In Absolute Best Tests, our writer Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, seared more porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall, and tasted enough types of bacon to concern a cardiologist. Today, she tackles potatoes.
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I don't mean to alarm you, but Gen Z has discovered potatoes.
Several hundred years after Spanish conquistadors brought the tubers back across the Atlantic from South America, our youthful brethren have bravely carried the very same taters from the pages of fusty French cookbooks to the digital paper of record: TikTok.
I am talking, of course, about "15-Hour Potatoes." A 15-Hour Potato may be better known by its French moniker, the pavé. It is a dish of shingled, slow-cooked potatoes pressed into a terrine, then sliced and fried. It requires patience, two loaf pans, quite a few heavy cans, and goddamn, is it delicious.
Unfortunately for my landlord, it was just one of 12 methods I tested for my latest round of Absolute Best Tests. I baked and I fried. I boiled and I prodded. I nibbled, I salted, and I pavéd and pavéd, till I fell asleep at the dining room table. Behold:
For the most accurate comparison across methods, and also because I ran out of pepper, I stripped all seasonings away from the methods, except for salt (I used Diamond Crystal kosher salt), butter, olive oil, and in a few cases, key staple ingredients (e.g., the cheese and dairy in the gratin).
Methods and Findings
I will preface this section with the disclaimer that there is no such thing as a completely bad potato. There are, however, lackluster potatoes, and there are potatoes so crisp-gone-melty they could launch ships, etc., etc. Accordingly, I have ranked the preparations I tested in ascending order, from "Most Forgettable" to "Potatoes I'd Like to Marry":
- 1 pound new potatoes, halved
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Heat an air fryer to 400°F.
- In a large bowl, toss the potatoes and oil with a generous sprinkle of salt.
- Place the potatoes in the air-fryer basket and cook for 10 minutes. Shake the basket and stir the potatoes. Keep cooking until the potatoes are golden and tender, 8 to 10 minutes more.
These potatoes got much crispier than I expected, though the texture of their insides was not my favorite of the bunch. It was reminiscent of the stovetop seared batch, though a hair tougher, because the air-fried potatoes never got steamed. In a pinch, I would use this method again, if I had limited stovetop and oven space and I simply needed some crispy Ps STAT.
- 1 large russet potato
- Canola oil to coat
- Kosher salt
- Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Scrub the potato thoroughly with cold water, then dry. Using a fork, poke a bunch of deep holes all over the potato. Coat lightly with oil and rub with salt, then place directly on a rack in the middle of the oven. (You can place a baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any dripping oil.)
- Bake for about 1 hour, until the skin feels crisp but puckers when poked with a fork, betraying its soft flesh beneath. Slice open, fluff with a fork, and add any toppings you please.
A baked potato is what it is. And what it is is the perfect vehicle for creamy, acidic, and texturally contrasting toppings. It's also the perfect vehicle for pretending your fork is a miniature snowplow and the potatoey innards are a troublesome highway. Would I make a baked potato again? Of course. Can I pinpoint a scenario in which it would be better than any of these other potato preparations? Just the snowplow thing.
- 6 to 8 baby Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces/1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
- Kosher salt
- Heat the oven to 425ºF.
- Slice one thin layer off each potato, along the length — this will serve as a base. Place a potato flat side down and cut slices about ⅛ inch apart, making sure not to cut all the way through. (Tip: You can place a chopstick on either side of the potato so that you hit the chopstick before slicing all the way through.) Carefully fan out the sliced pieces without breaking them apart. Repeat with each potato.
- Using a pastry brush, brush the bottom and sides of a cast-iron skillet and each potato with the melted butter. Brush the potatoes generously, making sure to get in between the slices. Reserve one-third of the melted butter for basting. Nestle the potatoes into the skillet. Sprinkle with salt.
- Bake for 1 hour — basting the potatoes every 15 minutes with the remaining butter — or until tender on the inside and crisp on the outside.
Hasselback potatoes are a fun party trick and little more, unless you plan to stuff them with herbs and cheese, in which case why not just gratin? And if you don't plan to stuff, may I IMPLORE YOU to boil and roast?
- 1 pound small waxy potatoes (such as Yukon Gold)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt (the coarser the better)
- Halve the potatoes and place them cut side down. Halve each half again but keep these halves together.
- Choose a cast-iron skillet large enough to fit the potatoes in a single layer. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, about 1/8 inch deep. Heat the oil over medium until it begins to shimmer. Evenly sprinkle a generous layer of salt into the oil. Place the potato halves onto the salt (keeping the quarters together so they look like just one half). Fry at medium heat, without peeking, until you are sure that the potatoes must be burning (they're not!), 10 to 12 minutes.
- When the potatoes are nicely browned, turn the heat as low as possible and cover the pan. Cook for about 20 minutes (the splattering noises are OK). The potatoes are done when a sharp knife slips into a potato easily. Serve hot. Kept covered with the heat off, they will keep for 30 minutes or more.
