The potato. What do you really know about this popular vegetable, save for that it makes a great French fry and on Thanksgiving we eat them mashed? After all, this tuber has been related to a devastating famine, as in the Irish one that caused an eight-year food deficiency in 1845; was once worth its weight in gold during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and the spuds didn’t land in Idaho until 1836. Find out what other interesting things have we dug up (heh) about the potato.
1. Each spud has a use
When it comes to starch, each potato has its own sugary profile, which makes them not only have contrasting tastes, but cook differently too. For example, have you ever ended up with a gummy, sticky mess of mashed potatoes? Chances are you used a high-starch spud like the Russet or Idaho. Next time, go for a lower starch option like the buttery Yukon Gold. It’s just the best way to do it. “Most potatoes can be used in a number of ways pretty well, they just may shine a bit more with a certain style of preparation,” says Evan Hanczor, chef at Egg restaurant in Brooklyn. For example, use the drier, starchier Russets for hash browns and French fries; long, waxy Fingerling potatoes for roasting and confiting; Russet Burbanks for potato chips and round, white Katahdins for baking or boiling.
2. There are many, MANY potatoes you haven’t heard of
Though you may only see a few varieties in the grocery store — mainly Russet, Yukon Gold and Red Bliss — there are hundreds of potatoes grown around the world, and new ones are being created all the time. “You get characteristics you think are good, and then it takes 10 to 12 years to develop,” says John Mishanec, who worked as a vegetable specialist at Cornell University for over 20 years. “From a grower’s perspective, you want a potato that does well year in, year out, and that’s why it takes 12 years to find a potato that will do well in all conditions.” Some recent potatoes that have made the scene in the Pacific Northeast include Adirondack Blue, Keuka Gold, Lehigh and Mishanec’s personal favorite, Eva. Head to your farmers’ market for local and heirloom spuds, and make sure to find out what potatoes you are buying. This way, says Mishanec, you can learn what kind of tubers you like, what they are good for and then get them again.
3. When you buy them, potatoes are still alive
Unlike that plucked carrot or bunch of dead grapes, a potato is still living when you harvest it, albeit in a dormant state. Warmth and moisture can cause the spuds to start sprouting, which is why you are supposed to keep them cool and dry. “Seed potatoes are cones of the original,” says Alison LaCourse, owner of The Maine Potato Lady seed purveyor. “So yes, that is how you do it: plant a potato and it sprouts.” Just keep in mind this won’t happen with many commercial potatoes since it’s a common practice to coat them with sprout killer, which snuffs out the spud’s life for good.
4. A sweet potato isn’t actually a potato
Sorry Southerners, but these vegetables aren’t actually part of the potato clan. “Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family (also known as the convolvulaceae family) and are actually swollen roots,” says LaCourse. “They are not related to the Irish Potato.” So, there you have it. The sweet potato is full of lies, just like the not-a-berry strawberry.
5. Potatoes were first grown in South America
Many people assume potatoes are Irish, or, at least, come from Idaho. While they grow in both places, the Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes around 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC. This vegetable made its way to Europe aboard the Spanish conquistador ships around 1570, and though they planted potatoes in Spain, they mainly used the crop as livestock feed. Funnily enough, while the spud spread through Europe, it wasn’t embraced as the hearty, healthy food it is today. It wasn’t until 1662 that the Royal Society in England started to recommend cultivating potatoes, but still, eating the tubers didn’t take off for over a century. In 1795, the push to eat the nutritious vegetable finally sunk in, and soon it made its way to tables across the continent. As for the United States, potatoes didn’t make the Idaho farm scene until missionaries moved west and started planting them in 1836. It took another 40 or so years for them to flourish, a development that occurred with the onset of the Russet Burbank, still one of the most popular potatoes today.
6. Potatoes were the first vegetable grown in space
In a partnership between NASA and the University of Wisconsin, seed potatoes were first tested in space in 1995 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Then, in 2004, NASA started using a Chinese technique to make the ultimate chamber-grown spud. It was dubbed Quantum Tubers™, and is possibly the most badass potato on the planet.
7. Potatoes can turn green
Yes, like with other plants, sunshine causes photosynthesis to occur in potatoes. So, if you want to avoid a green-skin tuber, keep your roots in a dry, dark place and away from pesky sunbeams.
8. Potatoes last a long time if you treat them right
First, if you are growing potatoes you need to make sure to dry them off after harvesting before you can store them. For those of you who just bought a bushel at the market, don’t bother washing the spuds before you put them away. In fact, that ruins the protective skin, so you are better off placing the dirt-encrusted tubers in a cool, dry and dark spot (like a root cellar if you are lucky enough to have one). They should last about six months this way, totally enough time to get you through the winter.
9. Potato chips, as we know them, were invented by mistake
Next time you are thrusting fistfuls of Lays in your mouth, keep in mind that if it wasn’t for the passive-aggressive move by chef George Crum in 1853, potato chips may never have been invented. As the story goes, Crum was head of the kitchen at Cary Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga, New York, a place where railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt liked to dine. Vanderbilt wasn’t a fan of the thick-cut potatoes on his plate, so one day he sent them back to the kitchen, a move that annoyed the chef. In retaliation, Crum sliced the spuds as thinly as he could, fried them in oil with some salt, and turned them into crispy potatoes. Vanderbilt loved them, and the chef’s revenge turned out to be the genesis of one of America’s most popular snack foods.
10. Potatoes aren’t just for eating
For the Incans, a potato was more than just a food source. Lore had it that if you carried a tuber with you, it could prevent rheumatism or help soothe a toothache. They also used raw potato for treating ailments, from healing broken bones to easing frostbite to helping clear up of blemishes on the skin. Instead of taking a hot bath as we are prone to do, the Incans eased aches by rubbing the sore area with the water from a batch of boiled potatoes. Heck, they even used the spud to tell time, all based on how long it took for the root to cook.
This post is brought to you by our friends at Whole Foods Market
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