Potatoes 101: The Ultimate Guide to Everyone's Favorite Tuber
Find everything you ever wanted to know about the humble but mighty potato, from nutrition to cooking styles to easy recipes and ideas.
From Idaho potatoes to red potatoes to purple potatoes, the humble potato is praiseworthy for its amazing versatility, trove of health benefits, and comforting, wholesome flavor. Whether they're mashed with garlic and cream, baked until crisp and cheesy, or simply steamed, potatoes are the ultimate culinary canvas. With more preparations than you can count—from scalloped potatoes to twice-baked potatoes to lyonnaise potatoes, and more—the trusted tater has a place at every gathering from simple weeknight dinners to Thanksgiving celebrations.
Our ultimate guide to potatoes has everything you need to know, including the health benefits of potatoes, common types of potatoes, how to cook potatoes, delicious recipes, and more. Whether you love boiled potatoes, deep-fried potatoes, roasted potatoes, pan-fried potatoes, or grilled potatoes, we have the perfect preparation for you. It’s tough to imagine a world without potatoes—and frankly, we wouldn't want to—so let’s embrace the mighty spud for all that it’s worth!
What Is a Potato?
Contrary to common belief, the potato isn’t a root vegetable like carrots, turnips, or beets. In fact, it’s from a completely different family. Potatoes belong to the Solanaceae or Nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and tomatillos. The potato originates from the Andean mountain region of South America, in Peru and Bolivia. The Andean peoples, who called them papas, heavily relied on potatoes because of their energy-rich nutrients and adeptness to high-altitude growing. Today, the USDA ranks potatoes as the leading vegetable crop in the United States, and also as one of the world’s most important crops alongside wheat, corn, and rice. Potatoes are particularly crucial to developing countries because of their year-round availability and easy nourishment.
While there are many types of potatoes, the most common are russet potatoes, red potatoes, white potatoes, yellow potatoes, purple potatoes, and fingerling potatoes. Because of their neutral flavor, potatoes pair well with nearly any savory dish from salads to soups to meat, poultry, or fish. Whether you fry them, boil them, roast them, or grill them, potatoes can be prepared using virtually any cooking method.
This potato is a stem tuber or an enlarged underground appendage of the potato plant’s stem. Here, the potato stores energy for the entire plant in the form of starch, a complex carbohydrate. Above ground, the potato plant has a woody stem with green leaves and purple flowers. While you may see tomato-like fruit growing from the aboveground portion of the plant, they are toxic and should not be consumed. The more recognizable—and edible—part of the potato is the underground tuber. When the potato plant starts to flower, its tubers are ready to be harvested. Typically, potatoes are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.
Potato Nutrition Information
Packed with ample amounts of energy-rich nutrients, the health benefits of potatoes are boundless. Whether Idaho potatoes, red skin potatoes, or yellow potatoes, all potatoes are an incredible source of complex carbohydrates, or starches, that fuel the body. One medium potato provides about 37 grams of carbohydrates—before you think “carb bomb,” keep in mind that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Potatoes are a whole food carbohydrate source that also pack a slew of additional health perks. While processed foods and soft drinks are high in carbs, they’re also full of added sugars and are not part of a healthy diet.
Potatoes are an incredible source of potassium, an electrolyte that helps keep your body functioning normally. Just one small potato packs 740mg of potassium—more than any other vegetable. The potato skin is a great source of fiber, another complex carbohydrate that helps keep you full and satisfied after eating. Potatoes are also a strong source of vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that boosts immunity, promotes healthy gums, and helps with iron and folate absorption in the body. Lastly, potatoes are full of vitamin B6, which helps regulate metabolism. When cooking potatoes, consider healthier methods that preserve their full nutritional value such roasting, baking, steaming, or grilling, and eat the skin when possible.
Potato vs Sweet Potato vs Yam
While potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams have similar culinary applications, their biological origins are quite different. Potatoes are from the Solanaceae family, while sweet potatoes hail from the Convolvulaceae or Morning Glory family, a large category of vine-like flowering plants. Yams belong to a different family of flowering plants called Dioscoreaceae. Potatoes and yams are stem tubers, but sweet potatoes are root tubers, meaning they can grow underground from any part of the root.
While potatoes are easily distinguishable, yams and sweet potatoes are often confused with one another. Typically, yams will have a rough brown skin and white, orange, or even purple flesh. Sweet potatoes tend to have smoother and lighter skins with orange or white flesh. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are native to South America, but yams are native to Asia. In terms of how to cook sweet potatoes, treat them like russet potatoes—they’re delicious baked whole, boiled and puréed, or deep-fried for crispy sweet potato fries. Yams are often sliced thick and baked with brown sugar and butter, but they also make a hearty addition to stews.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams have similar nutrition properties and are all part of a healthy diet. Sweet potatoes have a higher sugar content than yams and potatoes, which contain little to no natural sugar. Sweet potatoes and yams are fiber-rich, but potatoes are higher in protein. Yams pack an abundance of potassium, while sweet potatoes are loaded with eye-protecting vitamin A. Compare the nutrition of each vegetable below.