Look, we're all thinking it: Pan-roasted potatoes are underwhelming. It's true that the method — which calls for just one skillet and one stage of cooking — is lower key. But at what cost? The potatoes weren't quite as tender as most of the other specimens, and while they were deeply browned on some façades, other sides were pale and puckered. Also, steaming the potatoes after the initial browning meant that despite appearing to wear tiny jackets of crunch, the little potato pieces actually turned out quite soft.
That said, a self-described "big breakfast person" did walk through the room and pop several of these into his mouth, declaring them "absolutely perfect," so I would keep this method in my back pocket for mornings when I need something quick and simple to accompany eggs. But I would add an additional crisping phase after the steam.
- 1 1/2 pounds fingerling potatoes, scrubbed
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces/1 stick) unsalted butter, halved lengthwise, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Cut the potatoes into approximately 1-inch pieces. The pieces should all be about the same size, so that they cook at the same rate.
- Heat a 12-inch sauté pan (not nonstick) over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the butter. It's going to steam, smoke, and start to brown. Immediately add the potatoes, even if the butter isn't fully melted. Arrange them in a single layer and season with the salt. Let them cook without stirring for 4 minutes. Stir, then rearrange in a single layer, cooked side facing up. Stir after 2 to 3 minutes, then stir again after another 2 to 3 minutes. Test one of the largest pieces. If needed, stir and cook a bit longer. Remove the pan from the heat and give everything a good stir.
- Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer the potatoes to a serving dish. Garnish as desired and serve immediately.
I suspect a butter-braised shoe would be fantastic, so yes, butter-braised potatoes were really excellent. I was surprised they cooked all the way through in the short time they were searing, making them one of the more efficient methods on the list. They were beautifully caramelized on several sides, though the moisture of the butter bath did sap some of their crunch. They tasted as if purée de pommes de terre were a solid. They'd be wonderfully over the top with a bit of crunch added, like bread crumbs or bacon.
(Photo by Rocky Luten)
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 pinch kosher salt
- 6 large waxy potatoes (about 2 1/2 pounds), such as red bliss, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 cups half-and-half
- 1 cup grated Gruyère
- Heat the oven to 400°F. Rub the inside of an 8×8-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
- Smash the garlic with the side of a knife and sprinkle generously with salt. Chop and scrape the garlic into a mushy paste.
- Roughly chop the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, then add to a pot with the garlic paste, potatoes, and half-and-half. Season with salt. While stirring with a spoon, bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 8 to 10 minutes, until the potatoes are a little tender and the liquid has thickened. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you like.
- Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish and smooth the top. (At this point you can cover and refrigerate the dish for up to 12 hours, until you're ready to bake.) Cover the gratin with Gruyère and bake until deeply golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes (longer if chilled overnight). Let the gratin cool a little before serving.
Yes, potatoes boiled in salty cream and butter then baked with cheese are really fucking good. NEXT QUESTION, YOUR HONOR?
- 2 pounds baby Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed, larger ones halved
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Place potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Generously salt the water. Place the pan over high heat, bring to a boil, and cook at an active simmer until they're fork-tender. Drain. Shock in an ice bath if you want a potato salad that will maintain its shape (if a few squished potatoes are OK with you, this step isn't necessary).
- Toss the warm potatoes with olive oil and salt. Garnish as you like and serve.
I will go on record saying boiled potatoes are underrated. This would be a hot take if it weren't so boring. Boiled potatoes do have a lot to offer, though — their starch has been drawn out, but not yet transformed into a crispy shell, or mashed into a velvety glue, so you can use it to absorb lots of flavor, like olive oil, lemon juice, and fresh herbs. They are also criminally easy, delightfully savory, and beg to be popped into your mouth one by one like grapes.
- 4 large russet potatoes (about 2 pounds total), peeled and quartered
- Kosher salt
- 3/4 cup whole milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Place the potatoes in a 3- to 4-quart sauce pan and cover with cold water. Partially cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. Uncover, add 1 teaspoon of salt, and reduce the heat so that the water boils gently. Cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the milk to just below a simmer. In a separate pan, melt the butter.
- Drain the potatoes and return them to the warm pan over low heat for 1 minute to evaporate any excess water. Use a food mill or hand masher to mash the potatoes. Stir the butter into the potatoes. Add the milk, a little at a time, until the potatoes are as soft and moist as you like. Salt to taste. Serve immediately, or keep warm in the top of a double boiler for up to 1 hour, or cover and rewarm in a microwave.
You know them, you love them, you stare straight at them when your anti-vaxxer uncle's asking why you're still single. Mashed potatoes, the only universally cool thing about Thanksgiving, are always decent, even when they're only OK. Nora Ephron once wrote, "Nothing like mashed potatoes when you're feeling blue. Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin cold slice of butter to every forkful." Agree! Though she went on to say that they're just as much work as crisp potatoes, which is where we diverge. I think mashed potatoes are virtually effortless relative to crispy boys, if you know to 1) salt your water, 2) skip the food processor, and 3) mash in ample butter, salt, and cream. Bonus points for frizzled leeks.
(Photo by Rocky Luten)
4. Smashed and Pan-Fried
- 1 pound fingerling (preferably) or baby white potatoes
- Kosher salt
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Generously salt the water. Place the pan over high heat, bring to a boil, and cook at an active simmer until the potatoes are tender. Drain and let cool to room temperature.
