Roast potatoes a thousand and one ways
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
"done right, they are a glimpse of heaven. The trick is to find the point at which fat, salt and heat combine to turn raw tubers into crunchy, fluffy goodness."
Dale Berning Sawa - The Guardian
I adore roast potatoes. They are quite possibly my most favourite food in all the world. Although obviously there is no one 'most favourite food in the world'. It depends on your mood doesn't it? Nevertheless they are up there in the top five at least, and the ones we had for our Mother's Day roast dinner were just about perfect. And then last night I was able to watch an old The Cook and the Chef show, and there was Maggie Beer doing some crushed roast potatoes. And let's not forget the patatas bravas from last week. Twists on the basics that made me think about roast potatoes in general and on how such a simple thing can be cooked in probably a thousand or more different ways.
For a start, without getting at all fancy, just consider some of the variations on the very basic roast potato.
The potatoes - which ones?
The general opinion seems to be the fluffy ones. Of course most of the sites I have looked at were either British (most of them) or American and they have different potatoes to us. Which in itself is interesting. Dutch Cream, Desiree, Coliban and Sebago seem to be the ones most mentioned here in Australia. Different to the ones you need for a potato salad anyway. Potato salad potatoes need to be ones that keep their shape whatever happens. Roast potatoes need to collapse a bit - just not too much. Anyway - even those four will all taste different so there's your first variation.
The potatoes - to peel or not to peel, how big?
My own feeling is to peel them. You want the fat (and other things you've added) to sink into the potatoes and flavour them. And they don't sink into the peel as well. There are those that prefer the peel on though, and if you are doing Hasselback potatoes (I will come to that), then leave the skin on. Although, of course, some don't. As to how big - well not so big that the centre is not fluffy, but not so small that they become hard and far too crispy. Though of course you can adjust your cooking time accordingly.
The potatoes - to boil or not to boil and how long anyway?
The general opinion seems to be to boil them first, but that said, there are plenty of recipes that just toss the potatoes in oil and flavouring and then roast them. An example is Greek potatoes. This particular recipe is from a lady called Evelyn and I have now made it many, many times. It's virtually foolproof although I admit that a couple of times I cooked them just a little too long and there was not much fluffy interior. Done right though and they are so, so tasty, because of the garlic and the lemon. Robert Carrier also has a recipe for these, but unlike Evelyn his are just simply roasted with lemon and butter. No garlic, no water. But a stock cube. He liked stock cubes and used them surprisingly effectively every now and then.
Back to boiling the potatoes though. I tend to put my potatoes into cold water and just bring them to the boil before draining them. However, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cooks them for half an hour until they are almost disintegrating. You have to be a bit careful getting them into the hot fat, but he says it makes for the perfect combination of crispy exterior and fluffy interior and:
"his tip to add the peeled skins to the boiling pot is bona fide genius, because it really does make the potatoes taste exponentially more, er, potatoey" Bob Granleese - The Guardian
Heston Blumenthal seems to agree about the long boiling and also has tips about how to cut them. Although sharp edges seems to be quite a different approach to the majority who seem to like rough edges.
"The key is to cut the potatoes so they have lots of sharp edges then to cook them until they are almost falling apart. " Heston Blumenthal
On the cooking time the rest vary between 10 and 20 minutes, but virtually all of them then shake them around in the saucepan to roughen the edges. Then come three other major differences. Some of them then just put them into the fat. Some of them cool the potatoes down - even overnight - to dry them off. Some of them toss them in flour - or more trendily - in polenta - to give them extra crispiness. Both Nigella and Donna Hay do this. The ones shown here are Donna Hay's. She also has a slightly more up to date version that adds Parmesan to the polenta. I think you'd need to be thinking what you would serve those with though. Both of these are shown below - the simpler version on the left.
And look we are well down the page and still boiling the potatoes with three more variations. One is to put the potatoes in boiling water - the reasoning behind this being that the outside will cook faster than the inside, which is another aid to that crunchy outside and fluffy interior. The last Coles Magazine had a recipe for what it called Salt and vinegar roast potatoes the potatoes were boiled in a miixture of vinegar and water - quite a lot of vinegar. So there are probably other recipes out there in which the potatoes are boiled in other things. Oh and I did see one guy just microwaved them a bit first And last of all - Delia steams them! .
The versions that don't boil the potatoes at all tend to be the ones that have lots of extra flavourings that the potatoes are tossed with.
The fat - what kind and how hot?
Such an open ended question that one. The Brits go for lard, or dripping mostly, and the French go for butter, or goose or duck fat in the north and centre and olive oil in the south. Perhaps I really should start doing what my mother did and putting discarded bits of fat from meat into a dish and leaving it in the oven so that every time the oven was turned on the fat melted a bit more. The melted stuff was drained into a ceramic jar and used to cook with or for toast and dripping. A dish of the poor that is not to be mocked even though it might not be healthy.
Of course the type of fat you use will greatly change the flavour of your potatoes, so take this advice:
"the fat you cook your spuds in needs to sit comfortably with your meat." Dale Berning Sawa
And of course if you are cooking your potatoes in the same dish as your meat then they will not need as much extra fat - indeed they might not need any extra at all. If your meat cooks for long enough and the potatoes go in after the meat then you just toss them in the hot fat that has already dripped from the meat. In France, they have those rotisserie chicken machines that have a stack of potatoes at the bottom roasting in the fat from the chicken. So be sure to buy the potatoes too if you want a cooked dinner. I wonder why they don't do that here?
Almost everyone thought that the potatoes - some, if you remember, thought you should cool them first - should be put into very hot fat, although, of course, there was not uniform agreement on how hot that should be. Nigella goes for as hot as it gets, others don't. And this would also depend on how hot your oven is for the meat you are cooking with them. If you are.
