The secrets of the ultimate roast potato: TOM PARKER BOWLES digs deep to find the answers, and reveals how top chefs including Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver make theirs
Mash has its moments and chips have their charm, but it is the roastie, the pinnacle of potato perfection, that stands aloft as the titan of the British dinner table.
Sitting beside the Sunday joint like a gloriously gilded hero, it’s the crisp-crust Prince Hal to a meaty Henry IV – and beloved of kings and commoners alike. Edward VII, a man known for his love of haute cuisine, demanded that roast beef and potatoes be served, without fail, every Sunday night at Buckingham Palace.
Quite right, too. But it’s also the most democratic of mouthfuls, needing little more than spud, fat and heat. The devil, as ever, is in the detail. Get it right and you’ll crack open that crunchy, burnished shell to reveal a cumulus-like mass of snowy bliss. One wrong move and edible heaven will be transformed into noxious hell: a wan, soggy disgrace with all the charm of full-blown gout.
Every Christmas (and for much of the rest of the time, too) debates rumble and arguments rage as to exactly how you get this humble spud just right. Welcome to the roast potato wars – for the creation of proper roast potatoes is as much science as it is art. And every cook, from Michelin master to cack-handed amateur, has their own failsafe method that they swear is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.
There are as many recipes as there are grains of salt in a shaker: the variety of potato and type of cooking fat; the simmering time, oven temperature and shaking/scoring/chilling the surface of the spud to ensure maximum crispness. Even the fiddling about as they roast.
Artwork: Lisa Sheeran
There are, though, a few things most can agree upon. That a floury (rather than waxy) potato is a must. And that the fat has to be hot when you drop in the boiled potatoes.
After that, things get personal. Nigella goes for goose fat. As does John Williams, executive chef at The Ritz, and Jamie Oliver, who argues that a ‘gentle press’ with a potato masher while roasting ‘lets the lovely starchy inside just puff out’. Tom Kerridge favours plain vegetable oil.
The King, like Delia, goes for beef dripping (on a visit to the Bradford HQ of Morrisons last year, His Majesty informed journalists that using the fat that comes off the meat is essential). Sir Michael Caine, a noted expert, even soaks his parboiled potatoes in extra virgin olive oil.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall uses a fork to rough the edges, but Delia likes to give them a shake. (Pity the great architect Edward Lutyens, whose father liked to dunk them in his tea.) All believe their way, albeit without dogma, is the only way.
While our love for the roast potato is as fervent as it is profound, the tuber is a relatively recent New World arrival, reaching these shores, via Spain, sometime in the 1550s. There is, as ever, a glut of picaresque tales as to how it got here.
Potatoes were, some say, introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh, who planted them on his Irish estate. Others argue that it was all down to Sir Francis Drake, who picked up some seed potatoes in Colombia. Or that they were plundered from the gold-laden Armada fleet. Or none of the above. What is certain, though, is that first impressions were hardly rosy.
‘Many people thought potatoes a dangerous foodstuff, or at least a coarse one and at best suitable for pigs,’ noted Alexandre Dumas in his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, published in 1873. Seen as underground carbuncles, as toxic as they were tasteless, potatoes copped the blame for everything from inflaming the passions to causing wind. In fact, they were banned in 1748 for a while by the French parliament, who believed they carried leprosy.
There were also whispers that they brought syphilis from the New World, where they were cultivated from around 5000BC, in what are now the Peruvian Andes. And because they were never mentioned in the Bible, some particularly devout Protestants saw them as more heresy than hearty lunch.
Still, they eventually found favour, first among the cottagers of Ireland, before slowly spreading to Wales, Scotland and the North of England. But it was not until the 18th century that the potato found mass appeal, on the way to becoming the ubiquitous staple it remains today.
One of the first roast-potato recipes can be found in The Housekeeper’s Guide of 1834. Simply parboil, place under the roast and turn once. Another, of 1884, is more spartan still: peel, cut in half and cook with the meat.
