The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, whose other members include tomatoes, aubergines, and bell peppers. Potatoes vary in size, shape, color, starch content, and ﬂavor. Surprisingly, there are about 100 varieties of edible potatoes. They are often classiﬁed as either mature potatoes, which are the large potatoes that we are generally familiar with, or new potatoes, which are the smaller varieties that are harvested before maturity.
Some of the popular varieties of mature potatoes in the U.S. include the Russet Burbank, the White Rose, and the Katahdin, while the Red LeSoda and Red Pontiac are two types of new potatoes. In the U.K., 75 percent of the potato crop comes from seventeen varieties, four of which account for half of the crop: Maris Piper, Cara, Record, and Pentland Dell.
The Jersey Royal is, of course, the most well-known new potato. There are also delicate ﬁngerling varieties of potatoes, which, as their name suggests, are ﬁnger-shaped. The skin of potatoes is generally brown, red, or yellow and may be smooth or rough; the ﬂesh is yellow or white. There are also other varieties that feature purple-gray skin and a deep violet ﬂesh. As potatoes have a neutral starchy ﬂavor, they serve as a good complement to many meals. Their texture varies slightly depending upon their variety and preparation, but it can be generally described as rich and creamy.
Potatoes are native to the Andes mountains of Bolivia and Peru, where they have been cultivated for more than 7,000 years. Sometime during the early part of the sixteenth century, potatoes were taken to Europe by Spanish explorers. Potatoes are a hearty crop and became a favorite food in Ireland, largely as a result of the tremendous rise in population in Ireland in the 1800’s coupled with the declining economy. Because 11/2 acres of land could produce enough potatoes to feed a family of ﬁve, most Irish families came to depend upon potatoes for food.
Then, tragically, the Irish Potato Famine of 1846—1850 took as many as one million lives from hunger and disease and changed the social and cultural structure of Ireland in profound ways. It also spurred new waves of emigration, thus shaping the histories of the United States and Britain as well.
The potato was brought to the United States in the early eighteenth century by Irish immigrants who settled in New England. By the nineteenth century it was extensively cultivated. Today, the potato is the vegetable that Americans consume more of pound for pound than any other.
Interestingly, more than 40 percent of all potatoes grown in the United States are sold to fast-food companies such as McDonald’s for French fries. In the U.K., potatoes are equally popular, each person eating on average 226 pounds/103 kilograms of potatoes a year, second only to the Portuguese and Irish in Europe. Currently, joining the United States (Idaho and Washington are the top growers) as the main producers of potatoes are the Russian Federation, Poland, India, and China.
Potato Nutritional Highlights
Potatoes are a very good source of many nutrients, including potassium, vitamins B 6 and C, niacin, pantothenic acid, and dietary ﬁber. The protein quality in potatoes is actually moderate, too, with 2.5 grams in a medium potato. Although the protein in potatoes is about the same in terms of content as corn or rice, potatoes contain lysine, an essential amino acid often lacking in grains. It is important to note, however, that most of the nutrients, ﬁber, and protein are found in the skins.
Potatoes are actually low in calories; a medium-sized potato contains only 115 calories. Unfortunately, most people eat potatoes in the form of French fries or chips, hash browns, potato crisps, or baked potatoes smothered with butter or sour cream. In these forms, potatoes become a very-high-calorie food.
Health Benefits of Potato
The health beneﬁts of potatoes relate to their nutrient content, though they may possess other healing properties as well. As an interesting side note, boiled potato peel dressings may be an effective treatment for skin wounds in some third-world countries where modern skin graft procedures are not available. Preliminary studies conducted at a children’s hospital in Bombay,
India, using a dressing prepared from boiled potato peelings attached to standard gauze bandages, have demonstrated good therapeutic effect in promoting healing and keeping a burn from becoming infected. Patients noted pain relief, while physicians noted reduced levels of bacterial contamination and faster healing with the use of boiled potato peel dressings.
