Russet Potatoes: This spud's for you

story and photos by Grace DickinsonThe Russet is our country’s favorite potato. Roasted, fried, boiled, baked, there’s really no cooking method that doesn’t yield a tasty result. In America, we find Russets as potato chips and French fries. They arrive mashed with milk and butter at our holiday tables, and foil-wrapped as a dinnertime classic finished with a generous dollop of sour cream.  

The word “Russet” translates to “rough”—a name undoubtedly indicative of its skin, not taste. Their muddy, sandpapery surface is a stark contrast to the starchy, white flesh hidden inside. As this month’s chef Mitch Prensky of Supper points out, Russets can be used for more than classic comfort foods. His Italian-inspired recipe takes advantage of the potato’s natural flavor, enhancing it with anchovies and leeks. But whether you’re adding some unusual ingredients, or simply butter and salt, this hardy vegetable can lend warmth all winter long. 

Nutrition 101

Russets have a drier flesh than other potato varieties, a result of their comparably high starch to low sugar ratio. They’re an excellent source of vitamin B6 and vitamin C—each potato has roughly 35 to 50 percent of the recommended daily value. Russets also have four grams of fiber (more than a quarter of your daily value), and a decent amount of protein for a vegetable (five grams). For optimal nutritional value, be sure to eat the skin, which holds most of
the nutrients.

What to look for

Choose potatoes that are firm to the touch. Steer clear of soft, wrinkly skin, and avoid discolored spots, though a few eyes—or small, circular crevices—per potato are okay. Just be sure the eyes aren’t sprouting or taking over the surface. Also, don’t worry about dirt; it’s simply a remnant of the potato’s former home.

For the gardener

While Idaho wins the award for growing the most Russets, the crop can fare rather well in Philadelphia, too. Sally McCabe, a project manager for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, says the key is acidic soil. “When the soil’s acidic, you get less scab,” she says, referring to the black spots Russets are inclined to develop. “They really like a 6 to a 6.5 pH level.” McCabe, who has been gardening for 50 years, uses pine needles to increase acidity in her raised beds. But there are other options. “What I see a lot of people do is to add coffee grounds to acidify the soil. People will say add peat moss, but peat moss is a nonrenewable resource, so I don’t recommend that.”

Once harvested, potatoes should be stored at 50 to 60 degrees. “The root cellar would be the ideal place,” says McCabe. “If not, you should choose a location to store them that’s somewhere between hot and cold so they don’t get soft or sprout prematurely.”

Favorite way to eat: “Baked in the oven… with butter. The potato was invented [as] a vehicle for butter.”

From the farm

Mary Butler, farm manager of Blue Elephant Farm in Kennett Square, Pa., says potatoes are one of the most reliable crops to grow. “The biggest factor is the soil,” says Butler. “You need a moist soil, but not too wet or soggy. If the soil’s waterlogged, we just won’t plant right away.”

Potatoes prefer cool weather, so once spring arrives it’s best to get them into the ground as soon as possible. Generally, Butler will plant potatoes by St. Patrick’s Day, but if it’s a cold and wet spring, she’ll wait a bit longer. Russets need 80 to 115 days before harvesting, depending upon how hot and wet the summer’s been. “The time to pull them out is late August or early September,” says Butler. “When the vine above the ground starts to die, that’s typically the sign that the Russets are ready to be dug.”

Favorite way to eat: “After they’re just dug. I like to boil them that night and serve with mint and butter.”

For the kitchen

Chef Mitch Prensky opened Supper with his wife, Jennifer, in 2007. Not long after, the restaurant partnered with the owners of Blue Elephant Farm, to deliver a true farm-to-table experience. Prensky now gets 85 to 90 percent of his produce, including a quarter-acre worth of potatoes, from Blue Elephant. While Prensky sometimes features fingerlings, reds and other potato varieties, the Russet rarely leaves his menu.

“The good thing about the Russet is that it’s hardier,” he says. “It stands up to that slow cooking we do with duck fat to make our fries.” Duck fat fries are a signature staple on the Supper menu.

For Prensky, Russets are his go-to potato. “It’s one of those working-man ingredients, almost like having carrots, or celery or onion,” he says. “People kind of overlook [the Russet] because it’s everywhere, but without it, there are a lot of things that couldn’t happen. For a potato, it’s a terrific starting point because it’s a canvas that also has a great flavor to it on its own.”

For the recipe below, the potato canvas is enhanced with Bagna Cauda, an anchovy and olive oil-based dip. Traditionally, Bagna Cauda, which means “warm bath” in Italian, is a dipping sauce for vegetables, but Prensky loves its rich flavor and uses it for marinating everything from potatoes to chicken or steak.

Smoky Roasted Russet Potatoes with Bagna Cauda and Grilled Leeks (Serves 4)

  • 3 large Russet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 cup olive oil, plus more to coat     
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp liquid smoke     
  • 1 bunch (4 medium) leeks
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped    
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 8 anchovies, chopped 
  • 1 Tbsp ground black pepper
  • Salt
  • Fresh herbs, optional

For the potatoes: Preheat oven to 425° F. Rub Russets with olive oil to coat, and season with salt, pepper and smoked paprika.

Transfer potatoes to a lightly greased baking sheet. Place in oven and roast 12 to 18 minutes, or until fork tender. Remove from oven and set aside in a mixing bowl.

For the Leeks: Cut the leeks in half, then into 4-inch pieces. Wash thoroughly in a bowl of water.
Season leeks with salt, pepper and olive oil. Grill leeks on a hot grill or grill pan until slightly charred and tender. Cut into 2-inch lengths and add to potatoes.

For the Bagna Cauda: In a saucepot, add 1 cup of olive oil, garlic, anchovies, lemon zest, pepper and a pinch of salt. Place on low heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Do not let garlic brown.

To Finish: Toss potatoes with liquid smoke and then, leeks. Add warm Bagna Cauda dressing. Place in a serving bowl and top with fresh herbs (such as sage) and lemon slices, if desired. Serve warm as an accompaniment to grilled steak, chicken or dish of your choice.

For the Pantry by Marisa McClellan

Potatoes are an absolute boon to home gardeners and food preservers. They can be stored straight from the soil, frozen for easy use or pressure canned for an instant mash. 

Russets like a cool, dark place with just a little bit of air circulation. Try tucking an apple into the bag with the potatoes to help prevent age-related wrinkling. 

For ready-to-use potatoes, peel, chop, then par-boil for 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and pack into bags. Squeeze out air and freeze for up to one year. 

To can, blanch potatoes, pack into jars, and process in a pressure canner (see the National Center for Home Food Preservation, nchfp.uga.edu, for more details).

Learn more about food preservation at McClellan's blog  foodinjars.com

Grace Dickinson is a food blogger, photo enthusiast and recipe creator. These passions are brought together on FoodFitnessFreshAir.com, where she chronicles her experiments in the kitchen.