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Christmas dinner: what’s the secret to the perfect roast potato?

Christmas dinner

Pre-boil, let them dry out, and roast them in very hot oil – top tips from the pros on how to make deliciously fluffy, crisp festive spuds

What’s the secret to a great roast potato for my Christmas dinner? Tracey, Guildford

Forget the turkey, sprouts and all the rest: the spuds are by far the best bit of any roast, Christmas or otherwise, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you differently. They cover every base, from carbs, crunch and salt to fat, umami and delicious excess.

There’s not much of a secret to them, either, Tracey, so long as you use the right type of potato and the fat’s hot enough to begin with. While waxy ones crisp up nicely, they just don’t hit the requisite level of softness inside, so for most of us that means using floury maris piper, desiree or king edwards, though if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on some, kerr’s pinks or golden wonder would be even better.

Once you’ve picked and peeled your potatoes, the next step is to boil them, which is where our modern kitchen gurus start dishing up confusion. Nigella boils them for only four minutes, Delia gives hers 10 and Jamie’s get 15, while Heston Bloomingheck takes his to the brink of disintegration by boiling them for up to half an hour, which is just an accident waiting to happen, and best avoided on this of all days. (Mind you, his tip to add the peeled skins to the boiling pot is bona fide genius, because it really does make the potatoes taste exponentially more, er, potatoey.) Some then dust their drained spuds in flour or even semolina (*hard stares La Lawson*) to help them crisp up, but there’s no real need: so long as they go into very hot oil, they’ll go crunchy enough anyway.

But enough of the culinary slebs, already: before we all reach for the Aunt Bessie’s, let’s ask some folk who actually make roasties for a living. According to Steven Smith, chef/owner of The Freemason’s Arms in Wiswell, Lancashire, “When you think about it, the best part of a roastie is the bit submerged in fat, because it’s really crisp but stays all fluffy inside; the bits that aren’t under oil often dry out and go rock-hard.”

These days, Smith doesn’t actually “roast” his potatoes at all; he deep-fries them. While that’s perhaps a bit much for the home cook – and the uncharitable among us may well be asking, “Isn’t that a chip, then?” – Smith does this because it ensures consistency; he’s clearly on to something, too, because his pub is always up near the top of the annual Top 50 Gastropubs list. Anyway, he says, the cooking medium isn’t as pivotal as letting the spuds dry out properly first. “We put ours uncovered in the fridge overnight, to give them time to lose all the moisture they pick up in boiling.”

Nathan Richardson, head chef at the award-winning Guinea Grill in Mayfair, agrees with an overnight dry, but “if that’s not possible, give them at least an hour to cool and dry before roasting”. This guy makes 200-plus portions each and every Sunday, so knows his way around a roastie better than most. “And give them a shake to rough up the edges only once they are cool, or you’ll risk destroying them entirely and ending up with roast mash.”

As for the fat you use, take a leaf out of Delia’s book and match it to what you’re serving. Richardson uses dripping – “Why waste money on duck or goose fat when you can get a block of dripping for less than a pound?” – as befits a man who runs a kitchen famed for its steak, but whatever you use, he says, “It has to be smoking hot before the spuds go in, because it coats them better and prevents sticking.”

It’s the finishing touches, however, that really set the professionals apart: Richardson dusts his roast spuds in dried thyme, rosemary, salt and white pepper, all ground to a fine powder, while Smith tosses his first in browned salted butter flavoured with garlic, thyme and rosemary before seasoning with yet more salt, rosemary and thyme.

Finally, as everyone knows, the golden rule is always to make way more than you think you need, because few mouthfuls are more pleasurable than a leftover roastie straight from the fridge. “If I had my way,” Richardson says, “I’d avoid eating them with roast dinner at all. They’d make the perfect bar snack if only I could guarantee people wouldn’t ask me to heat them up.”


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