Q. Are there two grades of Idaho® potatoes, or two varieties?
A. There are two grades of potatoes typically sold in foodservice. A No. 1 potato from Idaho comes packed in cartons and has less defects, as well as a nice oval shape with few eyes. The No. 2 potato is commonly used in situations where the overall appearance is not as important such as freshly made French fries, mashed potatoes or hash browns. The No. 2 is packed in burlap bags, plastic or paper bags or can also be sourced in a one-piece box.
There are several varieties of Idaho® potatoes, to view the different varieties click here. The largest and best known variety from Idaho is the Russet Burbank, named after scientist Luther Burbank. It has high solids and bakes up dry and fluffy and fries crisp and golden brown. Another popular variety is the Russet Norkotah, which also works well as an all-purpose potato but has a slightly moister taste.
Q. What is the perfect baked potato to pair with a steak?
A. Everyone has their own ideas as to what makes the perfect baked potato, so that’s where having a personal opinion comes in. I get the opportunity to visit a lot of restaurants and the ones that make the potato the “star” have a couple of things in common. Because of the natural “meat and potatoes” association, the finest steakhouse baked Idaho® potatoes have a lot in common with the preparation that you can do at home.
The potato never was close to or in a microwave. For convenience sake, it is ok to microwave potatoes at home, just know that they are not going to taste the same as something that came out of a piping hot conventional or convection oven. It’s a fact that potatoes have about 20% solids (sometimes referred to as starch) however the other 80% is moisture, as in water. Baking in a dry heat oven or on the BBQ grill forces much of that water to evaporate, leaving a nice crispy outer skin and a dry fluffy interior. So unless you are in a big hurry, turn on the oven.
The variety of the potato (and I also believe the source or state) has a lot more to do with a perfect baked potato than you might think. Of course, I am assuming that you looked for the “Grown in Idaho®” seal on the nearby bagged russets and found that Idaho is one of the few states (in fact, the first) to label the variety right on the bag or plastic white enclosure tag, called a quick lock. Look for the words Russet Norkotah or Russet Burbank or other Idaho variety names such as Ranger, Umatilla, Alturas, etc. If you find a variety you like, then ask the produce buyer at the store to continue to stock it. If you want a little moister baked russet potato, choose the Russet Norkotah. This is the variety commonly sold in grocery stores from August to March. Personally I find that this variety needs to be baked a little longer, typically ten more minutes. While it is not as pretty a potato, the Idaho® Russet Burbank is the potato of choice by steak restaurants.
Size: The expensive steakhouse chains such as Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, The Capital Grille, or Smith & Wollensky use an Idaho® Russet Burbank variety potato, about a pound each. Same with local favorites like Peter Luger in Brooklyn, Bern’s in Miami, Manny’s in Minneapolis, Gibson’s in Chicago or The House of Prime Rib in San Francisco. Budget steakhouses such as Sizzler or Golden Corral typically use a slightly smaller potato, the size you’ll find at most grocery stores in the loose potato displays, about 11-12 ounces.
Since restaurants use their ovens for lots of different food cooking applications the chances are that they are cooking the potatoes longer and hotter than you do at home. I recommend preheating the oven to 400°F, setting the timer for an hour. The potato is done when the internal temperature is 210°F, or a minimum of 185°F.
More tips when it comes to the perfect baked potato:
Don’t store the potatoes in the refrigerator; the natural starches will convert to sugar and the potato will taste sweet when baked. Store in a cool dark place such as your pantry or where you store your dry cereals.
Don’t wrap the potato in foil, this just steams the potato and makes the skin wet. Yes, some restaurants do this but primarily they are trying to hold the potatoes longer and dress them up. The brown skin may not be the prettiest vegetable but it does not improve the flavor when the water content is trapped inside a sealed wrapper.
I use a fork to pierce the potato on both sides to let steam escape and then I place the potatoes (with spacing around each) in the oven right on the racks so they will cook evenly and faster than if bunched together or on a cold metal tray.
When a potato is done baking you can usually start to smell the aroma leaking out of the oven or vents. Pull one of the potatoes and poke it with a fork till you don’t see the tines of the fork. Just like baking a cake, the fork should come out nearly clean once the potato is thoroughly baked. Or, use a meat thermometer and check the temperature to see if you are above 185°F. If you need to hold a potato until dinner is ready, turn off the oven but keep the door closed and the heat will stay in for another 10-15 minutes. That’s about how long it takes for me to start and finish a steak on the BBQ.
I open the potato with a fork, cutting a cross into the top of the potato. Then I push in both ends of the potato and it will blossom open, just like at your favorite steak house. If the potato is still moist inside I pop it into the micro wave for 30-45 seconds, pull it out and put on salt, pepper, and your favorite toppings such as butter, sour cream, cottage cheese or low fat yogurt. For a healthier option (which I love for a lunch entree) I put fresh salsa on the potato with no dairy products. It tastes great!
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.