Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Christmas special #10: Roast potatoes

Photo by Elena Heatherwick

There are two really key elements to getting roast potatoes right. And when I say right, I mean crunchy and brown on the outside and fluffy and creamy on the inside.

The first is to use the right kind of potato. You might be rolling your eyes at this, but I have met otherwise very good cooks who don't know what you need to use a floury potato for roast potatoes. I simply can't assume anything.

So, you need to use a floury potato, as opposed to a waxy potato. If you use a waxy potato for roasting you will end up with a tray of small, brittle cannon balls.

But what is a floury potato? In the shop, they will be labelled King Edward, Maris Piper or Desiree. If you are going to the shops for your floury potatoes and don't know off the top of your head which one you're supposed to be getting, write it down - because it won't say "floury" or "waxy" on that label thingy and what will happen is that you will get there and suddenly forget and be baffled by choice and I guarantee you will come home with the wrong potatoes.

I, personally, would allow 2 large or 3 smaller potatoes per person, because one should always overcater, especially when it comes to carbohydrate.

The second tip for good roasties is to par-boil them properly. Ideally, if you can, steam them rather than par-boil them in water. If you don't have a steamer, you can fashion one out of a colander and some tin foil for a lid. If this just seems like too much of a hassle then just boil them for 6-7 minutes.  But steaming does, I promise, make a huge difference.

So here we go. Some recipes say to use butter or olive oil to roast your potatoes - but I say that really is for vegetarians only. Use duck or goose fat for best, driest, crunchiest results.

Roast potatoes (with thanks to Jamie Oliver)

1 quantity of floury potatoes
1 or 2 tablespoons of fat
1 bunch sage
2 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped (optional)
salt and pepper

1 Peel the potatoes and cut each into six - or four if you want them bigger and aren't as much of a crunch fiend as me. Rinse under a tap to get rid of the starch and then parboil for 6-7 minutes or steam for 20-25. What you're looking for is some give around the edges of the potato, but still basically raw inside.

2 Once they're done, rattle the potatoes around in whatever container they were cooking in to rough up the edges. Leave to cool down for about 10 mins.

3 Meanwhile, turn the oven on to 190C and bung in a baking tray with 2 tablespoons of fat in it to melt. Once that's melted, put in your potatoes and then shift them around carefully to cover in the fat. Season generously - two or three big sprinkles of sea salt and eight twists of the pepper grinder - and bake for 30 mins.

4 After 30 mins, check out the fat situation. There should be about a 1-2mm layer in the bottom of the pan. If there's more than that, pour it off. Now take the back of a spoon or a potato masher and very gently press the potatoes. What you're looking to do here is increase the roughness of the edges and the surface area so you get a lot of crunchiness. You're not looking for mashed potatoes. If this kind of thing freaks you out, it's not essential, so give it a miss.

At this stage you may well feel a bit despondent about your potatoes. You might look at them and think "soggy". But don't worry - they'll turn out okay.

Again, carefully rearrange the potatoes around in the fat to re-coat and sprinkle over sage and the garlic. I'm not actually too sure about the garlic. My husband says they're brilliant garlicky, but if you're not certain about introducing such a strong Frenchie flavour into your Christmas lunch/dinner, leave it out and they'll still be delicious.

5 Stick the tray back in the oven for 40 mins, but keep an eye on them and open the oven door to have a look after 30 mins.

You can leave these to drain on greaseproof paper if you like, but I didn't find it neccessary with mine.


  1. I do mine much the same, but at the "roughing up" stage, I add a tablespoon of semolina (as suggested by Nigella) and they are brilliantly crunchy.

    Julia X

  2. Hi Esther

    Interested in the idea of steaming rather than parboiling. I may have a dry run at the weekend. Do you think you can steam them ahead of time so there is one less job to do?

  3. I was wondering on what you thought about the M&S "Terribly Clever" roast potato seasoning approach?

    I know it's just basically semolina (which makes the "terribly clever" bit, M&S' achievement in actually getting people to pay a quid for a small packet of semolina) but I've heard Nigella Lawson rave about adding semolina to her roasties and wondered if you'd tried it?

  4. Aha, how brilliant, Julia Ball has answered your question, Henry. Sounds like it works.

    Jayne - I think it depends on how far ahead of time you want to do it. A couple of hours ahead is probably okay, but the day before probably not.

    I always worry about stuff going brown if you do it in advance, but I think the steaming/parboiling prevents that.

  5. I've tried semolina and it's perfectly pleasant with a nice sweet, nutty flavour. But it's not "perfect roast potatoes" as I know them.

    As it happens I've just written such an article on my site - Esther our methods seem to line up very nicely :-)


  6. I also add quarters of an orange. Together with the sage they make a really great Christmassy flavour!