Mm… scalloped potatoes, served with juicy pork chops, are about as good a cold season meal as you’ll find. Sure, it is meat and potatoes, but it is also comfort food extraordinaire. We’re going to take a look at how this once popular, perhaps resurging, potato casserole dish came to be. But, perhaps even more importantly, we’ll show you the basics and advanced tips to make the best scalloped potatoes at home.
The way back machine
No, we are not going to wander back to the very mists of history in South America and the original cultivation of potatoes. Although those indigenous peoples certainly deserve a tip of the cap for finding such a culinary treasure.
And treasure it was, as potatoes found their way back to the old world some five or six hundred years ago. There they found a happy place. Even when an authoritarian ruler forced the populace to eat them, they found their place in the history of food.
As a member of the nightshade family, folks were naturally a bit cautious, since that meant they were relatives of the toxic belladonna. This slightly slowed down the acceptance of potatoes in Europe. But enough about the dark side of the humble spud.
Potatoes are truly amazing; they can fit into to so many levels of our culinary tapestry. Humbly baked and served fluffy and hot, or take your pick, they respond well to any cooking method.
They also do really well when dairy gets involved, which is exactly where scalloped potatoes start singing the right tune. Most things baked with whole milk, cream, butter and such are going to come out well, but potatoes take it to a whole new level.
Take your pick. Big old scallops have a shell large enough to actually use as a baking dish, and that is speculated as one name source since that food was ‘scalloped’. Or the old English word ‘collop’, to slice thinly, transmogrified into the cooking term for scalloped potatoes.
Similarly, ‘escalloped’ is often thought to be the ancestor of scalloped potatoes. Both collop and escalloped were terms used for thinly sliced meats, which migrated to other foods as well. In France ‘escalope’ also meant thin meat, but it was often hammered to get that shape. The short answer is that we don’t really know the etymology of the term.
First Scalloped Potatoes Recipe
There is no clear winner to this title either, to be honest. The dish ‘scalloped potatoes’, thinly sliced potatoes cooked in a thickened milk-based sauce, has probably been around for centuries without a specific attribution.
In England and Australia, a potato scallop is a thin slice of potato battered and deep fried. this and other trends make it pretty clear that the roots of what we call scalloped potatoes is of Irish and/or American origin. Even at that, it is subject to interpretation.
Making the Best Scalloped Potatoes
Au gratin potatoes?
You knew this was coming. We’ve avoided the term au gratin potatoes. This term is specifically a dish with an added top crust of breadcrumbs, often grated cheese, egg or butter. So it could be added to your scalloped potatoes, as it is to a pasta au gratin or many dishes.
Closer to a scalloped potatoes recipe is Gratin Dauphinois. The thinly sliced potatoes are baked in a well buttered casserole dish layered with cream. Some recipes do call for eggs or cheese. Technically this is what we call au gratin potatoes in the US. By all means, add a crumb top to crips and add flavors to your dish if you choose.
The Big Brouhaha; Cheese
Should your scalloped potato recipe call for cheese? Technically no, according to the purists, but realistically, yes please! Straightforward scalloped potatoes recipes are a bechamel style cream sauce with some garlic powder and thyme perhaps, layered in a prepared baking dish with the thinly sliced potatoes and cooked until they are tender, and golden brown on top. The perfect side dish as is.
Mix that up with some shredded cheese added and the results are also really good. Both Martha Stewart and Julia Child use cheese in their recipes, specifically gruyere which has a great melt and rich flavors. Bake until tender and bubbly, you can’t go wrong with cheese.
Pick a potato
You really only have two tater choices to consider, russet potatoes or Yukon gold potatoes. These two have the best starch content so they help thicken the dish to a creamier consistency. The russet more so, it also gives you the most tender end result. Yukon gold potatoes stay slightly firmer and have excellent look and flavor.
