Travel

An Idaho Potato Farmer's Favorite Way to Cook Potatoes

The cheesy, bacony wonder of Dutch-oven potatoes.

April  3, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Like many people, food is central to my travel plans. It influences where I decide to go, and what I do when I get there. Sometimes it’s the entire reason for a trip. This was the case when I happily flew down to Idaho during potato harvesting season.

We visited a dehydrated potato plant (super interesting), a potato shipper (very cool), and had dinner with a whole bunch of potato-industry people (the potato industry is the living, breathing life blood of the state, and if you’re not in it yourself, you know or live with someone who is). Then, we went to Brett Jensen Farms in Bonneville County, Idaho where the genial third-generation potato farmer Brett Jensen himself was overseeing one of the most impressive farming operations this Manhattan native has ever seen.

The volume! 125 million pounds of potatoes will be loaded and stored in their 30 massive temperature and humidity controlled potato storages (Idaho has thousands of these storages spread throughout the state). These potatoes will be gradually shipped out all over the country and the world over the coming months (412 pounds of Idaho potatoes are sold every second).

Did you know that Idaho produces 13 billion pounds of potatoes every year, most of them russets? To put that into perspective: Stack those potatoes in a football field, and they'd reach a mile high.

The efficiency! I rode in a massive harvester that moved like a sleek industrial whale though the fields, churning up potatoes by the thousands and spewing them through a huge tube into a rotating fleet of customized trucks that sidled up to the harvester in an assembly-line fashion. When one truck got full (which took about five minutes), it moved off to dump its load back at home base and another empty one slid right into its place. It was kind of military and kind of balletic all at the same time.

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Top Comment:
“Potato cellars keep potatoes fresh without chemicals. My father's cousin grows potatoes and I have been in potato cellars. so I'm not talking out my a$$. Now what happens to them after they leave the farm, I don't know.”
— Robin F.
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The field seemed to stretch forever, the blurry flow of potatoes moving though their air seemingly never-ending. Later, the mechanized process of sorting them and loading them into the bespoke storage facilities was no less mesmerizing or impressive. I found it just plain beautiful. Watch this video if you want to see what it’s all about.

I was so overwhelmed with the harvesting process that I almost forgot to ask the farmer my question: “How do you cook your potatoes?”

We were actually starting to leave the farm and had to turn around and chase down Brett in his truck. He kindly accommodated this nutty food writer from New York and described, essentially, one of the state potato dishes: Dutch-oven potatoes. According to him, everyone in Idaho knows exactly what it is and everyone makes it. The dish is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a big family gathering or party without it. It also seems to be very popular as a campout dish, since typically it’s made in a cast-iron pot nestled into burning coals.

So what are Dutch-oven potatoes?

They're like a less formal scalloped potato dish with bacon, or a rough-and-ready potato gratin. As Brett described it, you start with a cast-iron Dutch oven, maybe enamel-coated, maybe not. His family has quite a number of them, and they fire up several at a time when they're hosting things like their kids’ team dinners.

Here’s the upshot: You slice up some potatoes (skin on, please—don’t lose that extra fiber!), chop up some onions, cook up some bacon. These get all layered up with some salt and pepper and garlic powder, and a can of cream of mushroom soup for the liquid. The pot gets nestled into a fire, and hot charcoal briquets are placed all around it, as well as on top of the pot.

Turn the potatoes as you think of it, said Brett, and replace the briquets with hotter ones as needed. Then, when the potatoes are tender, lift off the lid and sprinkle over a bunch of shredded cheddar. The timing seems to vary a lot, which is reasonable—when you're working with a deep cast-iron pot filled with potatoes, and live fire, you just have to wait and see when things are done.

Back home in New York City, I set about recreating this dish—but minus the cream of mushroom soup (because I just wanted to kick it up a notch) and minus the campfire (because my super would have been really pissed). I used fresh mushrooms, a pile of leeks (just because I had them), and also some onions. (I’d happily stick with plain old onions and no leeks, probably between 2 and 3 cups of chopped onions, when I make it again. A little hit of fresh garlic is nice, too.) And the canned creamed soup is replaced with a bit of white wine and some cream. I hit the bacon pretty hard, and for cheese, I used a mixture of Gruyere and sharp cheddar, but you can use any shredded cheese you like.

As soon as I lifted the lid and went straight in with a fork, I was overwhelmed with a rush of relief that I hadn’t let Brett drive off into the sunset. If you ever need to show someone what the very definition of comfort food is, you'd be hard pressed to top this Idaho classic.

To make this dish, be sure to use good old Idaho russets, which is the potato you probably most associate with Idaho potatoes anyway. Even though Idaho produces 25 different kinds of potatoes, it’s the Burbank russets that you’re likely grabbing when you reach for spuds in your market.

And in case you're looking for more potato recipes for those starchy cravings, I’ve got you:

What's your favorite way to cook potatoes? Tell, tell in the comments.

7 Comments

Steven W. April 11, 2019
So you didn't make them the way he did? I mean I get the loss of campfire, but leeks? And really if you wanted to kick it up a notch, use the soup and use cream and wine anyway. Unless I am making real mac and cheese, comfort foods (I assume from the 60's heyday of cream of soups) should use the real deal.
 
dymnyno April 6, 2019
Idaho is a much more diverse state than you give it credit!!!
Potatoes are not grown throughout the state; most are grown in Southern Idaho. The state is very mountainous and not suitable for potatoes in the northern two thirds of the state.
 
CRussell April 8, 2019
I have been to Boise twice, and have to say it might be my favorite place in the world! I can't wait to return. Idaho is a beautiful state.
 
dymnyno April 8, 2019
Idaho is a special secret!
 
Robin F. April 4, 2019
As a person that lives in Idaho, the mushroom soup is not what folks I know use. More likely half and half or milk or more cheese. Also the comment about what gets pumped in to keep potatoes fresh, that would be nothing. Potato cellars keep potatoes fresh without chemicals. My father's cousin grows potatoes and I have been in potato cellars. so I'm not talking out my a$$. Now what happens to them after they leave the farm, I don't know.
 
Smaug April 6, 2019
Potatoes kept in long term storage are treated with sprout inhibitors; some are applied after harvest, at least one is sprayed on the plant prior to harvest and translocates to the tubers. I have no reason to suspect that any of these chemicals cause any health problems.
 
BlueHatMan April 3, 2019
Did’ja ask Brett about the toxic chemicals he sprays on potato crops that size? Or the gasses he pumps into storage to keep his russets “fresh”? Potato shopping really is one place you want to look for organic labeling. Peeking under the carpet’s a little scary...