The potato is a starchy, tuberous crop from the perennial nightshade Solanum tuberosum L. The word “potato” may refer either to the plant itself or the edible tuber. In the Andes, where the species is indigenous, there are some other closely related cultivated potato species. Potatoes were introduced outside the Andes region approximately four centuries ago, and have since become an integral part of much of the world’s food supply. It is the world’s fourth-largest food crop, following maize, wheat, and rice.
While there are close to 4000 different varieties of potato, it has been bred into many standard or well-known varieties, each of which has particular agricultural or culinary attributes. In general, varieties are categorized into a few main groups, such as russets, reds, whites, yellows (also called Yukons) and purples—based on common characteristics. Around 80 varieties are commercially available in the UK. For culinary purposes, varieties are often differentiated by their waxiness. Floury, or mealy (baking) potatoes have more starch (20–22%) than waxy (boiling) potatoes (16–18%). The distinction may also arise from variation in the comparative ratio of two potato starch compounds: amylose and amylopectin. Amylose, a long-chain molecule, diffuses from the starch granule when cooked in water, and lends itself to dishes where the potato is mashed. Varieties that contain a slightly higher amylopectin content, a highly branched molecule, help the potato retain its shape when boiled.