You can’t get much simpler than salt potatoes. You just boil a bunch of bite-sized potatoes, skins and all, in heavily salted water and eat. Okay, so go all out melt some butter for dipping. Then treat yourself to the crazy juxtaposition of creamy boiled potatoes with a remarkable salt crust.
Sound simple? You bet, but like many of nature’s best kept secrets, there’s more to this fundamental fare than meets the eye. Originating in Syracuse, New York, where a thriving salt mine employed a good portion of the community, salt potatoes once comprised the bulk of the working man’s daily diet.
Back in the 1800s, blue-collar Irish miners in The Salt City headed off to work each day with a small bag of substandard potatoes. Come lunch time, they boiled the potatoes in the free-flowing factory brine and subsequently indulged in a cultural phenomenon turned local delicacy. In the early 1900s, enterprising entrepreneur John Hinerwadel transformed the layman’s lunch into a thriving Central New York commodity by serving salt potatoes as a side at his famous clam bakes. Later, he began packaging 5-pound bags of potatoes along with a 12-ounce packet of salt. The package was labeled Hinerwadel’s Famous Original Salt Potatoes and was soon available in local markets. Today, Hinerwadel sells a million bags of salt potatoes annually at about 3 bucks a pop.
Some claim you can use any type of small potato; others say you can use any type but red. But the die-hard salt potato connoisseurs insist on new white potatoes; using red potatoes is a crime. Taking Hinerwadel’s as the salt potato standard, proper spuds are Size B, Grade US No. 2. What this really means it that the potatoes are small and that their appearance and shape are not particularly important. This supports the legendary origin of salt potatoes, with their roots (or tubers) buried deep in poor Irish heritage.
The consensus among the true believers is that “new” is also an important part of the perfect salt potato equation. New potatoes are simply immature potatoes of any variety, usually harvested in the spring and early summer. Key characteristics of new potatoes include their tender, parchment-like skin, which never needs to be peeled, and their moist creamy texture. Note that new potatoes are not the same as small potatoes. Small round red potatoes are often mistakenly identified as new, even by folks who have never heard of the controversy surrounding salt potatoes. I did some experimenting and have to agree with the regional experts. The taste and texture are magically different when you use new white potatoes.
Rookies will just throw the potatoes and the salt in a pot of water and boil, but I ended up with a big pile of salt in the bottom of the pot using this technique. Better results are achieved when you first boil the water and then add salt until it no longer dissolves. Only then do the potatoes come into the picture. As the potatoes cook, the supersaturated salted water forms a subtle crust on outside and somehow seals the potatoes so they never taste water-logged like ordinary boiled potatoes often do. They have a unique texture closer to fluffy baked potatoes, only creamier.
Don’t make the mistake of cooking salt potatoes on your freshly polished range. As the potatoes cook, steam continuously escapes from the countless pinholes on the potatoes’ pitted surface. Each tiny explosion carries as many salt crystals as the principles of physics allow, and every one of these brilliant white crystals ends up on the stove top. Fortunately, cleanup is a snap, requiring nothing more than a damp cloth, but perhaps this explains is why salt potatoes are most often cooked and consumed outdoors at clam bakes and county fairs.
The bag of Hinerwadel’s Famous Original Salt Potatoes lists both ingredients and instructions for this Central New York staple:
4 1/4 Lbs U.S. No. 2 Potatoes (Min 1″-Max 2 1/4″), 12 oz. Salt.
COOKING INSTRUCTIONS: Place 2 Quarts of water in a pot with entire contents of the salt packet and bring to boil. Add all the potatoes and cook about 20 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Drain & serve Hot. Dip cooked potatoes in melted butter just before eating. Leave skins on as they’re the best part.
Since I don’t live near Syracuse and am reluctant to pay shipping costs on a sack of potatoes (even though Hinerwadel’s can be ordered via A Taste of Central New York), I have adapted Hinerwadel’s recipe here.
4 pounds new white potatoes
12 to 16 ounces Kosher salt (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Place 2 quarts of water in a large pot along with 1 cup of kosher salt. Bring the water to a boil and continue adding salt until it no longer dissolves. Add all the potatoes and cook about 20 minutes, or until tender. Properly cooked potatoes will fall back into the water when pierced with a sharp knife.
Using a large slotted spoon, scoop the cooked potatoes from the water and place them in a colander or on a cooling rack. As the potatoes cool, the salt will form the signature crust. Serve while still warm with melted butter.