The mystery of the red potato

Ok, third trip back to hash browns, as the saga continues. You see, I am dedicated to my hopes and dreams. After a long and satisfying career as a faculty member at a small-town liberal arts college, my real goal is to retire and to open a late-night, hole-in-the-wall gourmet hash brown stand for drunken college kids. What else can possibly satisfy your late-night hunger urge better than my buttery, golden-fried potatoes? Nothing.

At this point, I have limited my hash-brown-making to the common variety russet potatoes. As a gourmet stand, though, I plan to offer a page full of  hash brown options, each featuring an unique blend of savory spices. Although your plain Jane, salt and pepper hash browns might work best with a russet potato, the more refined and delicately spiced browns I plan to serve could fare better with another potato variety.

So a question has been bothering me for some time now: are russet potatoes really the best option for gourmet hash browns?

Got Potatoes?

Cook’s Illustrated tried several potato varieties in their hash brown recipe (Sept/Oct ’98), and claim that the potatoes with the highest starch content (i.e. russets) came out best, but that many of the other potatoes were also satisfactory. They opted for russets based on price and availability, but with the wealth I’ll accumulate in a career in academia, my gourmet hash brown stand need not worry about such trifling concerns. I want the best, whatever it costs.

Thus, this experiment has two questions:

First, I know from previous experiments that russets are pretty water heavy. My scientific curiosity is simply begging at me to figure out: Are other potato varieties equally water-logged?*

Second, do other varieties have a taste or texture better suited to gourmet fare than russet potatoes?

I tested four varieties: russets, gold, red and sweet potatoes. The first three were sold in bulk at the supermarket, but I picked up the sweet potatoes from one of my favorite stands at the local farmer’s market.

I used the same procedure as my previous post, shredding, squeezing the potatoes dry and then frying them in obscene amounts of butter. First up is the shred and squeeze.

Water and starches squeezed from the potato.
Units are fluid ounces per pound of potato.

The three potatoes were quite similar in water content, though a fair bit more starch was squeezed from the russet potatoes**. True to Cook’s, russets seemed to be the starchiest variety.

The sweet potatoes, interestingly, lost virtually no water due to squeezing. After an extremely manly attempt*** at squeezing the shredded potatoes, I only managed to get a few orange drops. No matter, I just tossed them into the pan as is and fried them up, along with the rest of the potato varieties.

All the nectar the sweet potatoes were willing to give is a few measely orange drops.

I fried the hash for about 5 minutes on each side, but decided to use different times for each variety. Although varying cooking time isn’t the most controlled procedure, in this case I wanted to make sure each variety had a fair chance to brown and therefore taste its best. I used my own expert judgment here, as we often have to do in science, to determine when the potatoes were fully browned and tasting their best.

All four potato types had similarly delicious textures, even though the red and yellow potatoes had a slightly less cohesive texture, probably due to their lower starch content.

The russet potatoes produced the meatiest, densest potato patty, with the most solid consistency.

The yellow potato hash was mild, tasting a little buttery and a little sweet, still holding together into a nice patty.

The red potato hash was the most interesting. It had the most savory flavor of all the hash, but also tasted the lightest. It didn’t quite hold together as well as the previous patties, but it wasn’t bad enough to be a deal-breaker.

The sweet potato was the, well, sweetest of the potatoes. The sugars in the potato seemed to carmelize in the especially burnt sections, giving a maple taste and texture somewhat like candied fruit. Despite all the sweetness, it managed to taste pretty light.

I was extremely satisfied with this result, especially with the red potatoes. The red potatoes added a flavor and lightness that the russets could not achieve, giving them a sure spot on my future menu. Same with the sweet potatoes, even though their profile was on the opposite extreme of the sweet-savory spectrum. I’m thinking ginger curry sweet  potato hash browns, anyone?

The leftovers, because I didn’t have enough people around to eat 4 pounds of potatoes in one sitting. For those curious, the internets tell us that potato hash should be baked before freezing, to preserve the structure of the potatoes.

* Although I had only squeezed 15%-20% of water by mass from the potatoes, internet lore has it that russet potatoes are 80% water by mass. Most likely this water is too bound in the potato hash to be released by simple squeezing.
** Ooblek anyone? Actually for real. I poured out the water and messed around with the white stuff on the bottom of the measuring cup. It was totally ooblek, but made from potato starches rather than corn starches.
*** Picture were not taken, but you’ll have to take my word on the manliness.

Kevin Miklasz

About Kevin Miklasz

As a PhD student in Biology at Stanford University, Kevin’s research is on the biomechanics of micro-algae, as he clearly prefers academic obscurity to hot topic, sexy science. Besides cooking and doing science, Kevin also designs educational science games and engages in similarly nerdy interests. Kevin is an editor for Science Fare, and Director for Digital Curriculum at Iridescent.

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2 Responses to The mystery of the red potato

  1. Kris September 19, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    I’m always impressed by your manliness. Next time Hannah should take photos.

  2. Terry February 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    Interesting post, I found your site searching for what kind of potato is best for hash brown. The perfect plate of hashbrowns to soak up whatever evil concoction I drank too much of, is my life’s purpose. Some folks want world peace, I want to make a great breakfast. Anyway I do have a couple suggestions based on my experience,
    1. On your box grater take a needle-nosed pliers and elongate the holes, this will give you a larger shred.
    2. Soak the grated potato in water for a period of time, even changing the water a couple times, then drain and squeeze. I started this step after cooking for my father who had kidney failure, and found the squeaky clean potatoes fried up better. Also I knew a guy who cooked at a cafe in the 1960′s he said they would cut up the next days french fries and let them sit in a bucket of ice water in the cooler over night. (Oh don’t throw out the water or squeazings if you make bread or pizza crust, this liquid does wonderful things for bread or thick crust pizza dough.)
    3. Try different fats, my current preference is a combination of butter and bacon fat. Not all the time, but once in a while won’t kill you… too fast. Lard is also a great fat that has gotten a bad rap.

    Good Luck on making the perfect batch of hashbrowns.

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