- Peel the potatoes (or don't, if you find it too tedious). Using a meat pounder or the bottom of a small sauté pan, flatten the potatoes one at a time, until ¼ inch thick.
- Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Coat the base of the pan with a thick layer of oil. Using a spatula to transfer them, add a single layer of squashed potatoes. Adjust the heat between medium and medium-low so the potatoes brown slowly. Let them sizzle away until brown, 5 to 8 minutes, then flip and brown the other side.
- When the potatoes are browned, transfer to the serving platter and season with salt. Repeat with the remaining potatoes.
This method is a great shortcut for crispiness when you don't have time (or the sheet pan-age) to boil and THEN oven roast, with similar results. Flattening each boiled potato for an increased surface area means more crisp and less creamy interior, in the time it takes to brown each side in a roaring hot skillet. Sign me up, baby!!!! (But to be clear, don't sign me up if I have time to do the boil and roast method instead, which I liked better.)
3. Boiled and French Fried
- 1 pound (roughly 3 medium) russet potatoes
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- Kosher salt
- Vegetable oil
- Slice the potatoes into ⅓-inch-thick strips.
- Place the potatoes and vinegar in a saucepan. Add 1 quart of water and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 6 to 8 minutes, until the potatoes are fully tender but not falling apart. Drain and spread on a towel-lined sheet pan. Pat dry.
- Add about 4 inches of oil to a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high until it registers 300°F on an instant-read thermometer.
- In batches to avoid overcrowding, add the potato strips and cook, flipping every minute or so, for about 5 minutes, until pale and floppy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on the lined sheet pan. Let cool to room temp, about 30 minutes.
- Adjust the heat to get the oil up to 400°F. Add the potatoes and fry again until golden, about 5 more minutes. Drain on the lined sheet pan and sprinkle with salt.
This boil and fry method was the winner from my recent investigation into the best way to make French fries, and I still stand by it to produce salty, crunchy, pleasantly tart FFs. It's definitely one of the most labor-intensive ways to prepare potatoes, but you know what they say: A mayo-based sauce a day keeps Ella's depression at bay.
2. Pavé, aka Stacked and Fried
Adapted from Food52.
- 3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled
- 1 cup whole milk
- Kosher salt
- Melted unsalted butter
- Canola oil
- Heat oven to 350°F. Thinly slice the potatoes on a mandolin. Toss the potatoes in the milk with a big pinch of salt.
- Line a loaf pan with parchment and butter it. Leave a bit of parchment overhang on each of the four sides for easier removal. Add a layer of potatoes, brush some butter on top, and repeat until the tin is full. Fold the parchment over the potatoes and then cover in tin foil.
- Bake the potatoes for 60 to 75 minutes, until knife-tender.
- Take a loaf tin of the same size and set it on top of the covered pavé. Add some books, canned goods, or anything heavy to the top. Transfer to the fridge and let the terrine cool under this pressure for at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.
- When the pavé has cooled, remove it from the mold and slice into rectangles about 2 inches wide. In a frying pan, heat some canola oil and fry the slices of pavé until deep golden brown and crispy on every side.
The girl you want to hate but can't 'cause she's sooooooooo crispy and creamy and tastes like a hash brown mated with a crinkle cut fry. A huge amount of work, but well worth it in the right conditions. Alright TikTok, you win — this time.
- 1 pound red potatoes
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Bring a pot of water to a boil. While that's working, peel the potatoes or don't. Chop them into chunks — not small cubes, bigger are better.
- Generously salt the boiling water and boil the potatoes until a fork inserted meets just a little resistance.
- Drain the potatoes, transfer to a rimmed sheet pan, and let them cool while you get the oven really hot (say, 400°F or 425°F).
- Drench the cooled potatoes in oil — enough to coat, plus some excess pooling on the sheet pan. Season with a lot of salt. Toss everything together. Spread out the potatoes so they're in an even layer, cut side facing down.
- Roast until they're really browned and really crispy, stirring with a spatula halfway through. These are best hot, but you can serve them warm, too.
Holy hell, these potatoes are outrageous!!! They have approximately 5 billion legs up on your standard roasted Ps because the little potato chunks get boiled in super salty water before they're oiled up and tossed into a hot oven like a hog in heat (that's definitely not a thing I'm just so FIRED UP from these POTATOES). This boiling step both flavors the potatoes and draws out a thick layer of chalky starch that hardens into a suit of shattery armor for each tiny tater. Even with just salt and olive oil as seasoning, they tasted like the best version of fast food hash browns. They called for ketchup like my lungs call for air, like a cat mews for milk, like my Absolute Best Tests narration calls for human company and/or psychiatric intervention.
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The absolute best ways to cook potatoes
The average potato is 80% water, 20% solids, and 100% good company. If you don't believe me, cook one!
- Best all-around potatoes: Boil and roast
- Butteriest, creamiest caramelized potatoes: Butter-braise
- Crispy bits on the lam: Boil and squash and stovetop sear
- Ultimate happiness and psychic fulfillment: French fry
- A sauce-catching side: Mashed
- A Gruyère vehicle: Gratin
- Showing off: Pavé