What is a Potato?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A potato is a starchy edible tuber native to South America and cultivated all over the world. The tuber has been domesticated for over 10,000 years, and over 1,000 varieties are known, although only a fraction of this number are cultivated commercially. They play an important role in the culture and history of many South American countries, and were adopted into European cuisine and culture when they were introduced in the 1600s.

Whole and sliced raw potatoes.
Whole and sliced raw potatoes.

Domestication of the wild potato began around 8,000 BCE. Many varieties were cultivated by native people, and the tuber quickly became a staple food, along with corn. When explorers first began to visit South America, they were introduced to potatoes, and samples of the crop traveled back to Europe with them. It was at first a reluctant introduction to the garden, as the plants are in the nightshade family, along with eggplants and tomatoes. Parts of nightshade plants can be toxic, and European farmers were at first suspicious of this food. After trial fields grew successfully, however, it was a welcome addition to the European diet.

Gyros often contain French fries.
Gyros often contain French fries.

Potatoes are somewhat difficult to grow. They are subject to rot and fungus if not cared for properly, as the Irish learned in 1845. The plants are usually propagated from buds, called eyes, which form if the tubers are left in the soil instead of being harvested. They will also bud in cool, dry storage conditions, as cooks who forget about those in storage have learned. They are often cut into pieces and replanted, although potatoes can also grow from seed, depending on the variety. As a general rule, the soil must rest between plantings. The plants prefer full sun and light, and loose soil that is watered infrequently. Once harvested, potatoes can be stored in a cool dark place for an extended period of time.

Mashed potatoes.
Mashed potatoes.

Vitamins A and C can be found in abundance in the tuber, along with some other vitamins and minerals. They can be prepared in a number of ways, but are always eaten cooked. Fried foods, such as French fries and potato pancakes, are popular in many parts of the world, but they are also baked, roasted, boiled, and stewed. The dense white flesh can be dressed with a number of condiments or eaten plain, depending on personal preference.

Various types of potatoes.
Various types of potatoes.

When seeking out potatoes in the store, shoppers should be aware that different types are more suitable for different foods than others. Waxy potatoes will retain their shape through cooking, making them good choices for boiling and frying. Starchy ones break down, and are good mashed baked.

Rustic French chicken stew with potatoes and olives.
Rustic French chicken stew with potatoes and olives.
Potato chips are a popular potato based snack.
Potato chips are a popular potato based snack.
Potatoes are a tuber vegetable.
Potatoes are a tuber vegetable.
Potatoes belong to the nightshade family of plants, which also includes eggplants and tomatoes.
Potatoes belong to the nightshade family of plants, which also includes eggplants and tomatoes.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Does anyone have any experience with potato growing? How much room would I need to dedicate to it in my garden and what kind of yields could I expect?

I have thought about growing potatoes for years, but they are always so cheap at the store that I usually don't think about it when it comes time to plant.


I love potatoes in all their forms; baked, boiled, and fried. But I think my all time favorite potato dish is scalloped potatoes. For me, this is the ultimate comfort food. What could be better than creamy, cheesy potatoes?


We eat potatoes in the form of French fries more than any other way. My kids love them and we make them at home quite a bit.

I know the French fries you get at a fast food place aren't very nutritious. We like to make our own French fries at home. I will slice up whole potatoes and we season them and bake them in the oven.

I don't think potatoes as a whole have nearly as much nutrition as other vegetables, but eating them this way is certainly a lot healthier than eating them after they have been fried in a bunch of grease.


I gave up buying potatoes in the big bags, and now just by a few here and there as I need them. I used to buy a big bag of potatoes and store them in my potato bin.

Since we don't eat potatoes that often, many of them would start to bud or be rotten by the time I was ready to use them. I got tired of throwing them away, so I don't buy as many potatoes at one time any more.


We eat a lot of soup during the colder months and potato soup is definitely one our favorites. Nothing hits the spot more than a nice hot bowl of potato soup on a cold winter day.

I will often add ham and cheese to the potato soup to add some protein and a little bit more flavor. I have eaten potatoes many different ways and have enjoyed all of them.

I have to say my favorite way to eat potatoes is mashing them, but if I don't want to take the time to do that, throwing a baked potato in the oven is an easy way to enjoy a potato with a meal or by itself.


Potatoes are pretty much a staple at our house. My husband is a "meat and potatoes guy", so we have potatoes frequently.

I remember reading that the small red potatoes have less sugar in them than the Russet potatoes. I like using the small potatoes when I am cooking a roast because they are the perfect size. I also like their flavor as all the different kinds of potatoes have a flavor all their own.


@giddion – I've never tried new potatoes, but since they are so tender, it sounds like they would be good for making mashed potatoes. I've been using huge brown baking potatoes for this, and it takes them quite awhile to boil to the point of tenderness.

I might give new potatoes a try. It sure would be nice to spend just twenty minutes boiling them before being able to mash them up. I like to include the skins in my mashed potatoes, so I wouldn't have to worry with peeling the little tubers.


I read that the sweet potato is one of the most nutritious vegetables in existence. It offers vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, natural sugars, and a host of other things that are good for you.

It even beat out spinach, and that is hard to do! I'm glad that I recently developed an addiction to sweet potato oven fries, because I can eat until I'm satisfied without worrying about fat content.

If you cut up a peeled sweet potato into french fry shapes, toss them in olive oil, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper, you will have a delicious, nutritious snack. I bake mine for about half an hour, and they take on the perfect texture.


I love to roast red potatoes. They have a really good flavor that stands up well to high oven temperatures.

I slice them into thin discs and toss them in olive oil. Then, I sprinkle salt and herbes de Provence on them. You can also use parsley or Cajun seasoning.

I bake them at 385 degrees for thirty minutes or until they get golden brown blisters on the surface. They are nice and crunchy on the outside, and they are a little bit soft on the inside.


Those little tubers called “new potatoes” are great for boiling. They are harvested before they fully mature, so they are more tender than the fully grown ones.

At my grocery store, new potatoes come in a little mesh potato bag. It holds a pound and a half of them.

I boil them for twenty minutes in salted water with a bay leaf, garlic, and black peppercorns. I take them out, drain them, and butter them before serving them.


I'll just ask if small potatoes have a different nutrient composition from the large, grown ones. please reply asap. need it badly. thank you.


Interesting, thanks for sharing.


What would be the best oil to fry a potato with and the best temp to fry it at?


how can i make potato starch?


What exactly is a potato, is it classified as a vegetable or what?

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