Why potato chips are bad for you and a basic guide to the humble spud

The shortcut summary for lazy or busy readers
Why are potato chips bad for you? It’s because of the acrylamide formed during the frying process which is known as a potential cause of cancer. Mealy, sandy potatoes like Russet potatoes? Good for frying, roasting and mashing while waxy potatoes like New potatoes are good for boiling. How to cook potatoes? Roast them, bake them, fry them, boil them or do anything you want with them. They are just as versatile as eggs.


Want to know more? Read on…..

While I love a good pack of potato chips as much as the next person, there are a few things that I keep in mind to avoid eating too much of it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love potatoes. I don’t have a favourite dish, but potatoes are no doubt my favourite food ingredient - baked, boiled or fried.

According to an article by Franco Pedreschi called “Frying of Potatoes: Physical, Chemical and Microstructural Change” and another one produced through the collaborative efforts of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) and Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) called “Fries with a side of acrylamide”, what frying does is provide a temperature so high that it activates a reaction in the potato which converts asparagine (an amino acid or basically the tiny, measurable unit of a protein) into acrylamide when it reacts with the sugars and water in the potato, which is toxic to our bodies when consumed in large quantities and is a possible cancer-causing substance.

You know how potatoes brown when roasted or fried? Well, that is called the Maillard reaction, the reaction between proteins and sugars in the potato that causes the the creation of acrylamide, but also results in the beautiful brown colour and tantalizing aroma and taste of potato chips or French fries. This is different from browning that happens after cutting potatoes, though, which is actually due to oxidization (a process that occurs with exposure to oxygen) thanks to the polyphenol oxidase or tyrosinase enzyme. The type I am talking about is more like the browning of bread or roast turkey. Hmm…roast turkey, reminds me of Christmas.

By the way, if you have watched the animated movie “Ratatouille”, you may remember a scene about how to check if a baked bread is done. It is not by how it looks or by how it smells, but by how it sounds. The crisp, crackly sound that comes out of a perfectly baked baguette is just as heavenly as its taste, much like potato chips fresh from the fryers. Does that make you hungry yet?

Coming back to the basics about potatoes, did you know that the type of potato matters depending on what you are making. If you are making mashed potatoes (say for Shepherd’s Pie), roast potatoes, boiled potatoes for salad, or potato chips as a snack, you will need different kinds of potatoes to make it exactly as it should be, no soggy or crumbly potatoes where it shouldn’t be.


So many types of potatoes, which should I use?

As a general rule of thumb, mealy-, sandy-textured potatoes such as the Russet potato are good for making fried, roasted or mashed potatoes as it gives a fluffy, light and smooth texture that breaks apart easily. Waxy potatoes like new potatoes on the other hand are good for making boiled potatoes for salad as it holds its shape well.



For those seeking a deeper understanding about how potatoes work when we cook them, let’s get into the details about the humble spud. Potatoes contain starch, lots of ‘em. Now, starch is a really general description. Specifically, potato starch is made of many different types of molecules, mainly of which are amylose and amylopectin. Think of amylose as the little sister, innocent, short and sweet, and doesn’t make a fuss (usually). Then you have amylopectin, the teenage older sister, hot-blooded, wild, but protective of her sister. At room temperature, starch doesn’t dissolve in water. That’s why you get the grainy starch residue when washing and soaking cut potatoes that eventually sinks to the bottom.

As the temperature increases during cooking (such as when you are boiling potatoes), it activates the starch molecules, the amylopectin and her little sister, and they start to absorb water. The little sister amylose grows up and breaks out of her protective sister’s shell and the both of them start dancing in the water that surrounds them. This is what causes the water to become thick in a process called gelatinization. As the potato cools down, the little sister decides to go home into the safety of her sister’s cocoon, but alas, after experiencing what life was really like, only a part of her returns while the rest of her remains outside the walls of her loving sister, forever stabilizing and sealing their relationship in mutual understanding. And for us humans, creating a truly delicious taste and texture.


Enough about science, how do we cook these spuds?

So how do we cook potatoes? They are actually one of the easiest things to cook, yet some seem to be capable of messing it up. A bit like eggs I suppose. The easiest ingredient to cook may be the most difficult to master.


Roast potatoes: A good excuse to use the oven
Let us start with baking and roasting. Hmm…baking? Roasting? What is the difference? The straight answer: they are the same. You put the potato into the oven to cook. Simple. But, if I had to be a bit more precise, I would categorize those bite-sized potatoes pieces placed uncovered in the oven as being roasted, while the potatoes which are kept whole and uncut, wrapped in aluminium foil and placed in the oven for a long time, as being baked, just like how jacket potatoes are made.


To make roast potatoes, cut them into quarters. It is up to you whether to peel or not, but I personally love the skins. Then boil for 10 minutes. A tip from Jamie Oliver that I found particularly useful goes like this: after boiling, drain the potatoes and put them back into the same pot, which is now empty, and start shaking the pot and letting the potatoes knock against the walls and itself, thus increasing the surface area and roughness of the surface which will help you create the crunchiest, most delicious roast potatoes ever! Or don’t peel and cut but just boil the potatoes whole for about 20 minutes, then bake the potatoes wrapped in aluminium foil for between an hour to an hour and a half. Poke a fork through and if it feels soft all through, it is done.

Fried potatoes: To satisfy that craving or give in to that binge
For frying potato chips, peel or no peel, slice the potatoes as thinly as possible (a mandoline would help tons) then fry them in hot oil till they are brown and crispy. Do the same for French fries, but cut them into sticks instead.


Boiled potatoes: The classic that you can’t go wrong with
As for boiling, again, peel or no peel, cut into bite-sized pieces and boil for 10 to 20 minutes depending on how big your potato pieces are. You can test its doneness with a fork. If it feels crunchy when you sink your fork in, it’s underdone. Breaks apart entirely when you barely touched it, it’s overcooked. If it feels soft all through when your fork goes it, it’s perfect! Remember to add salt to the water, though, or your potatoes will be tasteless.


Mashed potatoes: As easy as Shepherd’s Pie
Mashed potatoes, now here’s my favourite. Boil the potatoes till they are perfectly cooked, drain the water out, return the potatoes to the pot and leave it to rest for about 10 minutes or so. This allows it to release the excess water so that you can have a light, fluffy texture. Too much water would give you a thick and heavy texture. Add salt, pepper, herbs of your choice (I would recommend rosemary, thyme, oregano, and paprika), milk or cream, and butter. Gently stir the contents with a spoon or spatula, but don’t stir too much or you will end up with gummy mashed potatoes and let me tell you, I have had that more than once and it does NOT taste good at all.


In summary…

Well, to recap today’s topic, why are potato chips bad for you? It’s because of the acrylamide formed during the frying process which is known as a potential cause of cancer. If you are thinking about frying, roasting or mashing, try mealy, sandy potatoes like Russet potatoes. For boiling, waxy potatoes like New potatoes would be best. How to cook potatoes? Roast them, bake them, fry them, boil them or do anything you want with them and I hope that you will grow to love potatoes just as I do.
Until next time, thanks for reading and give me a thumbs up if you found this interesting or useful. A comment would also be much appreciated.


TPF


References:


(Article by Franco Pedreschi: Frying of Potatoes: Physical, Chemical and Microstructural Changes) - acrylamide & furan in fried potatoes

(Article by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) & Crop Science Society of America (CSSA): Fries with a side of acrylamide) - acrylamide in fried potatoes


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