A Perfect Recipe: Roast Potatoes

Delicious recipes often sacrifice health for flavor. And “healthy” recipes often sacrifice flavor for perceived health benefits. Can you maximize flavor and health? I believe so. The “perfect” recipe series explores the recipes I’ve developed over twenty years as a passionate home cook, personal caterer, and recipe developer. 

The perfect roast potato begins with baking soda. As far as I know, Cook’s Illustrated introduced this idea in 2012, in its home fries recipe, which follows a simple premise: parboiling peeled and cut russet potatoes in water with baking soda creates an alkaline reaction which breaks down the potato’s surface area. The more surface area, the more oil can adhere to the potato. When cooked at a high temperature, the abundant oiled surface area creates a crispy exterior.

Kenji of Serious Eats also suggests baking soda (though he originally suggested vinegar, which produced sketchy results for me) in his “crispy roast potatoes” recipe.

The recipe below, for perfect roast potatoes, is essentially an amalgam of the Cooks Illustrated and Serious Eats recipes with my own tweaks.

The Best High Heat Cooking Oil?

To make an excellent, crispy home fry, roasted potato, or oven-baked French fry, you need abundant fat and high heat. Many of my recipes try to reduce the impact of high heat on fat–especially extra virgin olive oil or butter. But there’s no getting around the need for high heat in this recipe.

Heat oxidizes fats, creating harmful free radicals. Conventional wisdom associates an oil’s “smoke point” with the production of harmful free radicals. When a fat is heated past its smoke point, the wisdom goes, the fat will become unstable, releasing free radicals into your food.

Conventional wisdom has also classified the best “high heat” oils based on the oil’s composition. Saturated fats, like coconut oil, are thought to be more stable than polyunsaturated fats, like sunflower oil, or monounsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil.

Extra virgin olive oil, especially, has been classified as a poor high heat oil due to its low smoke point. As the Bulletproof Blog notes:

“Saturated fats are super stable because their tails don’t have an opening where a free radical can grab an electron and oxidize the fat – the tails are already filled up (“saturated”). That’s not to say that monounsaturated (MUFA; one opening) and polyunsaturated (PUFA; many openings) fats are bad for you. These fats can be a great addition to your cooking arsenal too. Just be gentler with them so you don’t oxidize the more fragile MUFAs and PUFAs.”

This “conventional wisdom” is not necessarily supported by science.

A recent study out of Australia, for example, found that smoke point “does not predict oil performance,” and that extra virgin olive oil yielded the lowest levels of harmful compounds when heated and compared to other common oils, like canola, grapeseed, and coconut oil. The study posits that extra virgin olive oil is stable due to its high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols.

Conventional wisdom also states that extra virgin olive oil loses its antioxidants and polyphenols when heated to high temperatures. But this myth was dispelled by another older study, which found “that despite the heating conditions, [EVOO] maintained most of its minor compounds and, therefore, most of its nutritional properties.”

I remember reading this study when I worked at Whole Foods, during a time when I was experimenting with coconut oil for high heat. Unfortunately, unlike coconut milk (which I use in my mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potato recipes), coconut oil can appreciably (and negatively) influence the taste of a dish.

Today I usually use extra virgin olive oil for high heat cooking. In the recipe below, I use grassfed butter and extra virgin olive oil. Again, since smoke point does not necessarily determine fat degradation, I think extra virgin olive oil and grassfed butter make the best one-two punch here.

Acrylamides and the Maillard Reaction

Is this a “healthy” recipe? Not necessarily. Eating high heat cooked potato recipes (like French fries) may double the risk of early death. And any starchy food cooked at high heat–in pursuit of the cook’s beloved “Maillard reaction“–creates acrylamides, a known human nuerotoxin linked to cancer.

However, although people like Dr. Mercola talk about acrylamides in French fries as if they’re a veritable poison, the evidence so far has failed to find a link between acrylamide exposure in food and cancer.

I do try to reduce my family’s exposure to acrylamides by cooking most recipes low and slow, or by simply minimizing cooking, when possible. The point of this recipe is to eat a healthier version of high-heat cooked potatoes. Make this recipe once or twice a month, on days that you exercise very hard–and enjoy it.

Perfect Roast Potatoes (French Fries)

Pre-heating the baking sheet in the oven is crucial. And don’t crowd the potatoes on the pan. If necessary (and possible) use two pans (adding additional oil to the second pan, as necessary). The timing can be dramatically different, depending on your oven. In my oven, the recipe takes about 25 minutes from start to finish. You may need to adjust the timing for your oven. 

3.5 pounds organic russet potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters or eighths
Celtic Sea Salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons grassfed butter
2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (to coat pan)

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and preheat oven to 450°F (or 400-425°F for convection, depending on your oven’s convection settings). Place a large rimmed baking sheet on the rack.

Combine peeled and cut potatoes, baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt, and 2 quarts water in a large pot. Heat over high until simmering. (Warning: the baking soda may cause the water to overflow, so watch the pot). Simmer for two minutes. Drain potatoes carefully in the pot (by straining water through the lid).

Place the potatoes in the pot back on the stove over low heat. Add the butter and 1/2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt. Stir until the butter is melted and the potatoes develop a thick mashed-like paste.

Carefully remove pre-heated baking sheet from oven. Add oil to coat the pan (make sure entire surface area is coated with oil). Add potatoes to pan, spreading evenly without overcrowding.

Transfer to oven and roast, without moving, for 10 (or more) minutes. With tongs or a fine metal spatula, check to see if potatoes are browned and can easily be flipped. When you can easily dislodge the potatoes, flip, and place the pan back in the oven, roasting until all potatoes are golden brown, 10-20 additional minutes (or more).

Keep the potatoes on the pan, and sprinkle with more sea salt to taste. Serve immediately.

(Cover Image Source)