Americans are drawn to comfort foods. Whether mashed, boiled, roasted, fried, or twice baked, potatoes are a popular side dish. Warm, oozing with butter, dripping with gravy, or just plain, potatoes fill us up and give us that satisfying feeling. Potatoes mainly provide carbohydrates and also are a good source of vitamin C. An averaged-sized potato contains nearly half our daily value.

Potatoes are a mainstay product that everyone eats. As a side dish, they outsell rice and pasta combined, says Joan Ioannou, director of marketing for Purely Supreme Foods, Burley, Idaho.

Annual consumption of processed potatoes is now at more than 140 pounds per person in the U.S. More than 50% of the potatoes grown in this country are processed, according to the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake, Wash.

One Potato, Two Potato…

Potatoes with high solids (mainly starch) and less water are better for baking, mashing, chipping, frying and processing. In general, potatoes consist of about 80% water and 20% solids.

Generally, potatoes for processing require a high specific gravity and low sugar content. High specific gravity potatoes make the best French fries and dehydrated potato products.

While there are over 5000 potato varieties, Russet Burbanks are the most widely used in prepared foods. Also called Idaho Russet, the tubers are large, long cylindrical or slightly flattened with russeted skin, and white flesh. With their low moisture, high starch content and low sugar content, they are considered mealy in texture, making them a good all-purpose potato for processing, baking, and frying. They are the most popular potato used for French fries, and maintain good quality during long-term storage.

Reds and Golds Add Value

While the majority of the frozen potato industry is built on russet potatoes use, some processors are bringing other varieties to the forefront.

“We supply quite a bit of russet potatoes, however, we continue to focus on value-added red and gold potatoes for retail and foodservice markets,” says Don Smith, executive vice president, sales and marketing for NorSun FoodGroup, West Chester, Ohio. NorSun provides roasted, baked and water-blanched potato products, and introduced roasted red and gold potatoes in 1994.

Red and yellow potatoes are described as waxy because they are lower in starch than russets. The starch cells adhere to each other, which helps them hold their shape well during cooking. They are good for boiling, baking, steaming, and roasting, but not frying.

While Yukon Gold potatoes are more of a specialty item in the U.S., these yellow-fleshed potatoes have been around for a while in Europe. Yukon Gold has a moderate specific gravity. The texture is moist and creamy, good for mashed potatoes. Red potatoes have the lowest solids and the highest moisture, compared to russets and gold potatoes. Red potatoes have smaller starch cells than russets or gold potatoes.

The skin of red potatoes darkens with age. The color begins as bright red, eventually darkening and turning brown. By cooking and freezing immediately after harvesting, their red color remains stable longer.

“Our biggest challenge is maintaining the consistency of the end product year-round because potatoes change moisture and starch levels during storage,” says Smith. Processing involves constant monitoring of these key parameters. Russets can be stored for about a year, red potatoes for seven to eight months and gold potatoes for about six months, says Smith.

Maintaining the color of processed potatoes is important, not just for colored potatoes, but all potatoes. Most potato manufacturers have moved away from sulfites to brighten potato products. Alternatives include acids such as citric and sodium acid pyrophosphate (SAPP).

“Phenolic compounds combine with iron—either in the potato or in the processing water—to form a compound that exhibits a gray color in some potatoes,” says Nick Ross, director of Quality Assurance and Technical Services, Oregon Potato Co., Warden, Wash., processors of dehydrated and frozen potatoes. “SAPP chelates, or 'ties up', the iron so it does not react with organic compounds in potatoes.”

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Dehydrated potatoes have been around for generations and represent the most convenient format for long-term storage.

Dehydrofrozen potatoes have emerged as a convenient format for food processors. The dehydrofrozen process involves cutting potatoes, partially cooking them by blanching, then removing about half of the moisture before freezing. The end user generally rehydrates dehydrofrozen potatoes, however, soup manufacturers may add them directly to soups, one of their most popular applications. Other uses include frozen dinners and stews, casseroles, and pot pies.

“A higher solids potato will produce better texture and maintain better piece integrity through the dehydrofrozen process,” says Ross. Today, food manufacturers are asking their suppliers for fully cooked products that do not require rehydration, he notes.

“We walk a fine line in processing cooked potatoes because we don't want to overcook them or they will fall apart,” says Ross. “Fully cooked potatoes are not in widespread use yet, but I believe they will gain in popularity as companies gear toward less preparation.”

