I went to college in Syracuse, NY (yes, I am an Orangewoman) and spent a couple of lazy hard-working, class-attending summers there, making up classes that I blew off during the semester earning extra credit towards my degree. In addition to that wacky glowing yellow ball in the sky, lazy afternoons at Green Lakes and no lines at Chuck’s, summer brings a fabulous bounty to Central New York: the salt potato.
Salt potatoes have a mystique all their own, especially to those who grew up or spent some time in Central New York. Maybe it’s the salt: salt was mined heavily in the region in the 1800’s (and still is today), hence, the origin of the salt potato (Irish salt miners would throw potatoes in boiling salt water vats as a convenient lunch); maybe it’s the potatoes (perhaps potatoes grown in the salty, mineraly earth of Syracuse have a flavor all their own? terroir, anyone? ); maybe it’s just the special bag o’ spuds & salt from Wegman’s; whichever way you slice it, that authentic salt potato taste can be difficult to recreate when you are away from CNY. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Why? Because salt potatoes are deeelicious, my friends.
Salt potatoes are classic backyard barbecue fare in a Central New York summer. They’re easy, relatively quick, and require only three ingredients: salt, potatoes, and butter. They are good eaten hot or cold and massive amounts of them will disappear, right before your very eyes, with everyone wondering how boiled, salty potatoes can be so fabulous. Who knows? I try not to question the mysteries of the universe – I’m just thankful for them. There are a few rules for approximating the authentic flavor of Syracuse salt potatoes: 1). Whites or browns only – no reds need apply (nor purples!). You really need small, new white- or brown-skinned potatoes; many people try to use red potatoes as they are easiest to find small, but the skins are too thin and the flesh is not the right texture. You end up with overly salty, mushy boiled potatoes without the fabulous crispy skin. 2). Salt and lots of it! Most people are appalled when they see the amount of salt I add to salt potatoes; really, quite a lot of it stays in the water or on the pot. But yes, folks, these are salt potatoes; while they don’t taste excessively salty, the skins get crispy because of a layer of crackly salt. This is not food for the hypertensive in your life. Low-sodium salt potatoes are an oxymoron. 3). Butter is for dipping only. I’ve seen recipes that call for pouring melted butter over the potatoes once cooked; that defeats the purpose of the crispy, crackly skin (which gets soggy once it sits around in melted butter for a while), and, as the potatoes cool, the butter congeals; cold salt potatoes dipped into hot, melted butter = delicious. Cold salt potatoes coated in congealed, cold butter = nasty.
Below is my recipe for salt potatoes; it’s as authentic as I can get it without spending 4 hours in the car to hit up the Wegman’s on Erie Boulevard. Bring some to a summer party this weekend – you’ll surely be invited back!
- 2 quarts water
- about 1 lb salt (about 1 and 1/2 cups table salt or 2 cups Kosher salt)
- 4 lbs new, brown- or white-skinned potatoes, as small as possible, scrubbed, skin on
- about 4 oz butter
- Bring water and salt to boil in a large stockpot (you should still see visible salt crystals on the bottom of the pot; if not, add more salt until you can see at least a small amount of non-dissolved salt on the bottom of the pan). Add potatoes, replace cover briefly to return the salt water to a boil, then uncover and boil until potatoes until just fork tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and allow to sit in the open air for a few minutes, to develop a nice salt crust on the skin (and too cool off from their nuclear temperature).
- Melt butter in a small serving bowl. When ready to serve, transfer potatoes to a large bowl and serve hot. Eat with your fingers, dipped into melted butter, until you swear you cannot fit just one more – then eat one more.
Yields more than you should eat, but never, ever enough.
- There are none. This is the one and only authentic way to eat salt potatoes: no snipped herbs, no cracked pepper, no truffles, olive oil or Hawaiian salt; and for Heaven’s sake no red potatoes! Blasphemy. And really, even this isn’t authentic because I can’t buy the “salt potatoes” bag at Wegman’s and my potatoes are really too big. But it’s as close as I’m gonna get.
Salt potatoes are actually quite good cold and would last refrigerated for several days, I assume. There have never been any leftovers; I doubt there ever will.