WHEN PEOPLE TALK about open pollinated seeds, they don’t usually bring up potatoes. This is probably because potato growers almost always use seed potatoes and not seeds to propagate plants. Occasionally, growers use seeds to start plants, but it’s pretty rare. One thing’s for sure, if the grower uses a seed potato, the end result will be a genetic clone of the mother plant.
So, if all potato plant varieties are open pollinated, what exactly is an heirloom potato? What would make one potato an heirloom and not another. The answer has to do with how long a plant has been around and, truth be told, how famous it is.
Sometimes people incorrectly refer to newly developed potatoes as heirlooms because they have special characteristics. Take, for example, the Purple Majesty. Some who sell potato seeds refer to this very purple potato as an heirloom, or at least group it with true heirlooms, but the Purple Majesty was developed in 1994 and hasn’t been around long enough to be consider an heirloom.
Baking, boiling or general purpose
Now that we know what characterizes an heirloom potato, let’s talk about general characteristics that are common to all potatoes.
Individual potato types differ in the proportion of starch and sugars they contain. A potato with high starch will make a lighter, less brown chip. On the other hand, a chip made from a potato high in sugar will turn browner when fried.
High starch potatoes, a.k.a. baking potatoes, are ideal for baking, mashing and French fries. They are light and fluffy when baked, light and creamy when mashed, and they are excellent for French fries.
The opposite of a high starch potato is a boiling potato. These tend to have more moisture and sugars. Boiling potatoes are ideal for soups, casseroles, potato salads, roasting and barbecuing. Some people still mash them, but they tend to end up thick and lumpy.
As you might expect, there are some potatoes that fall in the middle. These general purpose potatoes have a balance of starch and sugar. You can use these for both recipe types.
Now that we are clear on the basic potato characteristics, here are three general purpose heirloom seed potatoes that many people enjoy growing in their backyard:
1. Irish Cobbler – A general purpose potato with moderately high starch content, white skin and white flesh. It was first reported in 1876, making it a longstanding, popular heirloom variety that people serve mashed. Backyard gardeners like it because of it takes only 95 days to mature, and it’s tasty. Some people don’t like it because, compared to other varieties, it has deep eyes that need to be removed from the flesh.
By the way, “Irish Cobbler” should not be confused with the term “Irish potato,” which is sometimes used by people that grow both sweet potatoes and regular potatoes.“Irish potato” is used to differentiate regular potatoes from sweet potatoes. Not all Irish potatoes are Irish Cobblers, but all Irish Cobblers are Irish potatoes. Get my drift?
2. German Butterball – GB has russet skin, yellow flesh and a long storage life. Many claim it as their all-time favorite potato. It took first place in the Rodale Organic Gardening “Taste Off” and, like Irish Cobbler, it’s a general purpose potato that’s great roasted, fried or mashed.
3. Desiree – The only one of the three that was born in Europe (Netherlands), Desiree has a yellow flesh and a bright-pink skin and a great flavor. It’s great for making potato wedges, roast potatoes and chips because they don’t crumble. Desiree also is good for boiling, and even for mashing, but it’s not as good for steaming or potato salad.
Do you have an heirloom seed potato that you plant in your garden every year? Let us know what it is by commenting below.
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