These may be potatoes roasted with meat. But they are most definitely not Roast Potatoes. Because as the food writer Lindsey Bareham argues in her mighty tome, In Praise of the Potato, ‘Roast potatoes should never be taken for granted. It is no good just to peel and bung any old potatoes round the roast and expect them to turn deliciously crispy without any attention.’ Amen to that.
I recently tried doing it this way, and ended up with dull duds that were both sadly soggy and slightly burnt.
Let’s start at the beginning – with the potato. A floury variety, such as Maris Piper, Desirée or King Edward, is ideal, as the flesh has just the right amount of dry matter and fluffs up when cooked. This also creates lots of fissures, where the oil can penetrate, get trapped and transform into joyous crunch. Hence the importance of roughing up the surfaces once boiled.
Storage is equally important. As Simon Martin, potato guru and the man behind suppliers The Food Heroes, explains, ‘The correct temperature is about 8-10 degrees.
If you store them in the fridge, the sugar levels will rise and you won’t get the golden look, rather dark brown, and caramelised.’ Rather bitter, too.
I peel my potatoes then cut them into irregular shapes of a similar sort of size. This creates lots of lovely sharp edges for extra crunch. I then put them into a large pan filled with cold water, bring to the boil, salt generously and simmer for ‘as long as you dare’, in the words of chef Rowley Leigh, about 10-15 minutes.
They should still keep their shape (well, most of them, anyway), and be on the verge of falling apart rather than disintegrating into a mushy soup. I then drain them in a colander, giving it a good shake, and put them in the fridge for 30 minutes to cool and form a thin exterior crust.
Whack your oven up to a Hades-like heat, about 230 degrees, and choose your fat, be it goose, duck or dripping. All three give the most wonderful flavour, although dripping has a truly beefy depth. The fat must be heated until it’s spitting and seething, really bloody angry. This will take at least ten minutes.
Then give the colander one last hearty shake and tip the cooked potatoes (now cold) into the oil. Using a pair of spoons, turn each one until every surface gleams like a Spartan warrior. ‘Make sure there is ample space in the roasting tray,’ advises John Williams. He prefers a heavy-bottomed roasting tin, as it ‘retains the heat that will also help the potatoes to crisp up’.
Now, turn the temperature down to 220 degrees, put the potatoes in the oven and leave for 15 minutes. Have faith. Then turn every 10 minutes, adding more fat if needed. Be vigilant – this is not the time to walk the dog. Also, make sure they don’t burn, and shuffle around the pan as you see fit. You should have lots of crisp bits at the bottom. Chef’s perk. Obviously.
Around an hour, and your roast potatoes should be done. Remove from the oven, drain on lots of kitchen paper and lavish with good salt. Feel free to sample and grin with pure greedy delight. Each burnished crust should be firm, but needs only a gentle nudge of the fork to reveal that softly billowing, snowy white inside. Serve immediately. Because hot roast potatoes, like time and tide, wait for no man.
How the pros put spuds in the spotlight
Type? Yukon Gold or King Edward.
Boil? Put them in a pan of cold salted water, then bring to the boil for four minutes.
Fat? Goose, ‘frighteningly’ hot (try around 25 minutes at 230C).
Cook for? 50-60 min at 230C.
Secret Ingredient? Sprinkling with semolina after parboiling will make them perfectly crispy.
Type? Maris Piper.
Boil? In salted water for 15 minutes, for ‘really fluffy’ insides.
Fat? Goose or unsalted butter – only four tablespoons.
Cook for? 1 hour 25 min at 180C.
Secret Ingredient? Sage leaves tossed with a little olive oil, added to the roasting tin for the last 25 minutes.
Boil? No. Put in a steamer over a pan of boiling water, turn heat to low and leave for 10 minutes.
Fat? Dripping or lard – fry your parboiled potatoes in it for a few minutes.
Cook for? 50-60 min at 200C.
Secret Ingredient? None – simply garnish with crushed salt.
Type? Maris Piper (but by the looks of Slater’s recipes he’s not a purist).
Boil? Yes, for 10 minutes.
Fat? Duck or goose dripping – around six tablespoons.
Cook for? 60 min at 180C.
Secret Ingredient? Fresh rosemary needles, if serving with chicken.
Additional reporting: Scarlett Dargan.
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