A good potato dish will readily bring out a smile for just about anyone. With so many varieties suited to different climates, they are commonly grown in many countries throughout the world, and they reach our tables almost daily as a staple in dozens upon dozens of dishes. Potatoes are stomach-fillers, heavy on the carbs but also a good source of potassium, vitamin B6, copper, and other necessary minerals. Plus, they are an unprocessed, inexpensive, and readily available whole food for our homes.

It’s not as if we don’t know potatoes. We know our snacks—the French fries, potato wedges ,and chips. We know our potato salads and soups. We know roasted, baked, fried, hash-browned, casseroled, boiled, broiled, mashed, smashed, and all the in-betweens. Most of us have been eating potatoes regularly for a lifetime. The odd thing is that, despite our familiarity with potatoes, many of us don’t know how to choose the right one for the right dish. Well, that’s easy enough to change.

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Starchy Potatoes: Russet, Idaho & Burbank

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Starchy potatoes typically have brown skins with white interiors and are a bit on the larger side. The high starch content makes for lighter, flakier potatoes with a penchant for absorbing the flavors added to them. Starchy potatoes include the ever-present (1) russet, (2) Idaho, and (3) Burbank, all grown in bulk in the northwestern United States.

These varieties, which are the most common and mass-produced, make for great French fries, potato chips, and baked potatoes. They are also good for mashing, but if they are overworked, the result will be a bit gummier than what most of us want. What these guys don’t do well is hold their texture. When boiled, they tend to fall apart, turning into floury hunks rather than firm bites. So, for salads, scalloped  potatoes or stews, it’s better to go with a different character profile.

Fun Fact #1: Potatoes are member of the deadly nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes and eggplants, and if left to fruit, potato plants will actually produce an inedible fruit that looks similar to a tomato.

Waxy Potatoes: Red, White Round, Peruvian Purple & Fingerlings

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While russets may be the more common, waxy potatoes are certainly no strangers to most dinner tables. They are the potatoes with thin —and more often than not—red skin. These varieties hold their shape well, have moister, creamy interiors and make for a smooth rather than flaky texture. This group includes (4) red potatoes,  (5) white rounds, (6) Peruvian purples, and (7) fingerlings.

Waxy potatoes are the ideal choice for stews and potato salads, those times when holding form is paramount to the dish. They also do well when blended, making soups creamier as opposed to gluey, (as the starchier varieties would do). Aesthetically, this group is also great at adding a little color to dishes, and they are the potato of choice for scalloped and other casserole dishes. Where they aren’t at their best is producing a fluffy, light texture.

Fun Fact #2: Red potatoes are often called “new” potatoes, but in actuality, a new potato is any variety that is harvested before reaching maturity. They are obviously smaller and tend towards the waxy, creamier side of the spectrum.

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All-Purpose Potatoes: Yukon Gold, Yellow & Yellow Finn

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So then, all-purpose potatoes are those that fall somewhere between the starchy and waxy spuds, able to perform a wider variety of tasks but perhaps, at times, with less proficiency than the more specialized choices. Some of the most popular all-purpose potatoes now available are (8) Yukon Gold, (9) yellow potatoes, and (10) the Yellow Finn.

All-purpose potatoes can make nicely balanced mashed potatoes. They also work fine for potato salads when they are not overcooked, and they perform excellently on the grill, in a steamer or from the grater, as in for potato pancakes or hash browns. In truth, they can do just about everything we can ask of a potato, so when it comes to having a stock of potatoes around for a rainy day, this lot is the choice.

Fun Fact #3: Potatoes are prolifically diverse, with over 3,000 varieties grown worldwide. They are at their most assorted on the South American continent, where the Inca were the first to cultivate them possibly 10,000 years ago.

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Potatoes undoubtedly deserve all the attention they get. They are easy to grow, fill a plate and please the palate. And, now knowing which to choose for what we are doing, they’ll work even better for us. Ain’t food just grand that way!

See how to use sweet potatoes best here, just in case you were wondering!

Lead Image Source: Coconut and Turmeric Roast Potatoes