Types of Potatoes
A simple way to identify potatoes is by their starch, moisture, and sugar content. Starchy potatoes such as Idaho potatoes tend to have thicker skins and are lower in moisture and sugar. They develop a fluffy texture when cooked and are perfect for baking and deep-frying. Waxy potatoes such as fingerling potatoes and red potatoes have delicate skins and are lower in starch but higher in moisture and sugar. These potatoes hold their shape when cooked and are typically boiled for salads or soups, or pan sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs. Below, we break down common types of potatoes and how you can best utilize them.
Characterized by thin, crisp skin and waxy white flesh, rounded, red skin potatoes come in a variety of sizes. Due to their low starch level, red potatoes are best suited for boiling or steaming, but they also take well to roasting. Their subtle sweetness and creamy consistency makes them perfect for potato salad or as a tasty side to fish.
Also called blue potatoes, purple potatoes are high in the antioxidant anthocyanin, a pigment that lends their unique purple-colored skin and flesh. Studies have shown that this vividly colored potato may also have anti-cancer properties. These mealy potatoes share many of the same qualities as russet potato and work wonders baked whole or sliced thin and crisped in a deep-fryer.
Known for their earthy, buttery, and nutty flavor, many fingerling potatoes are heirloom varieties from the Andes region. Unlike most conventional potatoes, fingerlings are small and oblong-shaped. Their low starch level and waxy texture makes them perfect for roasted potatoes, steamed potatoes, or boiled potatoes. At grocery stores, look for Russian Banana or La Ratte fingerling potatoes.
Also called russet potatoes, Idaho potatoes are commonly baked whole and served with a multitude of toppings from crumbled bacon to sour cream. Idaho potatoes are regarded as the best variety for deep fried potatoes due to their high starch content. Boiling tends to make them fall apart, but you can easily whip them into mashed potatoes.
This round, small- to medium-sized potato takes well to nearly every cooking method from pan-sautéeing to boiling to steaming. Its medium starch level, subtle creaminess, and sweetness makes it a reliable pick for pan-sautéed potatoes, boiled potatoes, or roasted potatoes. Yukon Gold, a type of yellow potato, is ideal for making ultra-creamy mashed potatoes.
New potatoes represent any young potato variety that’s harvested before its starches can fully convert to sugars. The typical season for new potatoes is late spring and early summer. These tender little spuds come in a variety of colors and have a sweeter, ultra-luscious flavor. Try them boiled in salads or roasted as a heavenly side.
How to Cook a Potato
When it comes to cooking potatoes, there are endless methods from roasting to boiling to deep-frying. Different potato varieties take better to certain cooking methods—knowing your potato’s starch content, whether waxy or starchy, will tell you the best way to cook it.
Elevate your potatoes by adding a smoky char with the help of a blazing hot grill. You can cook the potatoes fully on the grill, but you’ll be less likely to burn them by par-cooking them first. You can use red potatoes, yellow potatoes, or russet potatoes. When they’re well-marked on both sides, toss the grilled potatoes with vinegar, mayo, and fresh herbs to make a show-stopping potato salad, or serve them as-is.
Pan-fried potatoes or sautéed potatoes are cooked in hot fat such as clarified butter, bacon fat, or oil until browned and crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The key is to cook your potatoes slowly and evenly without burning. Waxy potatoes such as red potatoes and yellow potatoes work well, but you can use Idaho potatoes if needed. Pan-frying is the foundation of Lyonnaise potatoes, a classic French dish of thinly sliced potatoes sautéed in butter, onions, and thyme.
Baking your potatoes in the oven exposes them to dry heat, which helps to harden and crisp the top of cheesy casserole dishes such as scalloped potatoes or potatoes au gratin. Whole baked potatoes or one of our favorite riffs—hasselback potatoes—are simple tried-and-true sides. Baking is also the method you’ll want to use for Duchess potatoes, a stunning French side of piped-and-baked potatoes.
Deep-fried potatoes such as French fries and potato chips may not be the healthiest options, but they are undoubtedly delicious and deeply comforting. Sliced potatoes—Idaho or russet potatoes work best—are fully submerged in hot oil between 350°F and 375°F for a short amount of time until golden brown and crispy. If you prefer to peel your potatoes, soak them in cold water first to remove most of the starch. This trick keeps the potatoes from sticking and ensures a perfect texture. The drier the potatoes, the more easily they’ll crisp—spread them out on a sheet tray and place in the freezer to speed up the drying process.
