My Son’s Super-excellent Roast Potatoes

“So it was a relief to see there has been an attempt to stir up controversy over the all-important question of roast potatoes. Nigella Lawson is a champion of goose fat for crispiness, while Heston Blumenthal favours beef dripping as ‘the vital ingredient in creating something extraordinary’….There must be scuffles in the street as Nigella supporters, with banners, clash with grim-faced Blumenthal disciples. Militant pro-parboilers must go on the march, chanting their slogans”

Oliver Pritchett, The Telegraph

Almost every week we have a roast on Sundays. And almost every time it is accompanied by roast potatoes. My son is a stickler for the quality of these – in his eyes soggy roasties are a crime. So a while ago I embarked on a series of experiments trying out the methods of famous chefs. Now our method encompasses everything learnt – possibly the most useful tip being the use of semolina which came from Nigella Lawson.

Of course, roast potatoes go perfectly with roast beef – go here for the method for making that perfectly.

If you have been brainwashed by the press to worry about the health aspects of enjoying roast potatoes, reassure yourself with The Chronicle Flask’s excellent post on the subject.

Extra tip from the Halen Môn Christmas cook book – soak them first

Make your roasties extra crispy by soaking them in cold water first for about half an hour. This gets some of the starch out. Once soaked, take them out of the water using a slotted spoon and then leave to air dry in a colander for another half hour or so. Don’t be tempted to simply pour them into a colander or you will wash all the starch back in.

Quickest and easiest way to peel potatoes

The main snag about roast potatoes is that you have to peel them… you really do. But there is a quick way. Score a line around the middle of a raw potato. Boil it. You will see the peel will shrink back, away from where you have cut it. The peel on each half of the potato should (!) then come off in one easy movement. So, when making roasties, you par boil as described above, and then, once drained and cool, cut them as described below. Alternatively don’t bother peeling at all!

Pre-cooking roasties

You can, apparently, freeze parboiled and fluffed-up potatoes ready for roasting (once thawed) for up to a month. I have never tried this and I am a bit dubious because of the high water content of potatoes.

Alternatively you can parboil and put into a greased roasting tin, and fluff up with a fork the day before – keep somewhere cool. Then roast in the normal way.

Mary Berry goes the whole hog and cooks her roasties the day before and then crisps them up, without oil, just before serving.

Recipe for conjuring up the most perfect roast potatoes

Allow about 1 kg/2 lbs 3 oz of potatoes for about four people.

1. Use floury potatoes whose surface will fluff up – eg King Edward or Maris Piper, Desirée, Romano… Wilja is best if you can find it. For more on types of potatoes suitable for roasting follow this link.

2. ALLOW A MINIMUM TWO HOURS TO MAKE THESE

3. Peel the potatoes (or use the method above) and preheat the oven to 210°C. 

4. Cut the potatoes so they are all more or less the same size… that way they cook at the same rate. A group of students at the University of Essex has now researched a mathematical formula for cutting the potato optimally. Cut at a 30 degree angle they say to produce four fan-shaped pieces with greater surface area – allowing more fat to be absorbed, and more moisture to escape, producing crispier roasties. 

5. Run under cold running water to remove excess starch.

6. Par boil – ie put peeled cut potatoes into cold salted water, cover and bring to the boil and cook for 10 minutes. When par boiling potatoes leave the peel in the saucepan to reinforce the flavour. The key here is to ensure you put enough salt in the water – you need to season from within, and if you only add salt externally when you put the potatoes into the oven, the centres will remain unseasoned. As a rough guide, you’ll need a generous tablespoon to a litre of water. Simon Shaw, chef patron at El Gato and other Mancunian restaurants, suggests adding a little Marmite to the parboiling water, this gives a lovely golden colour apparently.

7. Put a good dollop of goose fat* into a roasting tin and put in the top right oven to get really hot. You can use duck fat or sunflower oil if you have no goose fat to hand. Heating the fat first means they soak up less fat and crisp up better. (broad rule – 1 tblsp fat for each 450g or 1lb of potatoes).

8. Drain and let them sit steaming for about five minutes. For extra crispy potatoes allow them to cool completely before roasting.

9. Scratch the surfaces with a fork.

10. Put into the roasting tin, toss until they are coated on all sides and sprinkle with salt and about the same amount of semolina.

11. Leave in roasting tin for 35 mins – turn potatoes over, and turn around in the oven. Some people add a splash of balsamic vinegar at this stage to achieve a sort of salt-and-vinegar-crisp effect.

12. Cook in roasting tin for another 25 mins, then check again, and turn again and cook for however much longer you judge they need. They take 1 – 1½ hours.

13. Once cooked DO NOT put in a  low-heat warming oven. If you have an Aga put the roasting tin on the Aga toaster and put on the floor of the baking oven,with the cold plain shelf above.  Otherwise keep them in a hotter oven, covered in foil.

*Some chefs think this makes the potatoes too rich, and prefer to use vegetable oil for a ‘lighter’ potato.

Variations on the roast potato theme

One of my favourite ways of cooking roast potatoes in a slightly different way is inspired by the Canadian chef, Anna Hansen. She mixes in garlic, rosemary, nigella seeds, and Urfa chilli flakes. Wonderful!

What to do with leftover roast potatoes

This is a rather nice idea from Rose Prince’s The New English Kitchen. Slice, and fry until crisp and eat with bitter or peppery leaves such as rocket, watercress, or frisée. You can add colour by including a red pepper in the frying process and adding dabs of tapenade.

For lots of other ideas of what to do with potatoes, follow this link.

perfect roast potatoes
Roast potato method, perfected over decades of assiduous research.

A couple more random quotes about roast potatoes

“What the world needs now isn’t another lithe middle-aged woman, but a new sort of role model. Someone who has spent a year rejecting self-discipline and instead thinking, “Roast potatoes, huzzah!” Someone who reads the stories about people desperate to go on a summer holiday and thinks, “You’re going to put on a bikini? Now? Really? Have you thought this through?”

Hilary Rose, in The Times, March 2021. Tess Daly looks amazing but I need a role model who eats roast potatoes.

“The Labour front bencher Steve Reed is reported to be obsessed with roast potatoes. The Sunday Telegraph claims that he once took a week off work and spent it experimenting to find the ideal spud (Maris Pipers came out top). It has been said that the best way to get him combat-ready before a big interview is to whisper in his ear: “Your roast potatoes are shit.””

The Week, October 2023
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