HOW TO SELECT

Buy potatoes locally and in their season, especially at the farmers markets. Carefully choose the best quality with smooth, firm skin without scars or abrasions and never with green spots. Potatoes are versatile and adaptable and many varieties can be used for various purposes. They can be categorized by color, size or shape. But to maximize the taste and texture of a potato it helps to know its starch content. Are you going to bake your potato? Choose a variety that is high in starch. Boiling? Head for the low-starch versions.

High Starch

Also known as floury or mealy potatoes, this category includes russet or Idaho potatoes, which are best for baking since their crumbly texture absorbs fats and liquids quickly. They work well in gratins and casseroles, where they absorb cream or a sauce. Their fluffiness makes them a natural for mashing, as does their willingness to absorb butter. These potatoes are also good for frying: since they are low in moisture they do nicely in a pan of sizzling hot fat.

* Examples: Idaho or russet (also Russet Burbank).

Medium Starch

Either white or gold in flesh, these potatoes have a creamy texture and a rich flavor. They hold their shape when cooked without being dense. Demand for medium-starch and yellow-fleshed potatoes during the past decade has increased in part because they adapt easily to the roles played by high- and low-starch counterparts.

* Examples: Maine or Kennebec, Long White, Bintje, Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold.

Low Starch

These potatoes are waxy and have a high moisture content, dense texture and thin skin. The most common are round red and round white boiling potatoes, which will remain firm and are excellent for salads. They can be boiled whole and will stand up to the heat, without cracking or becoming mushy. (These are often mistakenly called "new potatoes," but new potatoes are potatoes that are dug up early in a tuber's growing season, before it has reached maturity.) Choose these potatoes when you want them to stay firm: steamed whole potatoes or sliced in a salad nicoise. They also roast nicely in a pan with a chicken, for example, turning brown and crisp. Their high moisture content means they won't soak up the juices in the pan. These potatoes are also excellent when added to soups or chowders, since they keep their shape and do not dissolve into the broth.

* Examples: Creamers, Red Bliss.

Hybrid and Heirloom potatoes

Many markets and most farmers markets now offer an array of potatoes not imagined 10 years ago. With attractive colors (blue, pink, gold, tan, rose, purple), oddball shapes and smaller sizes, these potatoes are very alluring and demand your attention. Some of these are called fingerlings, to describe their crescent or finger-like shape. They are small, sometimes expensive and often worth the price, since they are very tasty and very adaptable, working well whether steamed, boiled or baked. It pays to experiment with these varieties, as it is hard to make generalizations about the hundreds of types available today. There are no hard and fast rules: a pink potato could be moist or dry, a purple one perfect for smashing but not for mashing.

* Examples: French Fingerling, Russian Fingerling, Ruby Crescent, Russian Banana, German Yellow, German Butterball, Peruvian Blue, Peruvian Purple, All Blue.

HOW TO STORE

Buy in small quantities and use them right away if possible.

Store your potatoes in a cool dark place (in a drawer close to the floor).

Do not buy potatoes that have started to sprout.

Do not refrigerate or store in the light as this will turn the potatoes green.

HOW TO PREPARE

Scrub potatoes clean with a bristled brush (soft plastic is fine) before using. It is important to do this to remove any remaining dirt or pebbles, especially if leaving the skin intact.

Peeled or cut potatoes should be stored in water to prevent blackening unless they are to be used right away.

-- James O'Shea