Skillet potatoes are essentially pan seared in fat on one side until browned, then flipped and cooked on the other side. Pommes Anna, a classic French side, features thinly sliced potato rounds that are layered and cooked with butter in a sauté pan or cast iron skillet. Yellow potatoes or russet potatoes make delicious cast-iron skillet potatoes.
Roasting potatoes yields an irresistibly crisp skin and lusciously creamy interior. The type of potato you use is entirely your choice—both starchy or waxy varieties will both roast beautifully. Buttery fingerling potatoes, roasted with rosemary and garlic, are a perfect pair for meat or poultry. For starchier varieties, a simple trick for crispier potatoes is parboiling them beforehand to remove the starch. Use a large enough sheet pan to prevent overcrowding and encourage faster browning.
This gentle, moist-heat cooking method is best for smaller, waxy potatoes with thin skins such as red potatoes, fingerling potatoes, and new potatoes. Here’s how to do it—bring a pot of water to a rolling boiling, then reduce to a simmer. Place the potatoes in a stainless steel steamer basket over the rising steam, cover, and cook until they are easily pierced by a knife.
Waxy potatoes such as red potatoes and yellow potatoes are your best bet for boiled potatoes. You can serve boiled potatoes as a simple side or use them to make mashed potatoes, potato salad, soups, or baked dishes. To ensure that your potatoes cook evenly, slice them to uniform size and always start them in salted cold water.
For twice-baked potatoes, a broiler ensures a crispy, golden-brown top and ooey-gooey cheesy goodness. Make sure your potato is fully cooked before it hits the heat, otherwise it will burn.
How to Buy Potatoes
When buying potatoes, choose varieties that are free of blemishes or cuts. Avoid green potatoes at the grocery store or farmers markets—they may contain a toxic chemical called solanine. Consuming solanine can cause headaches, vomiting and other unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. Normally, the potato produces safe levels of solanine to protect itself from insects and disease. If exposed to sunlight for extended amounts of time (even the florescent lighting in grocery stores can be harmful!), the production of solanine is accelerated. Keep potatoes in a dark space such as a basement, pantry closet, or a sealed paper bag. Never store potatoes in the refrigerator, as excessive cold will convert their starches to sugars and sweeten their flavor.
Potato Recipes and Ideas
Put your potato I.Q. to the test in the kitchen by making one of our delicious, healthy potato recipes, from supremely-divine mashed potatoes to Mediterranean-inspired roasted potatoes. No matter what the occasion, you’re sure to find the perfect crowd-pleasing potato recipe here.
Often hailed as the quintessential comfort dish, mashed potatoes are a welcome addition to weeknight dinners and holiday celebrations. Five ingredients are all you need for this easy and delicious recipe—and you probably have most of them already. A food mill ensures the velvety smooth texture of these potatoes.
Whether you call it potatoes au gratin or scalloped potatoes, this craveworthy side is a must-have addition to any holiday feast. Here, we keep the indulgent dish light (but just as satisfying!) by swapping traditional cream for whole milk.
Cheesy and comforting, twice-baked potatoes are the ultimate savory side. Simply bake whole russet potatoes, scoop out the pulp, mix with cheese and other tasty flavorings, then bake until bubbly and crispy.
Potatoes and cheese are a match made in heaven—here, they join forces for a lightened-up take on traditionally creamy casserole that saves on calories, fat, and sodium. The cornflake topping ups the crave factor by lending an addictive and ultra-satisfying crunch.
Who doesn’t love breakfast potatoes? Whether you pair them with an omelet or stack of pancakes, most of us can’t imagine a breakfast or brunch menu without this popular side. You may also know them as home fries—whichever the name, this simple pan-fried potatoes dish is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
This simple potato salad recipe proves that the summer cookout mainstay doesn’t always need a heap of mayo to be delicious. Delicate multicolored fingerling potatoes make vibrant vehicles for a tangy vinaigrette of olive oil, white wine vinegar, and whole grain mustard.
Char-grilled potatoes may look labor intensive, but they’re effortlessly easy. With the help of a microwave, we par-cook the potatoes to keep them from burning once they hit the grill. A quick lemon parsley sauce makes a perfectly bright and light topping for everything on the plate, potatoes and fish included.
Roasted potatoes can be dressed up in endless ways with aromatics and fresh herbs. Our Greek-inspired riff uses fresh oregano, lemon, and feta cheese for an easy side that would be a flawless pair for roasted chicken or grilled lamb.
Our healthier take on the additively crunchy snack uses both russet or Idaho potatoes and purple sweet potatoes for an added burst of nutrition. Purple sweet potatoes can be tough to find—look for the Stokes purple sweet potato, which is sold in select grocery stores across the country.
Labensky, Sarah R., Priscilla A. Martel, and Alan M. Hause. On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals, 5th Edition. New York: Pearson, 2011.
Kipple, Kenneth and Kriemhild Ornelas. The Cambridge World History of Food, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.