No need for bewilderment in the potato aisle. This easy guide will have you shopping for the right potato for your recipe with confidence.
Potatoes are a regular part of the average American diet. There are over 200 different varieties of potato fitting into seven different groups, and sometimes it’s difficult to choose between them. You want to choose your potato based on how you are going to use them for the best results. Your to-go choice for mashed potatoes may not work great for a potato salad.
Specific varieties of potatoes work best with certain types of preparations. This is based on their texture and flavor and whether they are floury (their cells separate when cooked, making them fluffy and light) or waxy (their cells stay together when cooked, maintaining their original shape). Let’s find out more.
Main Categories Of Potatoes
First, let’s clarify the main categories that you’ll see potatoes described as – starchy, all-purpose, and waxy.
You might also see these referred to as floury potatoes. They are high in starch and low in moisture. This makes them great potatoes for baking, frying, boiling, and mashing (though be careful not to overwork them). They do not hold together well when cooked, so avoid them when you need a potato that holds it’s shape, like in a potato salad.
Common varieties include russets and sweet potatoes (which we won’t get into today, but you can read more about here.)
Waxy potatoes have less starch and more moisture and sugar. These varieties are usually on the smaller side with a smooth outer skin and creamy, firm flesh. Think of red bliss potatoes or French fingerlings.
These potatoes do hold their shape well, so they work great for boiling or slicing. Try them in casseroles, soups, and potato salads but avoid them when mashing or frying.
As you may have guessed, these are potatoes that fall in between the two above categories. They have a medium starch content and hold together well, but are also decently fluffy. This makes them a good choice for most any potato dish.
All-purpose varieties, like Yukon Gold potatoes, are great options for roasting or pan-frying, as well as in soups and stews.
Popular Potato Varieties
These are probably the most common form of potato. When someone mentions potatoes you usually think of medium-to-large oval shaped regular potatoes with rough, brown skin. Those are russet potatoes and large ones are often labeled baking potatoes in stores.
Russets (or russet burbank) are a starchy potato with a light and fluffy texture. The skin becomes chewy when cooked. These are are ideal for mashed potatoes or a baked potato. Try them for French fries or potato wedges as well.
Another common addition to most dinner tables, red potatoes are a waxy potato. This small, smooth, round potato with thin red skin has a creamy moist texture with a subtly sweet flavor.
Red potatoes, like Red Bliss, are perfect for salads, soups, stews and roasting. Try red potatoes in potato salad or with your pot roast.
White potatoes are all-purpose potatoes that get their name from the white flesh and skin. This mild, low sugar medium starch is slightly dense with a thin delicate skin.
These medium-sized varieties, like Kennebec potatoes, are great for mashing. They also can be used in salads and are perfect for steaming, boiling and frying.
Yellow potatoes are waxy, velvety, and moist. These marble to large-sized potatoes have a buttery flavor with a very subtle sweetness. Their crispy skin can enhance the dense yellow flesh which, combined with a creamy texture, lessens the need for butter.
Yellow potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, are perfect for dishes that involve grilling and roasting.
Purple potatoes are waxy and moist with firm flesh and are considered all-purpose. Their name is derived from their deep purple color. The skin can be dark purple or blue, while the inside ranges from deep purple to lavender or pink flesh. They have an earthy, nutty flavor with low sugar content.
These potatoes, including Purple Majesty and All Blue varieties, are perfect for grilling, baking, and roasting.
Fingerling potatoes are potato varieties that range in size from two to four inches long and are oblong, somewhat shaped like a human finger. They’re waxy and firm with a range of colors.
Popular varieties include French fingerlings, Rose Finn Apple, yellow-skinned Russian Banana, and the Purple Peruvian. These are very popular for pan-frying and roasting.
These little guys, sometimes called petite potatoes, get their name from their teeny tiny size. These aren’t actually a type of potato, but a classification of size and maturity. New potatoes are harvested early in the season before they reach full size.
Their flavors tend to be more concentrated than their larger sized counterparts and are perfect for cooking whole. Use them in salads and for roasting and frying. Try them in this Creamy Dill Potatoes recipe too.
What Potato Is Best For French Fries?
Ah, French fries. Everyone’s favorite side dish. These perfect accompanying starches need to be crispy on the outside but light and fluffy on the inside. I’ve always found that russet potatoes work best for this.
Russets are the most common form of American potato. Usually, when you mention potatoes to someone they will picture the russet’s brown coloring and oblong shape. As a floury potato, it creates that signature fluffiness when cooked. Their delicate flavor also goes well with a variety of toppings like ketchup or gravy.
What Potato For Potato Salad?
Potato salad is a summertime favorite. This creamy cold dish is a perfect side at any barbecue. I love potato salad made with red potatoes.
Reds can be used to create a tender but firm salad. Their high moisture content also gives them a pleasing texture while cold. Keeping the signature red skin on the potato helps to keep its subtly sweet taste. The waxy flesh of this versatile starch holds up well to chopping and tossing in dressing.
What Potato Should I Use For Shepherd’s Pie?
This Irish dinner favorite is a full meal in one complete package. Shepherd’s Pie combines meat with vegetables and a layer of fluffy mashed potatoes.
It is to russet potatoes that we turn once more for this easy to prepare meal. Their flavoring blends so well with the meat, vegetables and brown gravy often found in these recipes. Also, their floury nature makes them easy to mash by hand once they are peeled and cooked. I love when the potatoes found on a shepherd’s pie are as light and fluffy as possible. You only get that from russets.
What Potato Can Go In Soups and Stews?
Potatoes are a great addition to most chunky soups or stews, and my childhood favorite for these hearty hot dishes has always been red potatoes.
Russets are not the best to go with here, as their high starch levels and low moisture do not take well to the soup and stew cooking process. They tend to soak up the liquid and lose their shape. Red potatoes (usually peeled) are perfect for this kind of meal. They maintain their shape and remain just firm enough to soak up the liquid to make for flavor soaked explosions of yummy delight with every bite.
Get more great potato recipes and tips in the rest of our Potato series!
So, what are your favorite potato dishes? What kind of potatoes do you use and why? Sound off and let us know!
This post originally appeared in December 2017 and was revised and republished in January 2024.