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I recently made ciambotta (like an Italian ratatouille) on two separate occasions, first using russet potatoes, and once using red potatoes. In both instances, the potatoes (cut into half-inch pieces) came out too firm for my tastes (and my wife's taste). Both times the potatoes spent about 45 minutes all-told simmering in the Dutch oven before being served, and spent multiple days in the fridge as leftovers.

I thought that maybe if I parboiled the potatoes first I'd get better results. But I also don't want to overcook them and make them mushy. I've seen a lot online about parboiling potatoes before roasting them, but nothing about adding them to a stew.

Is parboiling a reasonable strategy here? How risky is it? I want the potatoes to be softer, but I don't want them to be mushy either.

  • How big are the pieces you put in? You say half inch, are they slices, strips, or cubes? – GdD Apr 19 '17 at 16:09
  • @GdD Roughly cubes. – Richard Sullivan Apr 19 '17 at 16:45
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45 minutes of boiling is more than enough time to soften potatoes regardless of altitude.

Parboiling potatoes before roasting frees up and gelatinizes starches on the outside of the potatoes that then get nice and crunchy when roasted. It will not do anything useful in your stew.

The likely culprit for your potatoes not softening is probably acid.

When potatoes are boiled with acid (lemon juice, vinegar, tomatoes, etc) the acid and heat will cause the pectin in the surface of the potatoes to gel. This is sometimes desirable for things like French fries but it can make them too firm in other cases.

If your recipe has acidic ingredients you can add them near the end of cooking or at least after the potatoes have had time to soften properly.

  • I added a 24 oz. can of tomatoes (chopped) at the same time, so next time I'll try adding the tomatoes later. – Richard Sullivan Apr 19 '17 at 16:46
  • Some of these canned tomato products (especially the diced or chopped) have calcium chloride added as a "firming agent" to prevent the tomatoes from mushing out in your casserole. I wonder if that also contributed to keeping your potatoes too firm. – Lorel C. Apr 19 '17 at 17:37
  • For what it's worth, these were whole, peeled tomatoes that I chopped separately myself. – Richard Sullivan Apr 19 '17 at 17:41
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    I did not know any of this. +1! On a side note, that would explain why all my stew recipes that have both potatoes and canned tomatoes have the tomatoes added near the end of cooking time. The potatoes going in much earlier seemed obvious, but I never bothered to question the timing of the tomatoes. – PoloHoleSet Apr 19 '17 at 18:50
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    Just a follow up: I made the recipe again last night and added the tomatoes later. The potatoes did indeed come out softer, so I accepted your answer as correct. This is actually a recipe from America's Test Kitchen, and recently I found another ATK recipe that says you should add the tomatoes later for exactly the reasons you describe. The ciambotta recipe says to combine them all at once, which is a little strange. Maybe a mistake? I don't know. – Richard Sullivan Jun 6 '17 at 17:09
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45 minutes is long enough to fully boil uncut potatoes, unless they are very large. If you cut them into half-inch cubes, it is far too long.

A simple solution to the problem would be to boil the potatoes separately (for say 10-15 minutes - check the consistency as you go along, it will depend on the variety and the age of the potatoes) and add them to the ciambotta at the end. That way, you don't have to worry about the side effect of acidic tomatoes or other vegetables.

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    Unfortunately it also means your potatoes are bland and unflavored because all they absorb is water rather than absorbing the stew flavoring. – Catija Apr 19 '17 at 20:42

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