Technically speaking, an Idaho potato is any potato grown in the American state of Idaho, but one variety, the Russet Burbank, has come to be closely associated with the state. When most consumers think of these potatoes, they typically visualize the Russet Burbank, a classic starchy potato that has a wide range of uses. Idaho has come to be linked with potato production in the United States, and it produces one of the largest yearly crops of potatoes in the country, after Washington State.
The weather and elevation in Idaho make conditions perfect for growing potatoes. Potatoes are naturally high altitude plants, since they were developed in the mountain ranges of South America. In Idaho, a long, mild growing season in the summer pairs with rich, light soil and high elevations to create an ideal potato growing environment. This was realized in the early 1900s, when the Russet Burbank was first brought to the area and the state became a major potato producing powerhouse.
In fact, over 30 varieties of potato are grown in the state of Idaho, but the Russet Burbank is by far the most produced potato crop in the state. Russet Burbanks have an elongated shape with rough, netted skin and few eyes. Occasionally, the potatoes will mutate back to a thinner smooth skinned version, but both have white, starchy flesh. This potato made the state famous in the 20th century, when Idaho came to be known as a major potato producer.
The Russet Burbank is named for Luther Burbank, a famous scientist and gardener who developed the strain, apparently by accident, in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. The potato is derived from a potato cultivar known as Early Rose. Initially, Burbank had trouble marketing his potato, but by 1875, he managed to sell some seed potatoes and his farm, at which point he moved to Northern California. His experimental gardens are on tour to the public in Santa Rosa, California, and his potato cultivar dominates the American potato crop.
The Idaho potato is prized because although it has a long growing time, the mature tubers are heavy, solid, and often quite flavorful. When fried, the potatoes caramelize, creating a rich, dark color and a crispy flavor for foods like potato chips and French fries. The Russet Burbank also makes an excellent baking potato. When selecting one in a market, shoppers should look for firm specimens without soft spots, mold, or areas of extreme discoloration. Potatoes should be stored in a cool dry place until use, and washed carefully to remove dirt.