The potato is a tuber—a swollen underground stem (not a root) that stores surplus carbohydrates to feed the leafy green plant sprouting above the soil. Left undisturbed, the potato plant will bear fruit resembling small green tomatoes. But unlike its relatives—including bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants—the fruit isn’t edible. In fact, it’s poisonous. Fortunately, its tuber—the potato—is a tasty vegetable that has become a mainstay in many cuisines.
A member of the nightshade family, the potato was cultivated by the ancient Incas Peru’s mountains thousands of years ago, but this humble tuber was not fully accepted as an edible food in Europe until sometime in the 16th century. One reason that it took so long to become accepted was the fear that the potato was poisonous. This fear undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that all parts of the potato plant (except for the edible tuber) contain the toxic substance solanine.
Sir Walter Raleigh debunked the myth that the potato tuber was inedible. He took an interest in the potatoes and planted them on an estate he owned near Cork, Ireland. The Irish soon realized the benefits of eating potatoes. However, the Irish became so dependent on this food that when the crop failed around 1846, it led to a famine.
The potato was introduced to the United States sometime in the mid-1600s. French fries (called “French fried”) were introduced to the country when Thomas Jefferson served them at Monticello and at the White House during his presidency in the early 1800s.
Today the potato is one of the world’s most widely consumed and economically important vegetables. It is the world’s fourth-largest agricultural crop, after corn, wheat, and rice. There has been a rapid increase production and consumption of potatoes in southern and eastern Asia in recent decades. Since 2007 China has lead the world in potato production, followed by India. Together, these two countries grow almost a third of the world’s potatoes.
The United States is the fifth largest producer, trailing Russia and Ukraine, but US per capita potato consumption is nearly twice the world average. On average, Americans consume about 140 pounds of potatoes per person each year—the equivalent of one large baked potato every single day. Sadly more than 60 percent of that is in the form of fast foods or dishes like scalloped potatoes or mashed potatoes, which bring with them unhealthy fats and high levels of salt.
Types of Potatoes
Potatoes are often differentiated according to age. They may be sold soon after they are dug, or kept in cold storage for up to a year before sale.Only potatoes that are freshly harvested before maturity are correctly designated as “new.” Many consumers believe that “new” simply denotes a small, round red
Potatoes contain complex carbohydrates, mostly as starch. They also supply vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium, and iron. They even contain a small amount of protein. Ounce for ounce, the skin and the flesh just under it are by far the most nutritious part of a potato. The skin itself contains most of the iron, calcium, and fiber.
However, you should not eat the skin if it has a greenish tinge. The green is chlorophyll, and although not harmful in itself, it may signal a high concentration of a toxic alkaloid called solanine. Potatoes normally contain harmless quantities of this bitter compound, small amounts of which contribute to the vegetable’s characteristic flavor. It’s only when exposed to light (the green tinge is called “sunburn”) or extreme temperatures after harvesting that they develop larger amounts. Eating such damaged potatoes can cause cramps, diarrhea, and headache.
Potatoes that have begun to sprout also contain solanine, but the concentration in undamaged potatoes is so low that you would have to eat about 12 pounds of potatoes at one sitting to be adversely affected.
Some people mistakenly think that potatoes are a fattening food, which is not true. It’s the things that people often have with potatoes—butter, sour cream, mayonnaise, gravy—that are fattening. Nutritionally, speaking, the less you add to a potato, the better.
For a full listing of nutrients, see the National Nutrient Database:
How to Choose the Best Potatoes
Americans love potatoes, and though we consume them mostly in unhealthy fast food, there’s a growing market for gourmet varieties like fingerling and marble potatoes. Whichever type of potato you prefer, here are some tips to help you select the best.If possible, choose individual potatoes from a bulk display. Buy pre-bagged
How to store potatoes at home
Few modern homes have root cellars, but a cool (45° to 50°), dark, dry place makes the best storage area for potatoes. Light and warmth encourage sprouting and damp spoilage.
Don’t store potatoes in the refrigerator. Storing potatoes anywhere below 45° causes their starch to turn to sugar, giving them a too-sweet flavor for some people. In addition, the flesh of refrigerated potatoes frequently turns brown or black when cooked. Keep potatoes in a burlap, brown paper, or perforated plastic bag in a relatively cool, dark, dry place like a pantry, checking them occasionally and removing any that have sprouted, softened, or shriveled—a bad one can adversely affect the condition of other potatoes stored nearby.
Mature potatoes will keep for up to two months under optimum conditions. New potatoes are more perishable and should be used within a week of purchase, though for best flavor you should prepare and eat them on the day you buy them. Don’t wash potatoes before storing, or they will spoil more quickly. And don’t store onions together with potatoes: the gases given off by onions accelerate the decay of potatoes, and vice versa.
Raw or boiled potatoes don’t freeze well, but mashed potatoes may be packed into containers and frozen for no longer than a few weeks. Interestingly, freezing at a partially fried stage helps give commercial French fries a fluffy interior.
11 Recipe Ideas for Potatoes
Americans eat more potatoes than any other vegetable, but not always in the most healthful dishes. Try some creative ways to enjoy potatoes without a lot of added fat or salt.First, the potato skin and the flesh just under it are the most nutritious parts of the potato, so try to leave
How to make low-fat potato chips
Scrub and very thinly slice a baking potato (a vegetable peeler or mandoline makes the thinnest slices). Lightly coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray or cooking oil, place the slices in a single layer. Spray or brush them lightly with oil, and sprinkle with paprika. Bake in a 400° oven for 30 minutes, turning the chips halfway through the cooking time. Reduce the oven temperature to 300° and bake for 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until the chips are crisp.
See our delicious recipe: Triple-Gold Potato Salad.
Published August 12, 2015