I admit that, despite being a fairly accomplished cook, I have found myself on multiple occasions googling “how to boil potatoes.” I know there are only so many moving parts here, but still I find myself staring down the pile of misshapen tubers on my counter, totally paralyzed. Should I peel? Should I slice? Did I pick the right potatoes? To add to my growing panic, my wife, who is Irish, has opinions. One does not, for example, mash potatoes with cream, or with chives. One certainly does not purée potatoes. There is a right sort of potato to mash, but when I text her to ask what the right sort are called, she responds, “I think we call them potatoes.”
If you are facing a similar crisis: It doesn’t have to be like this. Together, we can figure it out.
The potato is a starchy root vegetable native to the Andes region (in what’s now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia), first cultivated between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. After the Columbian Exchange, the crop quickly gained popularity among Europeans who just couldn’t stand to eat another rutabaga.
Today, while potatoes remain central to the cuisines of their native Andean region (where around 4,000 varieties are currently in cultivation!), they're popular in cuisines around the world. In culinary terms, the potato is beloved for its ability to absorb flavors and its wide textural range, from crisp latkes to creamy gratins. Some varieties are dense and waxy, while others are powdery and starchy, and these should be treated differently.
Step 1: Choose the potato
In order to properly boil a potato, we have to first peer into the future and determine why we are boiling a potato. If we want fluffy mash, or in any situation where a crispy exterior and/or airy, well-seasoned interior are the primary goals, we need starchy russets. But for potato salad and other dishes that demand a firm spud not prone to mealiness, we want a waxy variety.
For mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, french fries: russets
For potato salad or just plain boiled potatoes: Yukon Golds, Butterballs, Bintjes, red blisses, fingerlings, new potatoes
Step 2: Prepare the potato
My wife is a big biology nerd, and she likes to say that the answer to every question in biology is surface area. The same goes for boiling potatoes. Unless we’re dealing with little fingerlings or new potatoes, we should probably cube them, increasing the ratio of surface area to volume, and therefore shortening the cooking time. This is also a good idea if we are worried about uneven cooking (we are). If we just throw in big old potatoes whole, they’ll end up both overcooked (mealy and disintegrating) on the outside and undercooked (sticky or crunchy) on the inside. If we chop them randomly, we’ll end up with some pieces overcooked, some undercooked, and some both.
For potato salad, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, boiled potatoes: 1- to 2-inch cubes
For boiled new potatoes, fingerlings: whole or halved
For french fries: wedges, matchsticks, and the like
Peeled or unpeeled? Your path is your own. Of course, be sure to wash and (if you decide to go this route) peel the potatoes before you cut them. But if you make your mash with unpeeled potatoes, I’m afraid you’re not welcome at our place.
Step 3: Boil the potato
The big moment. So as to avoid the aforementioned overcooked and undercooked situation, we want to start the potatoes in cold water, so they heat up evenly throughout. We also want to salt heavily. This is really important, particularly when boiling denser, waxier potatoes that don’t absorb seasoning as easily.
If we’re using russets, or if we shudder at the thought of mealy-edged pieces, we might take some advice from J. Kenji López-Alt’s book and add a dash of vinegar as well. Why, you ask? Have you ever noticed how the same vegetables that turn to absolute mush in a matter of minutes when simmered in soup happen to remain firm after hours of stewing in wine, beer, or tomato sauce? That’s because these acidic ingredients prevent pectin, the tough structure in plants’ cell walls, from breaking down. The same goes for potatoes.
Once the potatoes are in the pot, bring them to the boil and then simmer until tender. The waxier the potatoes, the larger the pieces, and the more vinegar, the longer they will take to cook. Test your potatoes by piercing with a paring knife. As soon as the knife slides in without resistance, the potatoes are done. Drain at once so as not to waterlog. Then, on to the next crisis.