Why It Works
- Large chunks of potato maximize the contrast between exterior and interior.
- Parboiling the potatoes in alkaline water breaks down their surfaces, creating tons of starchy slurry for added surface area and crunch.
- Offering you the choice of oil, duck fat, goose fat, or beef fat means you can get whichever flavor you want.
- Infusing the oil or fat with garlic and herbs gives the potato crust extra flavor.
The Brits get a bad rap for their cuisine, and in some cases rightfully so—the beef cooked until gray and the gravy-made-from-granules that I ate every Sunday while staying in England were not the height of culinary greatness— but dang if there aren't a lot of things they do better than almost anyone else. I'm talking savory pies, fried fish, Yorkshire puddings, and roasted potatoes. The British method of roasting potatoes is one that I've taken a strong liking to. It's simple, and it produces amazing results. Boil chunks of potato until they're just tender, toss them none-too-gently with fat (ideally beef drippings) to rough up their surface, then roast them until they're crisp and crackling.
The boiling and roughing-up steps are the real keys. They create a thin slurry of mashed potato that clings to the surface of the potato chunks, which ends up crisping beautifully in the oven as the potatoes roast. It's the technique I use for the Ultra-Crispy Roast Potatoes recipe I published back in 2011, and the technique I use for pretty much every holiday.
This year, I decided to reexamine the method from the ground up with the idea of completely maximizing that crisp-to-creamy contrast in each chunk of roast potato, testing and retesting every variable, from cut size to potato type to boiling and roasting methods. The result is this recipe, which I firmly and un-humbly believe will deliver the greatest roast potatoes you've ever tasted: incredibly crisp and crunchy on the outside, with centers that are creamy and packed with potato flavor. I dare you to make them and not love them. I double-dare you.
Here's how the testing went down.
Choosing the Right Potato Size and Variety
First things first: Let's talk about size. In my original roast-potatoes recipe, I cut the potatoes into smallish, two-inch chunks. This time around, I wanted to maximize the contrast between the center and the exterior even more, so I decided to leave the potatoes in really large chunks. A full quarter of a potato each. That means each chunk turns into a two-biter, but it makes it easier to crisp them up.
For variety, I tried the three most common supermarket types: russet, Yukon Gold, and red.
Russets get the crispest crusts and roast up a pale golden brown. Their interiors are fluffy and mild.
Yukon Golds roast a little darker owing to their lower starch content and higher sugar content. This leads to more flavor, but it also means a slightly less crisp crust. Their interiors are nice and creamy, with plenty of flavor.
Red potatoes roast up very dark because of their very low starch content, but have difficulty getting crisp. They come out of the oven crunchy, but soon lose that crunch, turning soft and tender.
This is what happens when you press on a russet and a red potato about two minutes after they come out of the oven:
Moral of the story: Skip the reds. Stick with russets or Yukon Golds (or a mix!).
Playing With pH: Why You Should Add Baking Soda to Your Water
In my previous roast potato recipe, I recommended adding a splash of vinegar to the water for the initial boil. The idea is to control the breakdown of pectin, the cellular glue that holds vegetables together. Think of it as the mortar between bricks.
Pectin begins to break down at around 183°F (84°C), but its breakdown is also greatly affected by the relative pH of the cooking medium. The lower the pH (i.e., the more acidic), the less it breaks down. Conversely, the higher the pH (i.e., the more alkaline), the faster it breaks down.
To demonstrate this, I cooked four potatoes in water at various pH levels, ranging from slightly acidic to neutral to very alkaline. You can clearly see that the potatoes boiled in more alkaline water have started to break down more than those boiled in acidic water.
Which way is better? Well, with the smallish potato chunks in my original roast potato recipe, adding a splash of vinegar can help prevent the potatoes from accidentally falling apart completely while you are tenderizing them. Similarly, I add a splash of vinegar to my French fries to get them to cook fully without collapsing.
But with a different form factor comes a different set of rules. Is vinegar still the best pH modifier for the job with the huge, chunky potatoes I'm using here?
I roasted those boiled potatoes to gauge the difference.
As it turned out, the potatoes boiled in alkaline water were actually superior to those boiled in vinegary water. Because the chunks are so large, falling apart is not as big of a problem as it is with smaller potatoes. Meanwhile, the alkaline water helps the exteriors of the potatoes break down more, creating much more of the starchy slurry that leads to an extra-crisp exterior. About a half teaspoon of baking soda for two quarts of water was the right amount.
That's the level of starchy paste you're looking for on the outside of these potatoes after roughing them up.
Cold Starts Leave Me Cold: Starting With Cold Water vs. Boiling Water
Another element worth considering is the way in which the potatoes are boiled. In most potato recipes, I recommend starting potatoes in cold water and bringing them up to a boil. This helps ensure that the exteriors don't turn to mush before the insides have a chance to cook through. It's especially true for larger chunks of potato, because heat can take a good deal of time to travel through to the core.