Yes, you can use any tater you so desire. Baby reds are good, white potatoes are also a decent choice. Because of the nature of the dish a purple potato will bleed out color that doesn’t end up very pretty. Some fingerlings will do this as well. We recommend going cheap on the spud and spending up on the cheese and cream.
No, we are not suggesting this as a diet dish. Scalloped potatoes are meant to be rich, and that brings calories. But all your scalloped potato recipes will call for thin and uniform slices of potato. If you have decent knife skills, potatoes are fairly easy to work with, especially if you peel one side slightly flat as base for better slicing.
Yes, peel your spuds. Scalloped potatoes are one dish that is unquestionably better when the skins are removed. Save your rustic look for mashers.
It is not cheating to use a mandoline slicer for your slicing duties. It is probably the best way to get the most uniform slices. Another option is your food processer, most have a slicer blade. If you are cooking for a large group, this a faster option than a mandoline slicer, but it is a bit harder on the potatoes, and does not typically allow for choosing your thickenss.
White sauce or just baking
This actually leads us to two questions that are related. As mentioned, russet potatoes and Yukon golds are great to use for scalloped potatoes, in part because of their high starch content. In fact, they have enough starch that adding flour is not necessary to achieve a great sauce texture with either a cream sauce goal or a cheese sauce goal. See Martha Stewarts scalloped potato recipe that is flour free.
The alternative is to build a creamy sauce first and layer it with the potatoes. Bechamel is a classic ‘mother sauce’ in French cooking. Make a quick roux with butter and flour, whisk in milk, half and half, or even heavy cream, bring to a boil stirring constantly and it will thicken into a cream sauce. It’s called a mother sauce because it takes other flavors so well, from mushrooms to cheese.
Just cooking potatoes with a cream sauce risks a bland meal. Obviously salt and pepper are necessary. Thyme is probably the next most popular herb to add to your recipe, preferably fresh thyme. You can start it in with your sauce base or add it to the layers as your build the dish. Of course, no recipe will be complete with garlic, or garlic powder.
Many recipes for scalloped potatoes will call for onion. This will work great, but you need to be slightly cautious. Onion cut to the same thickness as your potatoes will often not get as tender while in the oven. They are delicious sliced thinner and added with the layers in your casserole.
Make it your own
Scalloped potatoes is definitely a dish that allows for the cook’s personality to shine. From choosing a creamy sauce to a cheese sauce, and the cheese to use in it, you get to guide the flavor profile. Find a good recipe to start and then build the scalloped potatoes that suits your pallet, or just uses what you regularly keep on hand in your pantry.
Once you start baking, you might as well fill the oven with pork chops, chicken, or roast beef to be the main bill with your scalloped potatoes the perfect side dish. Or go with a hearty and rich approach with lots of shredded cheese, maybe some diced ham and a sprinkle of breadcrumbs on top, then the scalloped potatoes can become a delicious entree with great veggies and salad on the side.
The humble spud
Scalloped potatoes are yet another way to elevate this simple tuber beyond the earthy realm in which it grew, to a fantastic dish to grace any table. Slice it, dice it, cube it, mash it; the tater always delivers. Baked in a casserole until tender with some cream and salt and pepper, or all the way to multilayered recipe with many techniques, you will not go wrong expanding your kitchen repertoire to include scalloped potatoes.
Scalloped potatoes Recipe
- 4 Large potatoes thinly sliced
- 2 Cloves of garlic minced
- 1 Small onion diced
- 2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
- 1 Cup shredded cheese (cheddar or gruyere work well)
- 2 Cups heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9x13 inch baking dish with butter.
- Arrange the thinly sliced potatoes overlapping each other in the baking dish. Sprinkle the garlic, onion, thyme leaves, salt and pepper over the potatoes evenly.
- Pour the heavy cream over the potatoes and spread out evenly using a pastry brush or spoon. Top with cheese and cover tightly with aluminum foil.
- Bake for 45 minutes covered in foil and then uncover for another 15 minutes until top is golden brown and bubbly around edges. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving warm.