Potatoes 101

History of the potato

The cultivation of potatoes is believed to date back to 500 B.C. The hardiness of potatoes rendered them the ideal crop for the mountainous regions of Peru, where fluctuating temperatures, poor soil conditions, and thin air made it nearly impossible to harvest wheat or corn. Potatoes didn’t make their way into Europe until the early 1500s. Spanish conquistadors invaded South America in search of gold and silver and began carrying the potatoes back to their homeland aboard their ships. The Spanish sailors appreciated the “tartuffos” (as they were called) for the protection they offered from scurvy (later found to be due to their significant vitamin C content).

Today, roots and tubers are the third largest carbohydrate food source, with potatoes representing nearly half of all root crops consumed (FAO/WHO report 1998). Potatoes are grown in all 50 states of the U.S. and in about 125 countries throughout the world, and they continue to be valued for their durability and the fact that they are nutrient rich. Potatoes have long held the prominent position of being America’s favorite vegetable, and in 2008, 79% of American’s consumed potatoes in-home 3.4 times in the average two-week period, according to National Eating Trends©, a service of the NPD Group. In October 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. That collaborative project between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of Wisconsin, Madison was conducted with the goal of feeding astronauts on long space voyages and, perhaps, eventually feeding future colonies in space.

How to buy and store potatoes

Look for clean, smooth, firm-textured potatoes with no cuts, bruises or discoloration.

  • Store potatoes in a well-ventilated place, optimally at a temperature between 45°F and 55°F.
  • Colder temperatures (as in a refrigerator) cause a potato’s starch to convert to sugar, resulting in a sweet taste and discoloration when cooked. If you do refrigerate, letting the potato warm gradually to room temperature before cooking can reduce the discoloration.
  • Avoid areas that reach high temperatures (beneath the sink or beside large appliances) or receive too much sunlight (on the countertop near a window).
  • Perforated plastic bags and paper bags offer the best environment for extending shelf-life.
  • Keep potatoes out of the light.
  • Don’t wash potatoes (or any produce for that matter) before storing. Dampness promotes early spoilage.


  • Green on the skin of a potato is the build-up of a chemical called Solanine. It is a natural reaction to the potato being exposed to too much light. Solanine produces a bitter taste and if eaten in large quantity can cause illness.
  • If there is slight greening, cut away the green portions of the potato skin before cooking and eating.
  • Sprouts are a sign that the potato is trying to grow. Storing potatoes in a cool, dry, dark location that is well ventilated will reduce sprouting.
  • Cut the sprouts away before cooking or eating the potato.

Fresh Potato Varieties

This is the most widely used potato variety in the United States. High in starch, light and fluffy when cooked, russets are ideal for baking, mashing, frying and roasting.


With rosy skin and white flesh, red-skinned potatoes have a firm, smooth, moist texture well-suited for salads, roasting, boiling and steaming. Round reds are often referred to as “new potatoes,” but the term “new” technically refers to any variety of potato that is harvested before reaching maturity.


Round and long whites are medium in starch with a creamy texture. They hold their shape well after cooking and are so versatile that they can be used in most potato preparations.


Firm, waxy and flavorful, these small, slender potatoes are fingersize (2-4 inches long) and come in different shapes and colors - red, gold, yellow and purple - with flavors like those of their larger potato cousins. Due to their small size, fingerlings cook quickly and their color and shape make for a welcome visual addition to any dish.

Originally from South America, blue and purple potatoes are new to the scene in the United States. They have a subtle nutty flavor with flesh ranging from dark blue or lavender to white. Microwaving best preserves color, but steaming and baking are also recommended.


Widely used in Europe, yellow-skinned potatoes are becoming popular in the United States. Dense, creamy texture and golden color mean you can use less or no butter for lighter dishes.