Idaho Russet Burbank Potatoes, washed and ready to cut and fry
Q. I’ve found that when I make fresh-cut fries, Russet Burbanks seem to be the only potatoes that crisp up nicely. I’ve learned my lesson when I’ve used other Russets—the fries are extra soggy and my customers complain about them. Where can I find the famous Idaho® Russet Burbanks? Sometimes my foodservice distributor says they are out usually in July or August.
A. The Russet Burbank takes longer to mature, so this variety is not always available in the late summer or early fall from the major states that grow them. Among these three states—Idaho, Washington, and Wisconsin—the largest volume of Russet Burbanks comes out of Idaho. This variety is also preferred by processors for their French fries, so you are competing with them when supplies are tight. However, we expect an ample amount of Burbanks this coming harvest, and typically they are shipped in quantity beginning in late September. Many operators actually prefer “old crop,” which sometimes has a little drier profile after being stored for almost a year. We also anticipate that old crop will carry through this season, so no potato gap is anticipated. Here is a chart by percentage of Russet Burbanks grown in Idaho, as they make up nearly 58% of our production. Keep in mind that Idaho harvests about 11 to 12 billion pounds of potatoes each year, nearly double that of Washington, our closest competitor.
Q. I recall from my youth in the 1950′s that the baked potatoes then had a thicker skin, and when well baked the skins had a crunchy consistency. Today’s potatoes have a very thin skin with a rather saggy consistency. I am wondering what causes the difference.”
A. Back in the fifties and continuing right up to the nineties, Idaho primarily grew one successful variety of russets, the Russet Burbank, which was named after famed plant scientist Luther Burbank. He is also the one credited for the Shasta Daisy, the Freestone peach and 800 other plant varieties. Scientists at the University of Idaho, and Idaho growers have tried to come up with other russet varieties that would keep the baking qualities you talked about, but also be a little easier to grow, store and be available early in the season. One variety that has caught on with retailers, because of its lighter, even colored skin, nice uniform oval shape and a slightly moister inside, is the Russet Norkotah. This takes less time to grow, matures quicker, and so can be offered to the trade a little earlier than the traditional Russet Burbank. This also enables Idaho to now be able to offer product nearly year round.
While it is always hard to diagnose what you are experiencing, I am guessing that your local stores are probably still stocking the Russet Norkotah and have not switched over to the Russet Burbank yet. If you are buying potatoes by the bag it’s pretty easy to find out. By law, Idaho potatoes have to have the variety noted on the packaging. There will be either a quick release closure that holds the top of the bag shut or wording right on the bag itself that indicates what variety is inside. It sounds like your favorite, which bakes up a little drier and has a crispy outer skin, is probably the Russet Burbank. I have also included some links talking about varieties, the harvest and baking. Hope this helps.
Some interesting links on baking potatoes, russet potato varieties:
Q. Is there much difference between this year’s Idaho potato crop and last year’s? I had to switch to a cheaper potato last season when the cartons got to $40 for big potatoes.
A. Last season Idaho farmers grew 294,000 acres of potatoes and because of a wet spring and cool, early summer the yields were not that good for the larger count 1 lb and bigger potatoes. So they did get “pricey” or as my mother used to say “that’s too pricey for me to pay”. This season, Idaho growers planted 315,000 acres (as demand exceeded supply with the 2010-2011 crop year) and were worried about similar conditions at the start, the weather stayed cool and the planting was 2-4 weeks behind. Mother Nature shined favorably on the potatoes in the form of lots of nice days and cool nights at the end of the growing season and the potatoes from Idaho got just the right amount of “heat units”. While the Russet Norkotah and Ranger varieties typically bulk up a little more than the russet Burbank variety, all the potatoes had a chance to grow long enough to mature and get some extra size.
So, the large 1 lb potatoes are very reasonably priced and a real bargain versus last season. This 2011-2012 Idaho potato crop looks terrific, so we hope you’ll switch back over to Idaho.
I am not doing anything different, why are my fries turning out dark and undercooked?
