How to Cook Perfect Roast Potatoes

Lynne Kiesling

I cooked up a storm over the holidays — homemade pizza dough, cookies, pear clafoutis, New Year’s Day pork roast and spaetzle (but no sauerkraut), waffles, pancakes, beef barley soup (with homemade beef stock, YUM), it just went on and on and on. And it all turned out better than usual, because for once I slowed down, gave myself time to do it right, and focused on the simple pleasure of doing one enjoyable thing at a time and allowing myself to be entirely absorbed in it.

In part I interpret all of the focused, purposeful, yet slow-paced culinary immersion as a consumption good — I really do enjoy cooking very much. In part, though, I also think of it as part of my deliberate effort over the holidays to, as Jonah Lehrer described in his Wall Street Journal article on why most of our New Year’s resolutions fail, allow my prefrontal cortex some rest and relaxation time.

The biggest payoff of this activity came with Christmas dinner. The menu: beef-a standing rib roast, individual Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, and roast green beans with garlic. Our friend Sam and her mom joined us, contributing their conviviality and two delicious desserts. It was one of those rare meals in which every dish turned out well — the roast was done enough but not too done, the Yorkshire puddings puffed delightfully and looked like little chef’s hats (and tasted good too).

But for my part the best culinary discovery of the savory dishes in this meal was the roast potatoes. I am a great fan of the potato, so I am no stranger to roasting potatoes (although in the domestic specialization and exchange, the KP Spouse usually does the roasting, and typically on the grill). But the Christmas potatoes were a revelation — crunchy and flavorful on the outside, creamy and mellow on the inside. How did this happen?

I credit the British cook and domestic diva Nigella Lawson. In flipping through her book How To Eat to see how she cooks her rib roasts, I ran across her recipe for roast potatoes. She recommended doing three things that I had never tried before:

  1. Parboil the cut potatoes in salted water for 5 minutes
  2. Drain the potatoes, put a lid on the pot, and shake the pot vigorously to soften the parboiled potatoes and make their edges slightly mushy
  3. Toss the potatoes with 1 tablespoon of semolina flour before putting them in a roasting pan with (olive) oil that has been preheating (if you don’t have semolina you can use all-purpose flour instead)

The result was WOW. I’ll never be able to go back to doing them any other way. Give it a try and let me know what you find!

Coincidentally, today I got some validation from one of my favorite cooks-cookbook authors-food bloggers, Clotilde Dusoulier at Chocolate & Zucchini. Her post today describes the technique (and recipe) for her friend Pascale’s roast potatoes, and the “shake the pan” technique features prominently:

Pascale’s roasted potato magic unfolds thusly: the potatoes are parboiled for five minutes first, drained, and returned to the saucepan. At this point — and this is the crucial step, so pay attention — you grab the lidded pan and shake it vigorously, which not only is fun, but also serves to make the surface of the potato pieces fuzzy from rubbing their hips one against the other.

And wouldn’t you know it, it is this very fuzz that fosters the formation of a splendid crust when you then bake the potatoes, while the parboiling step reduces the baking time and ensures that the flesh inside stays moist.

Apparently her friend learned this technique from her British mother-in-law, so we have two data points here that suggest to me that the British know a thing or two about how to make great roast potatoes. I’d bet cooking them in goose fat wouldn’t taste too awful either …

3 thoughts on “How to Cook Perfect Roast Potatoes

  1. Olive oil for roasting potatoes?

    Eeek! Bad Nigella, Bad Nigella.

    Goose fat (the other directions are fine though). If not goose fat then beef dripping will do, if not then pork lard.

    We are trying here to maximise cholesterol consumption, aren’t we?

  2. Tim, be fair to the Queen of Domestic Goddesses; the olive oil was what I used, not necessarily what she recommended. I’m sure that Nigella would prefer duck fat or goose fat, but the semolina flour is a signal of her Italian folkway coming through … so perhaps olive oil is OK.

    In the US we have a hard time sourcing duck fat and goose fat, so for that reason, and out of habit, I use olive oil.

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