I never thought much about potatoes until I roasted potatoes year-round in the restaurant business, trying to solve why the potatoes didn’t reach the same golden-brown color at certain times of the year, no matter the time spent or temperature in the oven.
But, since leaving the restaurant life and working at a farm, harvesting and eating potatoes within the same week, I was shocked at how different they tasted compared to anything I had purchased at the store.
Potatoes fresh from the ground have actually had flavor and a texture that is unique to its variety.
Even though they are a vegetable, many consider them a starchy carbohydrate, but they have fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are nutritious and filling in appropriate quantities.
Potatoes are available every day at your local grocer or mega-mart. And this year-round availability causes us to forget that potatoes have a season. But, they are planted and harvested like all other vegetables depending on the weather.
Potatoes are well suited for storage and have a natural dormant period of 60 to 130 days, depending on the variety. Therefore, they have become a staple food, sustaining civilizations in parts of the world that can’t grow much else. This vegetable, native to the Americas, has been enjoyed for centuries.
Preserving food until we are ready to use it is a good idea, but the quality of the potatoes change as they get older and older each day. Besides, commercial potato operations use chemical sprout suppressants or inhibitors to hold potatoes up to 12 months.
Harvested potatoes are still alive. They are trying to reproduce by sending out new sprouts to form the next generation of potatoes. The potato “knows” when to do this by the environmental condition in which are surrounded. They will undergo biological changes depending on their temperature, and the humidity and light around them. These changes prepare the potato for sprouting.
After harvesting, commercial potatoes are kept in controlled atmospheric storage to optimize their lifespan. They are then sold and spend time in a distributor warehouse, grocery store shelves, and your kitchen. This fluctuating environment changes the starch and sugar balance in the potato and allows moisture to escape the potato skins and eventually sprout or rot.
Given the technological advances available today, you can rarely tell until you cut into it if the potato you buy is six months or a year old.
I’ve been working at a farm or doing amateur farming for the past eight years. So I don’t typically buy vegetables. For the most part, when it comes to vegetables, to get it, I have to grow it. This reduced availably has led me to anticipate each vegetable as it comes time to its first harvest. I know that it will be so much better when harvested in my local season.
A cool-season vegetable, potatoes are planted here in February and ready to dig up in June. Depending on where you are in the world, plant seed potatoes as soon as you can work the soil, three to four weeks before the last frost day.
Potatoes are an easy and fun crop to grow, but they take up a lot of space. This isn’t bad, but if you don’t have a lot of space, you won’t end up harvesting a lot of potatoes. On the other hand, because their soil requirements are slim, you can grow potatoes in containers. The container will restrict the yield that you will harvest, but it still produces. For the first time in about ten years, I grew potatoes this year as a learning experiment for my son. They are fun to harvest, kids like potatoes, and I wanted to plant something that would have interest from the family.
Regardless of the conditions you have, the act of growing and harvesting your own food is worth the learning experience. You can only begin to imagine growing food on a large scale after seeing it done on a small scale.
If you’re not growing your potatoes, the only way you will know how old they are is to ask the farmer that grew it. A small farm has limited storage space, so they are likely to sell potatoes right after digging them out of the ground.
At a tiny farm, this work is done by hand with a shovel or digging fork. At most small farms, a tractor will do the hard work of dislodging the potatoes, but humans are still out, bending over and picking them off the ground. At a more mechanized farm, special equipment will be used throughout the process, removing human interaction.
This labor discrepancy causes a significant price difference between a supermarket potato and a farmers’ market potato. So, if you go to the farmers’ market and find that the potatoes they sell there are twice as expensive as the grocery store, this is why.
If you can find them fresh, now is the time to eat potatoes. Buy them from a farmer that pulled them out of the ground. This way, you know they will be full of nutrition and have the best texture and taste.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard