27 Jul 2013 06.17 am by K. Daniel
Either enjoy them baked; fried, made into thin crisps, chips, roasted, or simply boiled and mashed with milk and butter, potatoes have been a long established staple in most kitchens today. One of the reasons can be seen from that opening sentence alone, potatoes are versatile and adapt well to various cooking methods. There are approximately up to 4000 different varieties of potato, each having different traits which suit a particular purpose. In general however, potatoes tend to be divided into two different groups, starchy and waxy. Starchy potatoes are those that have high starch content (20 ¨C 22 %), which means these tend to be fluffier when cooked. Uses of such varieties include mashing, baking, frying, and roasting. On the other hand, waxy potatoes, or potatoes with lower starch content (16 - 18 %), tend to hold their shape better, and so work well for potato salads and layered, baked dishes like gratin. New potatoes are young, immature tubers, and these versatile spuds are commonly cooked and eaten whole.
In choosing potatoes for the home pantry, there are several things to look out for. In addition to the variety of potato best suited for your cooking needs, a visual inspection of the potato may help in preventing unwanted nasty occurrences. Potato plants are poisonous. It contains a toxic substance called solanine, a class of chemicals called glycoalkaloids which can cause stomach upsets, cramps, dizziness, and headaches. It is of no surprise however, as potatoes are in the same family as Atropa belladonna a.k.a. deadly nightshades. But then again so are tomatoes and eggplants, and all of these are commonly eaten without adverse effects.
As it turns out, the poison is not equally distributed in the plant. Some spots may contain very low amounts and are therefore safe to eat, such as in the case of the potato tuber. Using potatoes as an example, the amounts present in the tuber can vary between 20 - 100 mg/kg in most samples and this is not enough to cause any apparent illness or negative effects. Allowed upper limits in commercial producton is approximately 200 mg/kg fresh weight. It should be noted that this compound is heat stable as well, which means cooking does not destroy it or reduce the toxicity.
So how do we avoid poisoning ourselves while eating hot chips? High solanine potatoes are easily identifiable through several things. First and the most obvious is colour, in which potatoes that have been incorrectly stored may develop green or light green coloration. The second is sprouting, as solanine content increases as the potato becomes more metabolically active and grows into a plant. And finally, taste, as potatoes that have undergone this process develop a bitter flavour. If any of your potatoes display these traits, it would be best not to use them.
In terms of selection quality, avoid darkened (browning and some black spots) and discoloured potatoes which may indicate decomposition. Bruising, disease and damage to the skin is another undesirable trait, especially as it increases glycoalkaloid content (a defence mechanism of the potato plant). Finally, in order to prevent any nasties from developing, proper storage is especially important. Avoid light, which encourages the production of chlorophyll (which is concurrent with increased solanine levels) as well as sprouting, and keep in cool room temperatures (although new potatoes may be refrigerated to extend shelf life). Simple.
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