Idaho is next door to my home state of Oregon, and in addition to some of the most breathtaking natural beauty in North America, Idaho is also home to about a million or two friendly, happy people.
And why shouldn't they be? After all, they're sitting on basically a mountain of potatoes. Idaho farmers harvest 320,000 acres of potatoes every year, which amounts to 13 billion pounds of spuds. And the overwhelming majority — 94 percent, in fact — are the classic dark brown baking potatoes, commonly known as russet potatoes, or simply Idaho potatoes.
As a culinarian, I've always interpreted the word "russet" to refer to potatoes. But "russet" is actually the name of a color, specifically a shade of brown that roughly corresponds with that of our homely Idaho potato. As such, the word russet isn't capitalized.
The term Idaho potato thus technically refers to any potato grown in the great state of Idaho, although it's mainly used to describe russets, since that's mainly what Idaho grows.
Something like two-thirds of the potatoes that get their start in the volcanically enriched soil of Idaho end up as frozen french fries, hash browns and tater tots, as well as dehydrated products like instant scalloped or mashed potatoes.
The rest are carefully selected for their uniform shape and make their way to supermarkets and restaurants.
If you had to pick a single variety of potato to represent all Idaho potatoes, it would have to be the Burbank russet.
Named for horticulturist Luther Burbank, who developed it in the early 1870s in response to the Irish potato famine, the Burbank russet is particularly resistant to blight, which is what caused the famine.
Burbank russets are large, starchy potatoes with brown skin and white flesh. Because of their high starch content, Idaho potatoes are good for baking and mashing as well as making french fries.
The key to good french fries, in addition to the water content and starch as mentioned earlier, is the sugar content. Sugar turns brown when you cook it (in a chemical process known as caramelization), and brown french fries are a bit of a turn-off. A low sugar content is what gives french fries their golden, rather than dark brown, color.
One thing russets aren't used for is making potato chips. Potato chips are made from so-called "chipping potatoes," with names like Atlantic, Snowden, Pike and Ivory Crisp. They're denser than russets, which is why, regardless of what recipe you use or what kind of rigamarole you try with your frying oil, your homemade potato chips will never taste quite like the ones you buy in the bag.