Aspiring chefs are taught to expect an 80 percent yield on every potato they peel. The lesson speaks to portioning and price control. If you know you’re going to lose 20 cents on every dollar you spend on spuds once you remove their skins, you can determine how big a dollop of monochromatic mashed potatoes to put on the plate while keeping food costs in check.

Modern nutritionists, too, have weighed in on what gets lost when a potato is peeled, a practice that was mainstreamed into America kitchens as pesticide use increased and logic dictated that cutting off the skin would cut down on eaters’ exposure. Using several online nutrition calculators, I surmised that the flesh of a small baked potato provides 113 calories, 2.5 grams of protein, 26 grams of carbohydrates and good amounts of vitamins C and B-6, niacin and thiamine. But for another 15 calories, the skin serves up an extra gram of protein and 3 more grams of carbohydrates and boosts iron and potassium levels by 70 and 35 percent, respectively.

But who’s calculating the environmental costs of wasting one-fifth of every potato consumed in the United States? Who’s adding up the water and energy expended to grow this wasted food?

Per capita consumption of processed potatoes – French fries, crispy chips, frozen products and dehydrated flakes – stands at 78 pounds per year. Commercial processors are adept at generating revenue from this potential waste product. They extract the starch for use inside and outside the food industry and offload peels to farmers for animal feed or to be re-use as seed tubers to start next season’s potato crop.

But the average American also consumes 33 pounds of fresh potatoes annually. Shaving off 20 percent of that weight amounts to over 6 pounds of perfectly edible, nutritious food per person. In Maine, home cooks could make a dent the 8.8 million pounds of potato peel that stands to be wasted here in the next 12 months by knowing when and how to prepare and serve their peels.

Bacon fat enriches the skins. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Firstly, go local for sure, and organic whenever possible to avoid eating pesticides that potatoes soak up from the soil. According to the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, 36 different pesticides have been found in conventionally grown potatoes. Higher concentrations are located in the skins than are found in the flesh. The Maine Potato Board says that since Maine’s winters are longer and colder than in many other areas of the country, fewer potato pests thrive here. As a result, Maine potato growers use just one tenth of the active ingredient pesticides averaged nationally. So eating conventionally grown Maine potato peels is less risky than eating their counterparts in Idaho, Oregon or Washington. But there is no shortage of certified organic Maine farmers who grow potatoes (142 farms, according to MOFGA, to be exact), most of whom sell direct to consumers through farmers markets, CSA shares and farm stands.

Secondly, learn when you can buck the peeling habit and cook potatoes with the skins intact. New potatoes and fingerlings in the market now should be boiled, steamed and roasted in their entirety. They require nothing but a gentle wash to remove any dirt. A good scrubbing would needlessly wash away the tender, sweet skin.

No need to throw away potato skin peelings. They can be made made into sweet and spicy potato skin chips. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Thirdly, minimize the need to peel fall potatoes at any time of year by choosing wisely and storing properly. Like most fruit and vegetables, potatoes will tell you when they are in good shape: they should be firm and smooth, with dry skin and shallow eyes, and without sprouts, cracks, blemishes or green tinge. The last signals the presence of solanine, a compound that tastes bitter and is toxic in large quantities; any green bits should be shaved off and discarded.

Store potatoes in a dry, dark place, ideally between 55 and 60 degrees. Never refrigerate them, which accelerates the vegetable’s conversion of starch to sugar – which you don’t want.

Lastly, fine-tune your cooking rituals and your palate to know when it’s time ditch the peeling process. Virtually any potato preparation can accommodate skin.

To boil or steam potatoes whole, use a sharp knife to make a slit in the skin to avoid it splitting unattractively in multiple places as the potato expands during cooking. Disregard any recipe instruction to peel potatoes before chopping and roasting or shredding and frying as the skins add flavor and texture to those treatments, both good things to have in any potato dish. For mashed, push the boiled, skin-on spuds through a ricer before stirring in butter or sour cream and seasoning. The finished dish will be pretty smooth, but if brown skin bits turn out to be aesthetically unpleasing, next time, peel the potatoes and toss the peels with some recycled bacon fat to make these chips, a tastier prospect than letting them rot on the compost pile.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

 

Brown sugar and spices, including smoked paprika, cayenne and thyme, are sprinkled on potato peels to make sweet and spicy potato skin chips. Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

SWEET AND SPICY POTATO SKIN CHIPS

This recipe is adapted from one published in Tara Duggan’s Root to Stalk Cooking. I like to use a paring knife instead of a vegetable peeler to remove the skins from potatoes destined for my daughter’s favorite creamy white mashed potatoes (they just wouldn’t be her favorites if I left on the skins). The paring knife gives these chips a bit more heft and me a little more leeway as to how long they can sit in the oven before burning to a crisp. If you need some time between the peeling and the making of these chips, place the peels in a bowl and cover them with water to prevent browning for up to a day. When you’re ready to bake the chips, drain the peels and squeeze them dry in a dish towel.

Serves 4

Peels from 4 medium russet potatoes
2 tablespoons warm rendered bacon fat (or olive oil)
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

Place a large rimmed baking sheet in the oven; preheat to 400 degrees F. Line a serving plate with piece of recycled paper bag.

Place the peels in a mixing bowl. Drizzle the bacon fat (or olive oil) over them and toss to coat.

Combine the sugar, salt, paprika, cayenne and thyme in a small bowl. Sprinkle half of the mixture over the peels and toss to coat. Spread the peelings on the hot baking sheet in a single layer, skin side down. Sprinkle with the remaining spice mixture; roast for about 12 minutes, until the skins start to crisp and brown. Use a spatula to stir them around to promote even crisping, then roast for 3 to 6 minutes more.

Transfer to the paper bag lined plate. Serve immediately.