Potatoes – Just for the Taste of it

Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Onions are the most consumed vegetables among American consumers.  It’s not too difficult to see that these “big three” are versatile, serving as either partial or main ingredients in many of the dishes we love, and often we find two or all three of them being used in combination.  Spaghetti, casseroles, sandwiches, and soup are just a few things that come to mind immediately to reinforce this fact.  The tomato is often described as having a sweet tartness which imparts magic on the tongue, it’s juicy and has great mouth feel when eaten raw and savory and bold when consumed cooked, it’s both complex and exciting in so many ways and the aroma is delicate and captivating.  An onion can be either sweet, with a mild sweet flavor which makes your mouth water and not your eyes.  A conventional onion, whether red, yellow, or white, has a distinct sharpness and “bites” with an intense pungency.  Crunchy and explosive when raw and milder and bursting with flavor when raw, onions both enhance and redefine most anything they are paired with.

Then we come to potatoes, the king of the hill in consumption across the United States, with over 50 pound per person being consumed annually.  You’d think that the descriptive terms describing the potato would be endless, since we eat so much of them….but in reality, not so much.  Yes, we use words like fluffy, and buttery-flavored in our catalogue descriptions, and we describe the texture as firm or smooth, but what are we really saying.  The potato is complicated and most people aren’t really eating them just for the taste, instead using them as a carrier for other flavors.  Deep fried French fries, mashed potatoes and gravy, loaded baked potatoes, and potato chips are all examples of this.  We are tasting the toppings or the salt or the gravy more and the potato less.

We don’t really have a handle on exactly what accounts for potato flavor unlike the onion where the sulpher content and other naturally occurring chemicals contribute to the flavor or the combination of acid and sugars in tomatoes which bring out their flavors.   Unlike fruits, which evolved to attract hungry animals to eat them and help spread their seeds, wild potatoes of old were more interested in fending off animals and were rife with toxic and bitter compounds which made them bitter.  These glycoalkaloids are still found in small doses in the commercially cultivated potatoes we eat now and contribute in a small way to the taste.  So as potatoes have evolved, they have gotten better tasting, but we still are left with a host of questions.

Cooking the potato completely changes the flavor, often for the better.  A cooked potato has very high levels of umami compounds, molecules which stimulate a “pleasant savory taste,” in most plant food sources.  Science has found that 228 identified aromatic molecules contribute to a cooked potatoes flavor, but most have not been researched.

Many of the new potato varieties emerging in the marketplace bring with them added complexities with their colorful antioxidant rich skins and flesh tones.  It’s like a bonus program for the potato, already a powerhouse of nutrition having more vitamins and health benefits piled on.  Once we pinpoint which genes affect flavor, texture, and color, potato breeders will have an endless pool of new ideas on how to create better and better potatoes through healthy cross pollination, just as the strawberry and tomato breeders have been doing for years.

Give a potato a try without adding anything, no butter, no salt, no ketchup, or gravy and see for yourself.  The flavor will surprise you, and probably since most people have never given it a second thought, will amaze you.  Try a russet, then try one of the new varieties such a purple potato or a red skinned yellow-flesh potato and you’ll see the difference.  Then, if you dare, try describing what you just tasted…..when you get that part done, call us because we’d love to hear what you think!