The Greek potatoes that I cook also have water and lemon juice in the mix, and I actually remember my grandmother, and my mother too, roasting potatoes in just water. They sat in the water which gradually evaporated I guess, were basted every now and then and ended up with a soggy sort of bottom and a crispy top. They were very different but still nice.
Bon Appétit has a version in which the potatoes are steamed under foil in the oven until tender, then with the temperature of the oven raised and the foil removed, they are finished off with oil Sort of the same but not really.
If the fat is cold when you add the potatoes, then it's probably because you are doing one of those fancier versions flavoured with herbs, spices and anything else you can think of - garlic, lemon, soy sauce ... Your potatoes are likely to be uncooked when you put them into the fat as well.
"What you do right before popping them in, and how often you take them out to turn them over, though, is where things really get creative ..." Dale Berning Sawa - The Guardian
So go for it. I think she is referring to all of those other flavourings that people toss the potatoes in.
How long do you cook them? Do you baste them?
Well you cook them until they are done, or the meat is done. As I said in my post on roast dinners, timing is everything here. So like Nigella you can feel pretty pleased with yourself if you get it right:
"nothing gives quite the contented glow of achievement than cooking a good tray of roast potatoes does." Nigella Lawson
Whether you baste the potatoes or not is another disputed proposition, although the general opinion seems to be to just turn them over about halfway. And I'd go along with that. If you're roasting it with meat and the meat is on a rack I find that the potatoes under the meat will be tastier, but soggier than those on the outside.
But that's not the half of it. That's just straight roast potatoes and already you have potentially dozens of different ways of doing it. However there is one rule to follow always:
"as everyone knows, the golden rule is always to make way more than you think you need" Bob Granleese - The Guardian
Funny Dearman story about this. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, before David and Rosemary were married, David and his flatmate Ralph decided to throw a dinner party for ten people in total. The dish was Duck - à l'orange I think, but it might have just been straight roast duck. The crucial thing here is that it was just one duck. There is not a lot of meat on a duck. Barely enough for two really. So Ralph started serving with a flourish at the table, quickly realised his error and took it into the kitchen where everyone was given smaller and smaller portions until David and he had just artistically arranged skin. Fortunately Ralph's girlfriend and I had made a huge amount of roast potatoes which saved the day. Well:
"the spuds are by far the best bit of any roast, Christmas or otherwise, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you differently. They cover every base, from carbs, crunch and salt to fat, umami and delicious excess." Bob Granleese - The Guardian
And you know he's right. The roast potatoes always get eaten no matter how many you have.
Finally for the non-standard roast potatoes which really fall into three categories. The one we've mentioned before where the potatoes - all shapes and sizes, skin on, sin off, are tossed in all manner of stuff and then roasted in the oven. Or wrapped in things - e.g. - Bacon wrapped Parmesan potatoes. Not sure what else you would wrap them in mind you.
Then you have the smashed variety. And which I reckon is a relatively recent invention. This is what I saw Maggie Beer do yesterday. In this instance you either partially roast your potatoes, smash them and baste them or you smash them a bit before you put them into the hot fat. A few people add things like cheese to the potatoes that you have smashed as well, like these from an old Coles Magazine and called Cheesy smashed baked potatoes. They and others do slightly diverge from the roast to baked (it's very subtle), and there all manner of ways of doing this kind of thing - so add a few more hundred to your expanding list of roast potato recipes.
And finally there is the Hasselback potato from Sweden - from a hotel of the same name apparently. In this instance the idea is to cut the potatoes down, in slices but without cutting through the bottom before roasting them. And you can imagine that people then do all sorts of things from adding toppings, or stuffing things down the slits, or simply arranging them almost like a gratin. Felicity Cloake is not a fan. She says they are:
"one of those dishes that tend to look better than they taste: painstakingly chiselled fans of gloriously golden carbohydrate perfect for the Instagram age, yet sadly soggy on the fork."
And I would have to say that her 'Perfect' version is very Instagrammable. You can also vary this particular variation by doing things like spacing the cuts differently, choosing different sized potatoes, making cross hatches rather than slices ... The idea is that:
"as they cook, the potatoes fan out, like slightly fleshy crisps with their bottoms still attached." Nigella Lawson.
I tried to find versions of roast potatoes from elsewhere in the world, but it seems to me that most of the similar things are fried rather than roasted, which may be something to do with a lack of ovens in some of the poorer parts of the world. And some countries just don't do potatoes very much. Some of those fried dishes however, like Bombay potatoes and the Lebanese Batata Harra, could easily be changed from frying to roasting.
But I shall stick to plain old English roast potatoes, or the Greek ones that I have come to love. Not that, we now know, there is anything that could be called plain old roast potatoes.
The mouthwatering photograph at the top of the page is from Nigel Slater's Real Food, so I'll give the last words to him.
"The difference between a good roast potato and a sublime roast potato depends on your willingness to put in a little bit of effort. The best roast spuds - by which I mean the crispest, gooiest, stickiest roast spuds - are those you take the trouble to give a quick boil in salted water before you roast them. After boiling and a gentle rough and tumble, the potatoes will soften just enough to fray and crush a little along the edges. When roasted in the hot fat, they will sport the rustling crusty edges and melting interior that distance the sublime roast potato from the merely good one." Nigel Slater
I nearly forgot. You can even roast just the skins - which is a very contemporary 'waste not' thing. From Ottolenghi. He puts them in a salad, but I guess you could do other things with them. He also has some Hasselback potatoes - combined with the French Fondant potatoes - but they are fried and so I guess don't really count. Pretty though.