How To Select And Store Potato
Use only high-quality potatoes that are ﬁrm and display the characteristic features of their variety. Avoid wilted, leathery, sprouting, or discolored potatoes, especially those with a green tint. Green coloration indicates that the toxic alkaloid solanine may be present. Solanine has not only been found to impart an undesirable taste, but it can also cause a host of different health conditions, such as circulatory and respiratory depression, headaches, and diarrhea.
Since new potatoes are harvested before they are fully mature, they are much more susceptible to the toxic alkaloid solanine. Be especially observant when purchasing new potatoes, inspecting them carefully for discoloration and injury. The ideal scenario for storing potatoes is in a dark, dry place between 45 and 50 degrees F/ 7 and 10 degrees C., as higher temperatures, even room temperature, will cause the potatoes to sprout and dehydrate prematurely.
Unfortunately, this sort of environment is hard to ﬁnd in most modern houses, so most people simple store them in their pantry or cupboard. Keep the potatoes in a burlap, paper, or perforated plastic bag to allow moisture to escape. Potatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator, as their starch content will turn to sugar, giving them an undesirable taste. Also, try not to store potatoes near onions, as the gases that they each emit will cause each other’s degradation. If stored properly, potatoes can keep for up to two months.
Check on the potatoes frequently, removing any that have sprouted or shriveled, as spoiled ones can quickly affect the quality of the others. New potatoes are much more perishable and will keep for only one week. Cooked potatoes will keep fresh in the refrigerator for several days; however, potatoes do not freeze well.
Tips For Preparing
If you are using organically grown potatoes, wash under cold running water and gently scrub with a soft vegetable brush right before cooking. If organically grown potatoes are not being used, soak them in a mild solution of additive-free soap or produce wash, then either peel or scrub them thoroughly with a natural bristle vegetable brush under cool running water.
Remove any deep eyes or bruises with a paring knife. If you elect to peel the potatoes, do so with a vegetable peeler and try to remove only a thin layer of the skin to retain as much nutritional value as possible.
Potatoes without their peel or those that have been cut are easily discolored (oxidized) when exposed to air. If you cannot cook them immediately after cutting or peeling, place them in a bowl of cold water with a little bit of lemon juice. Also, avoid cooking potatoes in iron or aluminum pots, and avoid using a carbon-steel knife to cut them, as these metals can also cause them to discolor.
Quick Serving Ideas for Potato
- Potatoes can be boiled, baked, mashed, or fried.
- Quarter two medium-sized potatoes and brush them with olive oil, then place them on the barbecue and cook them at medium- high heat for 5 to 7 minutes on each side.
- For healthy French fries, cut potatoes into the desired stick shapes, toss them with a little olive oil, place on a baking tray, and bake at 350 degrees F/ 180 degrees C/gas 4 for 20 minutes, then turn with a spatula and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. Season with your favorite spices and enjoy.
- Brush new potatoes with olive oil, sprinkle fresh rosemary leaves on top, and bake at 350 degrees F/180 degrees C/ gas 4 for 45 minutes.
- To make delicious garlic mashed potatoes: purée roasted garlic, cooked potatoes, and olive oil together. Season to taste.
- For salade nicoise, combine chunks of new potatoes with chunks of tuna ﬁsh and steamed green beans; dress lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Since potatoes are among the foods on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found, choose organic varieties when available. If organic potatoes are not available, soak them in a mild solution of additive-free soap or produce wash, then either peel or scrub thoroughly with a natural bristle vegetable brush under cool running water.
Potatoes are one of the vegetables in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, which includes aubergine, peppers, and tomatoes. Anecdotal case histories link improvement in arthritic symptoms with removal of these foods. Although no case-controlled scientiﬁc studies conﬁrm these observations, some individuals consuming nightshade-family vegetables experience an aggravation of arthritic symptoms and may beneﬁt from limiting or avoiding these foods.