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The Starchy Secrets to Cooking Potatoes

By Elizabeth Bomze Published

Starch is the key to the fluffy, crispy, creamy textures that make potatoes so good. The trick is harnessing it to your advantage.

There are more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes in the world, all of which contain water and lots of starch, which exists as microscopic granules within a potato’s cells. The amount of starch in a given variety and the way you manipulate the tuber before, during, and after cooking are largely responsible for a potato’s cooked texture.

3 Key Types

These common potatoes span the starch spectrum and can cover a wide range of spud cookery.

  • RUSSET

    Starch Content: High (at least 20 percent by weight)

    Cooked Texture: Dry, fluffy

    Flavor: Earthy, mild

    How to Cook: Bake, roast, mash, fry 

  • YUKON GOLD  

    Starch Content: Medium (16 to 18 percent by weight)

    Cooked Texture: Velvety  

    Flavor: Buttery, sweet

    How to Cook: Roast, mash, fry

  • RED  

    Starch Content: Low (about 16 percent by weight)

    Cooked Texture: Firm, creamy

    Flavor: Mineral-y, sweet

    How to Cook: Braise; boil for salads, soups, and stews

How Starch Content Affects Cooked Texture

When cooked, the cells of starchier spuds such as russets soak up more cooking water and interstitial moisture, which causes their cells to swell and push each other apart, resulting in a dry, fluffy interior that eagerly soaks up flavorful liquids such as cream and butter. Meanwhile, low-starch varieties such as red potatoes absorb less moisture into their cells and thus contain more free moisture. That water gets absorbed by pectin that’s released from the cell walls during cooking and forms a gel that holds the cells together, creating a waxy potato’s famously dense, creamy consistency. The moderate starch content and absorption of Yukon Gold potatoes is what makes them so versatile; they cook up neither dry nor dense but velvety.   

Cooking cubes of each potato type in water dyed deep blue shows the difference in absorption. The dye travels deep into the russets, seeps a little into the Yukon Golds, and forms only a thin line around the exterior of the red potatoes.

Why Temp a Baked Potato?

When baking a russet potato, our goal is for its starch to soak up so much interstitial water that its cells swell and separate, rendering the interior uniformly dry and fluffy. We found that this happens when the spud’s core surpasses 205 degrees, so it’s important to check its doneness with a thermometer.

How We Make a Better Mash

Rice, Don’t Mash: Unlike conventional potato mashers, which require repeated smashing that can burst the spuds’ cells and cause them to spill gluey starch, a ricer forces each cooked spud through a perforated disk only once. Thus, fewer cells burst, and the resulting mash is creamy, not gluey.

Add Butter Before Liquid: Stirring melted butter into cooked potatoes before adding cream coats their starch molecules and blocks them from absorbing water that would otherwise make them gummy. 

Mushy Paste ➞ Crisp Crust

For extra-crusty exteriors on our roasted potatoes, we add a dash of baking soda to the water as they parboil. The alkaline environment breaks down pectin in the potatoes’ cell walls, causing their surface layer to fall apart and release starch that forms a pasty film. Then we further rough up their surface by tossing them with the fat and salt so that the pasty film thickens. When water in the film evaporates during roasting, the starch that’s left behind crisps and browns deeply.

How Waxy Spuds Turn Silky

As the red potatoes in our recipe simmer, they soften but remain largely intact because their plump, moist cells nestle closely together, creating a dense, silky-smooth texture. Cooking them long enough that they absorb as much moisture as possible maximizes this effect.  

Braised Red Potatoes with Lemon and Chives

Braised Red Potatoes with Lemon and Chives

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.