuisines. A few select breeders are developing purple sweet potatoes to expand the color palette and taste palate, says G. Craig Yencho, an associate professor at North Carolina State University and leader in sweet potato breeding. These have cream-colored skins, light blue to purple flesh and the nutritional benefits of anthocyanin—a potent antioxidant.

Specs & tips

Storability, menu use, plate presentation, flavor and color: consider all when deciding what varieties of potatoes to purchase. If baked and mashed are your mainstays, you can’t go wrong with russets, whites and Yukon golds. If you want to differentiate your menu with specialty potatoes in rainbow colors and global preps, go for the purples, fingerlings and sweets. Waxy reds and whites do best in salads and dishes where shape retention is key. To spec potatoes with your distributor or broker, specify by variety, size, grade and number of cartons or bags.

Storage: Most potatoes are harvested in the fall but modern storage facilities allow year-round availability. When buying direct or from a distributor, make sure the spuds are stored at 95 percent humidity and 45 to 48°F. Below 40°F, the starch starts converting to sugar. In your restaurant, follow the same storage guidelines, making sure the storage area is dark and well ventilated.

Grades: Grades and sizes are standardized for quality. The USDA specifies US No. 1 for potatoes that are tops in appearance and shape; US No. 2 potatoes are not as beautiful, but are fine for peeling, cutting and mashing. Avoid green-tinged, bruised or sprouted spuds.

Fresh: Fresh potatoes usually come in 50 lb. boxes or bags, ranging from 35 to 120 count per container, depending on the size of the spud.

Giants: The steakhouse Idaho potato is a 40 count, meaning the average potato weighs more than a pound. These giants are favored by upscale steakhouses for a dramatic baked potato presentation.

Size: Washington whites, reds, yellows and blues come in sizes A, B and C, measured by diameter. A’s are the largest (a minimum of 17⁄8 inches and 6 ounces); B’s run a minimum of 11⁄2 in. and C’s, sometimes called “creamers,” are about an inch.

Sweets: Sweet potatoes are available in 40 lb. boxes as well as bulk orders to distributors. The size of individual potatoes ranges from six to 20 oz., and carton counts vary from 30 to 90 pieces.

Potato ideation 

Nacional 27, Chicago, IL
This Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ Latin concept features the vibrant food of 27 South and Central American countries. Potatoes have figured prominently in those cuisines, and chef Randy Zweiban makes liberal use of them on the menu.

The Plaintain and Boniato Croqueta ($4.95), an appetizer served over black bean salsa with a dab of roasted garlic aïoli, appears on his Latin Tapas list—a big draw for the bar crowd. The bite-sized croquettes are made with white or yellow sweet potatoes mashed with sweet plaintains and coated with panko (Japanese bread crumbs) for extra crispness.

Zweiban also offers potatoes in mini-courses on his tasting menus ($44). Recent items include Whipped Potatoes and Cod with Herb Salsa and Cumin Crisps and Pumpkin-Potato Chorizo Hash with Apples and Shallots.

Askew, New York City
Executive chef Chris Lim loves potatoes, but he has to work them into the menu in unusual ways—Askew has a small plates format and doesn’t serve entrees. Idaho potatoes are the main ingredient in his Poppyseed Gnocchi with Favas ($12); the potato’s high starch content holds the tender pasta dumplings together. And for a riff on the bistro classic, mussels and frites, Lim garnishes a small pot of garlicky mussels in pernod-scented bouillabaisse broth ($12) with cubed, twice-fried potato croutons instead of serving a side of fries.

A plate of Roasted Fingerlings with grainy mustard ($8) contrasts several tastes and textures. “I poach red and yellow fingerlings in duck fat to lock in their creaminess and tenderize the skins,” Lim says. “Then I bake them with rosemary, garlic and shallots and serve them with mustard and crisp frisee. There are different flavors in every bite.”

Fatz Cafe, Taylors, SC
Eric Holman, VP of concept building and menu development at this 29-unit casual chain, always has baked potatoes and loaded potato skins on the menu, making it easy to cross-utilize leftovers. “We refrigerate extras and dice them up the next day for Fatz’s signature Loaded Baked Potato Soup,” says Holman. “I prefer the starchier Idaho and Washington varieties.”

The rich, creamy potato soup is zipped up with onions and bacon, then garnished with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses and topped with bacon crumbles.

Harbor Beach Marriott, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Although hotel dining guests enjoy traditional rich potato dishes, senior banquet chef Everton Clarke also likes to offer healthy, lighter options. His Potato Stir-Fry teams a variety of colorful vegetables (carrots, red onions, celery, bell peppers, sugar snaps, bok choy and enoki mushrooms) with wedges of russet potatoes in an Asian-style sauce. “It’s a great way to combine vegetables and starch into one banquet dish,” he explains. Clarke enjoys playing with color on the plate, and often uses Peruvian blue potatoes or Hawaiian blue sweets for contrast.

Chair 8, Telluride, CO
With its location right at the base of the mountain, the après-ski crowd that gathers at Chair 8 comes in search of hearty dishes. Chef-owner Jake Linzinmeir delivers with a menu focusing on upgraded American comfort food.
For his Ski Country Shepherd’s Pie, Linzinmeir preps a lamb stew, chock full of carrots, celery, onions and fresh herbs that simmer slowly in dark beer.

While this is braising, he mixes shredded Yukon gold potatoes, cheddar cheese, cream soup base and crème fraîche, layers it into a hotel pan and sprinkles a layer of corn flakes on top. This bakes for 35 to 45 minutes.
“Both the lamb and the potatoes can be held until serving time, then I spoon the stew into an individual oven-proof bowl, cut off a portion of potatoes to cover, and warm it ... to order,” Linzinmeir explains.

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