But here we've got a whole different ball game. We actually want the exteriors to break down more than the centers. That means starting the potatoes in already-boiling water. I made sure to salt the water well (about an ounce of kosher salt for two quarts of water) to season the potatoes as they cooked.
How Long Should You Roast Your Potatoes?
Now for the actual roasting bit, which happens to be the easiest part to do but also the hardest part to prescribe, because potatoes vary so much. For instance, take a look above at two Yukon Gold potatoes that I boiled and roasted in a completely identical manner. The only difference was the store where I bought them. In the time it took the one on the left to brown completely, the one on the right was still pale. This has to do with the starch and sugar content in potatoes, which vary not only seasonally but also depending on how long the potatoes were stored, and in what manner.
Don't worry—you can make great oven roast potatoes regardless, but this does mean that you're going to have to rely on your eyes and nose, using a timer only as a very rough guideline.
I found that roasting the potatoes nice and hot, at 450°F (230°C), was ideal, though with convection turned on, they came out even better. (When using convection, I dropped the temperature down to 400°F (200°C) to prevent the edges from singeing.)
At the start, the potatoes are a little delicate, and trying to shake them or move them too early can result in the bottoms sticking to the sheet pan.
But roasting them without any moving at all leads to uneven cooking. I found that if I left them alone for the first 20 minutes or so, I could then use a thin metal spatula (or my fingertips) to pry them up off the pan and give them a flip. From there, they take another 30 minutes or so, with the occasional flip and shake in the middle. I like to let them get nice and dark to maximize that contrast between crisp exterior and creamy center.
Adding Flavor to Your Potatoes
The final step in the process is adding some aromatics to make them a little more interesting. Simply tossing the boiled potatoes with chopped herbs and garlic works okay, but it's not ideal. The high heat and long roasting time tend to burn the garlic, giving the potatoes a slightly acrid flavor. But tossing them in chopped garlic and herbs at the end gives them only a superficial flavor. So what's the solution?
I decided to heat up the solid aromatics (minced garlic and rosemary are my favorites) in some olive oil, cooking them just until the garlic started to turn golden, then strain it, separating the infused oil from the solids. That way, you can use the flavored oil to toss with the potatoes, building in plenty of flavor, and add back the garlic and rosemary (along with some minced fresh parsley) at the end. Best of both worlds.
You end up with roast potatoes that have an incredibly crisp crust, with plenty of textural variety and lots of microscopic nooks and crannies for flavorful bits of garlic and herbs to plant themselves.
Did I mention that these are the greatest roast potatoes you'll ever make? I meant it. Take a closer look at their surface texture.
And how about these creamy centers?
Oh! So moist! So flavorful!
Still on the fence about making them? Come on over and join me on this side, where the deliciousness runs deep and there's plenty to go around for everyone.
The Best Roast Potatoes Ever
December 02, 2016
1/2 teaspoon (4g) baking soda
4 pounds (about 2 kg) russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters, sixths, or eighths, depending on size (see note)
5 tablespoons (75ml) extra-virgin olive oil, duck fat, goose fat, or beef fat
Small handful picked fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
Small handful fresh parsley leaves, minced
Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 450°F (230°C) (or 400°F (200°C) if using convection). Heat 2 quarts (2L) water in a large pot over high heat until boiling. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt (about 1 ounce; 25g), baking soda, and potatoes and stir. Return to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until a knife meets little resistance when inserted into a potato chunk, about 10 minutes after returning to a boil.
Meanwhile, combine olive oil, duck fat, or beef fat with rosemary, garlic, and a few grinds of black pepper in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat. Cook, stirring and shaking pan constantly, until garlic just begins to turn golden, about 3 minutes. Immediately strain oil through a fine-mesh strainer set in a large bowl. Set garlic/rosemary mixture aside and reserve separately.
When potatoes are cooked, drain carefully and let them rest in the pot for about 30 seconds to allow excess moisture to evaporate. Transfer to bowl with infused oil, season to taste with a little more salt and pepper, and toss to coat, shaking bowl roughly, until a thick layer of mashed potato–like paste has built up on the potato chunks.
Transfer potatoes to a large rimmed baking sheet and separate them, spreading them out evenly. Transfer to oven and roast, without moving, for 20 minutes. Using a thin, flexible metal spatula to release any stuck potatoes, shake pan and turn potatoes. Continue roasting until potatoes are deep brown and crisp all over, turning and shaking them a few times during cooking, 30 to 40 minutes longer.
Transfer potatoes to a large bowl and add garlic/rosemary mixture and minced parsley. Toss to coat and season with more salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Russet potatoes will produce crisper crusts and fluffier centers. Yukon Golds will be slightly less crisp and have creamier centers, with a darker color and deeper flavor. You can also use a mix of the two.
The potatoes should be cut into very large chunks, at least 2 to 3 inches or so. For medium-sized Yukon Golds, this means cutting them in half crosswise, then splitting each half again to make quarters. For larger Yukon Golds or russets, you can cut the potatoes into chunky sixths or eighths.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 9g||11%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||6%|
|Total Carbohydrate 49g||18%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||18%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 23mg||117%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|