Goodness Unearthed

"Best Potato" contest enhances variety development

Published in the January 2016 Issue Published online: Jan 13, 2016 Bill Brewer
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In 2006, during an Oregon Potato Commission (OPC) research committee meeting, discussion about Tri-State Variety Development activities was being presented. OPC public member Leif Benson asked what the early selections tasted like. Benson is an executive chef who, along with nine potato growers from around the state, is appointed to the OPC board of directors. Benson has proven his interest in promoting all types of commodities but has a special interest in potatoes and their uses.

Benson was told the variety development process takes 12 to 15 years of research before a variety is released to the public and that the taste wouldn’t be known until late in the process. His curiosity piqued, Benson asked, “Since these varieties will be eaten, shouldn’t the taste be known much earlier?” He also said many chefs only differentiate potatoes as being either waxy or mealy. That discussion started the OPC’s looking at taste and factors influencing those characteristics.

Over the next couple years, several experiments with sampling varieties and types of potatoes (waxy/mealy) took place at public events. It seemed apparent there were major differences in taste and preference was subjective. The testing quickly started looking at soil types and locations in which the varieties were being grown. The OPC used the relationship Benson had with the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School and the ACF Pro Chefs Oregon (ACF) to conduct taste and preference studies at its Portland location.

When asked to describe the taste of a potato prior to the audience being educated on the topic, everyone would simply say it tasted like a potato. Benson developed a score sheet with the categories appearance, texture, taste and aroma. He also developed 12 to 18 descriptive words for each category to help participants better understand each entry. These included words such as “jewel,” “vibrant,” “pleasing” and “golden” to describe appearance. Words like “buttery,” “bland,” “grassy,” “peppery” and “umami” to describe taste. The OPC believes terroir (natural influences of the soil and climate) has the same effect on potatoes that viticulturists know it has on grapes grown for the wine industry.

The OPC started an Oregon-grown “Best Potato” contest in 2011 that uses the ACF to judge entries divided into russet, red, yellow and specialty variety categories. Award winners are recognized during the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference held each January in Kennewick, Wash.

Taste is now being evaluated in the variety development program as soon as there are enough potatoes available. Oregon State University and the OPC have been partnering to understand genetic traits that promote good taste. It is our belief that consumers have their own preferences determined first by the intended use, and that these preferences indicate the best type of potato (waxy/mealy) for a particular consumer. Growers and shippers can provide information on individual selections’ terroir, which should be the next factor to use when determining which potato to purchase. Because individual preferences are subjective, consumers need to be educated by growers on suppliers of available varieties.

The 2015 judges included members of the ACF plus the Oregon potato variety development team. Along with naming the “Best Potato” in each category, the judges are asked to name characteristics that they like and dislike. This information should allow breeders to look at the genetics influencing those characteristics and react accordingly in their work.