A little while ago, I was asked for a recommendation for a good roasting potato; and then again for advice on what sort of spud to use for soups and mash. These may seem like daft questions to those of you in the “just buy a bag of potatoes and use them for everything” camp, but if you like your roasties fluffy and light and your mash whipped into peaks, picking the right potato is actually a very important task to complete.
There are hundreds of different potato varieties in Germany, each offering their own individual combination of texture, flavour and cooking characteristics, so choosing the right one for the job can really make all the difference to your meal. Happily, these perennial tubers can be broadly generalised into several different types, which means that despite there being so many varieties to choose from, if you know what you want them for, you’ve got a good chance of ending up with the right sort. Unfortunately, the way potatoes are classified differs around the globe: in the US, for example, it seems to be done by colour – russet, white, yellow, and so on – and in the UK they’re categorised by how waxy or starchy they are.
In Germany, potatoes are classified in two ways. Firstly, they can be grouped by when they’re harvested: very early, early, medium-early, medium-late or late (specific, I know, but remember where we are). Potatoes are available all year round, but those planted in winter and harvested early, in spring and early summer, are known as early potatoes (new potatoes) and can only be bought from around April to July. Early potatoes have very thin skins and hold their shape well when cooked and cut, which makes them perfect for boiling or making salads.
Potatoes in Germany are also classified in terms of their cooking characteristics; whether they’re floury and dry or waxy and firm or somewhere in between. Floury spuds disintegrate when boiled but are the perfect for baking; waxy potatoes make great gratins but a mediocre mash. So, these characteristics are the most important thing to consider when buying potatoes, and happily, this is how they’re grouped in Germany, very broadly, into the three categories below. From farm shop to supermarket they’re even labeled as such, so despite there being countless different sorts of potatoes in each category, the good news is that if you stick within the right group, you can’t go too far wrong.
Festkochende Kartoffeln | Waxy potatoes
Festkochende potatoes have a smooth, waxy, dense flesh that remains firm when they’re cooked. They have a high moisture content and a very thin skin that, though you can scratch it off easily with a fingernail, doesn’t tend to come off in the pan. They’re waxy, not starchy, so they hold their shape well and for this reason are good for frying, making gratins and stews or boiling for salads (which is why they’re also known here as salad potatoes, or Salatkartoffeln). Waxy potatoes are flavoursome and very moreish roasted with their skins on, but the end product is very different to a classic (British) roastie made with a floury tuber.
In German supermarkets, festkochende potatoes are often labeled in green. Well-known varieties include: Annabelle (pictured above), Agata, Charlotte, Kipfler, Marabel, Linda, Princess and Pink Fir Apple.
Vorwiegend festkochende Kartoffeln | Primarily waxy potatoes
Vorwiegend festkochende potatoes are the middle ground, being both reasonably firm and a little starchy without being dry. They’re therefore a good all-purpose potato and a safe pick if you want a big bag of potatoes to use throughout the week for different dishes. They won’t fall apart when you cook them or turn into a gloopy mess when mashed, so they’re perfect for serving puréed or riced or boiled and peeled as well as for making French fries, roast potatoes, rösti or Bratkartoffeln or for adding to stews. They’re also a good option for making dumplings and other dishes that involve turning potatoes into dough.
In German supermarkets, vorwiegend kochende potatoes are often labeled in red. Well-known varieties include: Bolero, Christa, Désirée, Finka, Gala, Hela, Maja and Saskia.
Mehlig kochende Kartoffeln | Starchy potatoes
Mehlig kochende potatoes are those that contain the most starch: they fall apart easily when boiled, slip easily from their skins and have a dry, floury texture once cooked. They have lovely crispy outsides and fluffy insides when roasted, and they can make good mash, though you need to be very careful not to overwork them or it’ll end up gluey. Starchy potatoes are also good for dishes that involves using potatoes as a dough, such as gnocchi, dumplings or croquettes. Mehlig kochende potatoes are good at absorbing liquids, so choose them for serving with sauces, and as long as you don’t let them overcook, they’re also good for adding to soups and curries. Most importantly of all, mehlig kochende potatoes make the perfect baking potato: they’re fluffy and light and absorb butter beautifully.
In German supermarkets, bags of mehlig kochende potatoes often have a blue label. The best-known varieties in Germany include: Adretta, Aula, Freya, Gunda (pictured top), Karat, Libana, Lipsi, Melina and Naturella.
Stuck for what to do with a bag of mehlig kochend potatoes? Why not try a potato and cauliflower curry, green gnocchi (with sage and peas), some classic German potato dumplings, Tom Kerridge’s perfect roast potatoes, or my very favourite German potato soup.
So there we have it: a potato for every occasion. What’s your favourite potato dish? And what camp are you in: do you purchase particular potatoes on purpose or just use whatever you can get your hands on?