Some industry experts say refrigerated potatoes are becoming more popular than their dehydrated and frozen counterparts. Many prefer the flavor profile of refrigerated spuds and consider it very fresh-like.

Purely Supreme Foods provides refrigerated potato products that are nationally distributed in the U.S. and in Canada. They are partially cooked (about 80%), and vacuum-sealed without preservatives. Products include Idaho Russet potatoes as hash browns, oven roasted chunks, oven fries and steak cut fries. They have a 35-day refrigerated shelf life.

Purely Supreme also offers fully cooked mashed potatoes that consumers can heat in the microwave for a few minutes. They have a 60-day refrigerated shelf life, with added preservatives.

The newest products include flavored potatoes—Garlic Parmesan, Herb Roasted, Roasted Onion, and Cheddar Crusted. The diced potatoes are prepared by mixing oil and the contents of a separate seasoning packet, and oven cooking or heating them on the stovetop for a few minutes. By adding the seasoning separately, it gives consumers more control as to the amount of flavor desired, she adds. The products are sold in either the meat or produce aisles.

“We are moving our products toward the meat aisle because value-added convenience products seem to work best beside other convenience items such as marinated or fully cooked meats,” says Ioannou.

“We feel refrigerated potatoes outperform dehydrated or frozen in taste and in maintaining their integrity,” she adds. “Consumers find refrigerated potatoes desirable because they look more homemade and seem fresher, less processed.”

Roasted, Seasoned Spuds

While butter remains America's most popular potato flavor, topical seasonings can add a different twist. Although seasoning packets represent one means of adding flavor, seasoned and roasted potatoes represent a product that is gaining in popularity.

NorSun's retail line of frozen roasted potatoes includes Garlic Parmesan red wedges, the most popular, followed by Country Style Yukon Gold chunks (bacon flavor and herbs), Campfire Roast red chunks, and Chipotle Pepper red wedges.

Roasting adds value to the product. “Our roasting technology caramelizes the surface and adds flavor,” says Smith. After the roasting process, oil and/or seasonings are applied, depending on the application and customer specifications. The surface area of the potato affects the amount of seasoning applied. Pick up rates can vary between three to 15%, says Smith.

Because moisture in potatoes varies between and among varieties, roasting parameters must be adjusted accordingly. Moisture affects yields and texture of the finished product.

What's the prediction for processed potatoes? With the increased need for comfort foods—bright and totally tuberlar!

Sidebar: Rice Rises Above a Commodity

Rice consumption has tripled in the past 20 years, according to the USA Rice Federation. The most significant area of use has been in the processed food sector, where soups, frozen entrées, flavored rice mixes, snacks, candies and other items continue to capture consumers' attention.

Educated consumers' palates increasingly are hungry for more than traditional white rice and exotic varieties are springing up in the market. Manicaretti Italian Food Imports, Oakland, Ca., is the exclusive importer of a hybrid of risotto and a Chinese black rice, Principato di Lucedio's Black Rice. “It smells like baked bread, has a nuttiness to it and holds its color and shape,” states Brooke Thornton, marketing manager. “It's hearty enough to be pre-cooked and then finished when needed.”

Rice strains with a high starch content, such as Forever Cheese's new Organic Calasparra Rice, imported from Spain, are desirable because they are hard to overcook. “We compare it to Arborio rice because it has the same pearl starch. Due to it being semi-hulled, this rice is better able to absorb water, which helps cooks avoid crunchy rice,” explains Michele Buster, vice president of Forever Cheese, Whitestone, N.Y.

Some rice introductions promote their healthfulness, such as Asda's Great Value yellow long grain rice that notes it is free of gluten, colors or preservatives.

Researchers are going one step further to improve the nutritional properties of the rice grain itself. For example, worldwide, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder, resulting in anemia, poor health and premature death. Swiss researchers are working to increase the iron content and bioavailability in rice through bioengineering. By introducing a ferritin-enhancing gene from the bean Phaseolus vulgaris, rice endosperm iron content can be doubled. The team also has introduced a gene for a thermotolerant phytase enzyme from the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus and another gene for a metallothionein-like protein high in the amino acid cysteine. (Cysteine peptides enable iron absorption.) The result was a seven-fold increase in rice protein's cysteine level and close to a 130-fold increase in the phytase level.

- Julia M. Gallo-Torres, Senior Editor