How to boil a potato (yes, there’s a right way)

Why are boiled potatoes so often considered boring and plain? Cooking has a magical effect on potatoes. The bubbling, salty water loosens them up in a special way: Stiff, dusty nodules come out of the saltwater whirlpool unusually shiny, their stony hearts have become soft, so that they are creamy, mild and soothing.

A potato is a tuber, a source of food – starchy energy – for the plant. When potatoes are boiled, the heat first escapes and then slowly works its way in. Your cell walls open up. Starch absorbs water and pectins are released. Cells move slightly away from each other. And the result is that the potatoes become softer, juicier and a treat.

A hand stirs potatoes in a pot.

Boiled potatoes are deliciously soothing. Be sure to tweak her appealing lushness in a few simple steps.

(Yudi Ela Echevarria / For the Times)

A boiled potato is endlessly versatile – for salads or side dishes, for pureeing or chopping. Split them in half and roast them cut-side down in the oven for easy, extra-crispy potatoes. But they are just as delicious straight from the pot and simply dressed with butter.

Pay attention to how you cook your potatoes, it pays off – for optimal texture and flavor. Here are five steps to a better boiled potato:

1. Choose your potato. For home consumption, choose small and waxy potatoes like fingerlings or Baby Yukon Golds, which are creamy and smooth as opposed to starchy and floury ones like red cabbage. You don’t have to peel them; The skin prevents the potatoes from getting soggy. (If you’re mashing potatoes, that’s a different story.)

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2. Start in cold water. If you submerge potatoes in hot water, the outsides could overcook before the cores. For more even cooking, start with equal-sized, small potatoes. Place them in a large saucepan, cover with an inch of cold water, then crank the heat to bring them to a simmer.

3. Cover them with salt. Dense potatoes don’t absorb spices as easily, so you’ll need to salt the water liberally so that the water the potatoes absorb contains spices as well. And because potatoes have such a shy taste, they need that salt to pop them out of their skins. Pour in some salt and move on. It’s difficult to oversalt the water (and if that much salt scares you, remember that most of it goes down the drain or is kept in there to cook other starches).

4. Simmer gently. To add tenderness to stubborn starches like whole grains, beans, and potatoes, you need bubbling water, shaking the outsides hard enough to let water in, but not agitating so hard that the skins crack. So if you see whirlpool bubbles, turn the heat down until you see champagne. Cooking time will depend on the size and type of your potatoes, but when a fork goes all the way through, they’re done.

5. Butter them up. Perhaps you have never eaten a potato without added fat. Baked potatoes are topped with sour cream and cheddar; Potato salads are dressed with mayonnaise or oil; and french fries, fries, and hash browns all need oil to crisp up. All boiled potatoes need is a toss with butter or olive oil, but mashing them first helps the butter penetrate the meat. And studding the butter with soft leeks and roasted, crushed black peppercorns only emphasizes the earthy, creamy quality of the potato.

Butter flakes in a pan.

Boiled potatoes, infinitely versatile, can be dressed or simply buttered.

(Yudi Ela Echevarria / For the Times)

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