In Praise of Potato Bread, an Ordinary Luxury
My first experience with potato bread was potato hamburger buns, which were my household’s standby choice for sloppy joes, pulled pork sandwiches, and other meals in the burger family. Their slightly sweet flavor complements savory food, and they’re as soft as McDonald’s sesame buns, but without the Fixodent effect of biting into one, in which the top layer of bun adheres to the back of one’s teeth and is impossible to scrape off.
Potato bread compresses the same way Wonder Bread does, which my dad always claimed could plug a leak in a pinch (I think he was kidding, but I don’t entirely doubt it), and I can remember flattening each half of a potato bun into a kind of cracker patty, then assembling a kind of sandwich concentrate with the result. It is the egg noodle of breads: a little bit richer, significantly yellower, and maybe even good for you, in the way adjectives seem to indicate nutritional improvements—whole-wheat bread, multigrain cereal, gluten-free milk, etc.
But for all my devotion to potato bread, I’ve never known where exactly the potato comes into it, or why the addition of potato makes the bread so yellow. The makeup of potato bread is fairly simple, it turns out, but its virtues are many. According to the diligent scientists of Cook’s Illustrated, the starch from the mashed potatoes allows the bread to stay soft much longer than traditional wheat bread, which starts to turn stale within a day. In science terms: “As baked bread cools, its starches begin to crystallize, trapping water inside the hardened crystal structures... The starch molecules in potatoes contain negatively charged phosphates that deter them from recombining, and diluting flour with potato makes it harder for the wheat starches to crystallize as well.”
A potato bread recipe from King Arthur Flour—the Holy See of all things baked—calls for butter, eggs, and mashed potatoes. Challah bread has a similar texture and yellow tint, and also calls for egg, but there’s no way the yellow comes just from egg yolk, is there? Or perhaps yellow potatoes make for yellow(er) bread? Some corners of the health internet have suggested potato bread manufacturers rely on food dye to maintain the bread’s signature yellow, but none of the major brands include any food coloring in their ingredients list.
I love potato bread so much I’ve been swapping it in for other breads in every recipe I can. I love a potato bread Toad in the Road, and, ironically, I’ve found it particularly good in recipes that normally call for stale bread, including French toast and bread pudding. A grilled Monte Cristo drizzled in maple syrup almost isn’t worth making with anything else, and croques both -monsieur and -madame benefit from potato bread’s soft, buttery sweetness, like a croissant with chutzpah.
But contrary to nutritional adjective logic, potato bread is less healthy than other, less exciting breads like whole-wheat or rye. The eggs, butter, and additional sugar (twice as much as whole wheat bread, per the King Arthur Flour recipe) give it more cholesterol per serving, though the nutrients added by mashed potato—potassium, fiber Vitamins B and C—remain.
On the other hand, does it matter? Perhaps a lifetime of potato bread is unwise, and will come back to bite me in my potato-bread-yellow-tinted ass, but indulgence is not a health plan. Triple-cream cheese and glazed donuts are poor decisions in the long term, but a life of fat-free cottage cheese and half-eaten unglazed munchkins is a life barely lived.
Potato bread is an ordinary indulgence, a way of taking the long way home when the weather’s nice. At breakfast especially, the small treat of tastier-than-average sandwich bread can make a meal out of what can otherwise feels like subsistence—or in the case of multihyphenate whole-wheat bread, exercise. A slice of buttered potato toast with jam is practically a chocolate commercial in comparison. Sourdough and brioche both go stale by the next day’s breakfast, and who needs the pressure of a ticking time-bread? Potato bread lasts a week or more at its exact grocery-store softness. It’s a bread with staying power. Potato bread has the range.