The chances are that you just experienced a phenomenon called “the gap” or in laymen’s terms “old crop/new crop”. Idaho growers have been harvesting russet potatoes for a couple of weeks now and this continues through the middle of October. Idaho only harvests potatoes one time during the year (no multiple crops like Salinas can have with lettuce for example) and relies on state of the art storage at high humidity levels and temperatures around 45 – 48ºF, or sometimes a little cooler to be able to supply year round product. Some early to mid-harvest varieties, such as the Russet Norkotah, Ranger Russet, Classic Russet, etc. have a little shorter growing season and originally were developed to bridge the gap between the last of the Russet Burbanks (most frequently used for fresh cut fries) and the new crop.
The first thing you are experiencing is frying an old crop, which can have the ratio of starch to water climb as the season finishes up and the potatoes are slightly more dehydrated than they were just a few months ago. That means the fries crisp up quickly and can often be the ones that your customers compliment your crew about when they mention the terrific Idaho homemade fries your restaurant serves. Some experienced operators ask their distributor or supplier to order in more “old crop” potatoes to carry them a little further into the new season. Nation’s Restaurant News (www.nrn.com) recently had a terrific quote from New York Chef Daniel Boulud who said that when potatoes are typically harvested (beginning in August in Idaho) at that point their water content is too high to make excellent fries because they get soggy faster than an aged potato, so he works with suppliers to hold onto some old crop until October when the balance of water, starch, and sugar makes the potatoes just right for frying.
Second, when you receive “new crop” potatoes you may find that the potatoes will have a different appearance, with a somewhat flakey skin, which happens when the potatoes are dug and don’t have a chance to go into storage and mature. This maturing stage heals over most cuts and bruises (called suberization) and stabilizes the skin, firming it up. It takes a month or two for this to happen. Of course, in a restaurant you can’t wait that long, so here is what we advise…We recommend that when you cut the potato for frying that you place it in running water until the excess sugars or starch have a chance to be diluted and the water runs clear.
Third, We STRONGLY recommend that you blanch the potato and then store it for frying during the serving period. This makes for a more consistent French fry. Check out the frying temps and times at this link: http://foodservice.idahopotato.com/how_to/id-1
You may experience a new potato fry turning dark before it is fully cooked. The blanching really helps offset this. The Norkotah sometimes benefits from blanching at a lower temp for an extra ten minutes, then finish frying at the same 360ºF as other russet varieties.
What potato varieties do the chains that specialize in fresh cut fries mostly use?
By far, the chains that sell fresh cut fries rely on the Idaho Russet Burbank variety. It has been the gold standard for French fries in the United States going back to longer than I can remember. When McDonald’s still made fresh fries, the JR Simplot Company sold them Idaho Russet Burbanks. McDonald’s switched to frozen fries back in the sixties, and now they are supplied by a combination of processors in multiple states (Lamb Weston, Simplot, and McCain’s all have dedicated lines just for their fries). While they now use different varieties, using a high solids, low moisture potato is still the key to the perfect fry.
Outback Steakhouse built their reputation for great fries on the Idaho Russet Burbank and up until recently made them from scratch. They also now use a more convenient frozen fry. It just makes economic sense when you factor in the need for consistency, controlling labor costs at the units, and pacing the volume requirements of a chain with over 800 locations.
Charley’s Steakery, Steak Escape, and the fast growing (over 430 units since 2001) Five Guys chain prefer using the Idaho Russet Burbank. New York Fries uses Idaho for most of the year, switching over during the gap to other sources till the new crop has “matured”.
Exceptions to the Russet preference include Ted’s Montana Grill, which uses a yellow flesh chipping stock variety potato and the Los Angeles based IN-N-Out Burger that specifies a Kennebec variety, also a yellow flesh chipping potato that has a light outer skin and does not accumulate sugars as much as some other varieties.
Everyone has their own preference, I find that using the best ingredients possible and following the proper steps for frying will consistently yield the best tasting fries. The biggest errors that units make when they fry fresh potatoes are (in no particular order):
Filling the baskets too full
Not giving the cooking fries a shake part way through the cycle to better distribute the potatoes to get rid of any cold spots
Salting over the fryer
Not filtering the oil
Frying at too high a temp (375ºF is TOO HIGH!)
Holding the fries too long if they are not prepped to order
Your best bet… order a French fry wall chart (bi-lingual English and Spanish) for tips on frying fresh or frozen Idaho potatoes, watch our foodservice videos on French Frying potatoes, and go to www.fitfrying.com for frying and oil tips.