Creamy? Fluffy? Smashed? How to choose the perfect potato for the job

It’s been a potato-rich few weeks in the LA Times test kitchen. Between testing Ali Slagle’s Mashed Potatoes with Leek Peppercorn Butter recipe and developing a corned beef hash recipe and then photoshooting, we probably used 15 to 20 pounds of potatoes. I’m Julie Giuffrida, here to teach you how to cook with potatoes, because although sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a potato is never just a potato.

We tend to classify the thousands of species as baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, white potatoes, red potatoes, yellow potatoes, baby potatoes, blue potatoes, new/baby potatoes, and the like. In my opinion, all potatoes fall on a spectrum from high to low in starch (aka waxy).

At the starchy end are russets—the most common starchy potato in America—also called baked potatoes and, when grown there, Idaho potatoes. They work best in baked, mashed fries, latkes, and mashed soups. Grainy in texture and low in moisture, they are light and fluffy after cooking.

At the opposite, waxy end are red and baby/early potatoes. These are thicker-skinned potatoes that have a high moisture content and hold their shape well when cooked. They are best for frying, boiling, steaming and in potato salads with skin. They can become rubbery when crushed. These are good candidates for the Leek Peppercorn Butter Mashed Potatoes since simmering is the cooking method for the recipe.

Yellow potatoes (like Yukon Gold), baby potatoes, white, and purple potatoes fall in the middle of the starchy waxy spectrum. They hold their shape well when boiled or steamed and become creamy in the center as they cook. They are easy to bake and fluffy and can also be pureed well. These are also good candidates for the mashed potato recipe as they are easily mashed after cooking and therefore need to both hold their shape and give a little after cooking.

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For the corned beef hash, the potatoes are diced, boiled briefly and then fried in a pan. The potato should hold its shape well and have a soft, fluffy, or creamy interior after the outside is fried and crisped. While both Russets and Yukon Golds worked with the recipe, I preferred the creamy, buttery interior of the yellow potatoes to the fluffiness of the Russets, as well as the added assurance that they wouldn’t fall apart in the pan.

Here are a few more examples of how the type of potato you choose affects the dish.

Julia Turners German potato balls require a starchy potato—either Russets or Yukon Golds will work—as they’re mashed before being rolled into marble-sized dumplings, which are then gently sautéed in butter until golden. Which one you use depends on whether you prefer creamy over fluffy and/or the buttery taste of yellow potatoes.

Yukon Golds make a slightly creamier mush than Russets, but if you like it fluffy, stick with the high-starch option. Andy Baraghani suggests both in his recipe Labneh creamed potatoes with sizzling garlic. The labneh gives the porridge a distinct, almost refreshing flavor that comes with all that buttery creaminess.

Likewise in his recipe for Perfect English roast potatoes, Ben Mims offers the option of Yukon Golds or Russets. In this case, after the potatoes have been cooked to the point of being partially cooked, they are intentionally “roughened” (by shaking them in a covered saucepan) to create jagged edges so they have more surface area to crisp up when tossed gently in a shallow oil bath and then roasted at a very high temperature. The result is extra crispy on the outside and fluffy, fluffy, fluffy on the inside (if you use auburn; they’ll be creamier with Yukon Golds).

Mashed Potatoes with Leek Peppercorn Butter

While you might toss potatoes with a knob of butter and enjoy hearty, a few small steps will emphasize their specialness. Start by softening the leeks and toasting the black peppercorns in the melting butter. Crush the peppercorns themselves until they break apart for crunch and spice between sweet leeks and creamy potatoes — pre-ground pepper doesn’t have the same energy. Then lightly mash the cooked potatoes until their skins split open in places to allow the butter to set into the flesh.

Get the recipe.
Cooking time: 40 minutes

Mashed Potatoes with Leek Peppercorn Butter

(Yudi Ela Echevarria / For The Times

Salted ground beef

What makes this dish great is the play of textures and flavors of the crispy-outside-creamy-inside potatoes, caramelized onions, and browned corned beef. If you don’t already have corned beef on hand, you can buy a piece uncut at a deli. Alternatively, it’s easy to make at home. Purchase a corned beef from the grocery store, rinse well, place in a large saucepan of water to cover along with the included pickling spices, and simmer gently until tender, about three hours .

Get the recipe.
Cooking time: 45 minutes

Salted ground beef

(Yudi Ela Echevarria / For the Times)

German potato balls

This family recipe for German potato dumplings — an adaptation of potato dumplings — is holiday ready. It makes about 75 dumplings and is easy to double or triple for a large holiday meal. The dumplings also freeze well if you want to serve some and freeze the rest for later. Rolling and cooking the dumplings works best as a two-person project, one person rolling and one person overseeing the wiggling.

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Before you cook all of the dumplings, you might want to test two or three to make sure they’re holding together. If they separate, mix more flour into the batter in 1-tablespoon increments and test again until the batter holds together.

Get the recipe.
Cooking time: 2 hours 40 minutes

Potato dumplings still in the pot

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

Labneh creamed potatoes with sizzling garlic

Spicy labneh brings a tart freshness to traditional mashed potatoes, here served with a pool of fragrant garlic butter. The garlic slices used to baste the butter will crisp up as they cool, adding a textural crunch to the silky smooth potatoes. You can make the garlic butter ahead of time, but strain the garlic before storing it to keep it crisp. Reheat them together just before serving.

Get the recipe.
Cooking time: 45 minutes

Sizzled Garlic and Labneh Creamed Potatoes by Chef Andy Baraghani

(Jennifer Chong / For the Time)

Perfect English roast potatoes

This style of roasting, common in Britain, produces roasted potatoes that are fluffy on the inside and extremely crispy on the outside, thanks to a shallow roast in hot oil in the oven. They’re best eaten hot out of the oven, and this recipe serves four people. But if you don’t have that many mouths to feed, refrigerate any leftovers for up to three days. Reheat them in a 350 degree oven or crisp them up in a pan the next morning and garnish with a poached egg.

Get the recipe.
Cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes

A plate full of English fried potatoes.

(Ben Mims / Los Angeles Times)

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