The secrets to preparing perfect mashed potatoes
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Home-made mashed potatoes get even more important at this time of year, because of both colder weather and the approach of Thanksgiving.
What is it with you people and mashed potatoes?
Mention comfort food and they’re always on the list. Ask almost anyone for their favorite dish and they’ll come up. Last-meal requests by prisoners? Mashed potatoes (with brown gravy) make that list, too.
They’re served so much in restaurants and school cafeterias that it’s impossible to say for sure how many servings we eat a year. It gets you into tricky numbers like fresh potatoes vs. dehydrated vs. frozen. But a 2010 study by the U.S. Potato Board showed that in-home consumption is about 16 times a year per person - that makes it about every three weeks.
Restaurant use means we eat them even more often than we make them.
“The popularity is amazing,” says Don Odiorne, the vice president of food service for the Idaho Potato Commission. “One of my favorite quotes is from a chef who said, ‘I could serve a brick if I paired it with mashed potatoes.’”
If chefs want you to try an unusual fish or a new cut of meat, he says, they’ll serve it with mashed potatoes. “People already know they like half the dish, and they’ll give it a try,” says Odiorne.
Consumption of all potato dishes fell for a few years in the early 2000s (thanks, Dr. Atkins). But numbers released early this year show they’ve been going back up (thanks, economic slowdown). Since restaurant visits also slowed for a few years, that also has meant an increase in people cooking at home, and in tough times, we reach for things that are familiar, cheap and comforting.
“People said, ‘I’m going to go to the store and I’m going to make things from scratch,’” says Odiorne.
Homemade mashed potatoes get even more important at this time of year, because of colder weather and the approach of Thanksgiving. Odiorne says traffic on the Idaho Potato Commission website doubles from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15: “We have the same effect that Butterball turkey has.”
The biggest question on their “Ask Dr. Potato” section, he says, is about mashed potatoes.
“If someone moves away from home and they’re inviting their boyfriend (or) girlfriend over for Thanksgiving, the turkey and the mashed potatoes are the two critical items. And a lot of times, they weren’t in the kitchen watching how they were made. So it’s a panic call: ‘How do I make mashed potatoes?’”
We’ve got you covered on that.
Potatoes and their mashability fit into three categories:
-Baking potatoes. Usually called russets, they’re longer and flatter. They are higher in starch, so they have a drier texture when cooked. They make fluffy mashed potatoes.
-Boiling potatoes. These usually have red skins and are sometimes called new potatoes. They have a waxier texture, so they don’t absorb liquid as well. Even though they usually aren’t recommended for mashing, they can be tasty, with a pronounced earthy flavor. Fans of lumpy mashed potatoes will love them. Leave the skins on for more texture, and don’t over-beat them, because they can become gluey.
-All-purpose potatoes. The best known are Yukon Golds. They have a texture between the other two and a flavor that’s complemented with butter. They make creamy mashed potatoes. For the best of both potato worlds, combine Yukon Golds with a russet potato: Creaminess and fluffiness.
-Peeler. Y- or U-shaped peelers are great for long potatoes, like russets and sweet potatoes. Shorter straight-blade peelers are great for round potatoes, and the rounded tip of the blade does the best job of lifting out “eyes,” or indentations in the skin.
-Masher. A true potato masher, with a flat bottom attached to a handle, is great for mashing potatoes in the pot, especially if you don’t mind (or prefer) a few lumps. (A sturdy whisk with heavy tines can double as a masher.) A ricer is usually round with two handles for pressing together and a grid with holes. You squeeze out long strands of potato and then whisk in milk and butter, making really smooth mashed potatoes. (A food mill works, too, but usually has more parts to clean.)
-An electric mixer can overbeat potatoes, making them gluey, so save it for really big batches. Never use a food processor: The blades cut across the molecules, releasing too much starch and giving mashed potatoes the texture and flavor of library paste.
-Beater. After you mash or press the potatoes, you need to add liquid and butter. A whisk is best, although a wooden spoon with a comfortable handle also works.
BASIC MASHED POTATOES
Like many things with only a few ingredients, how you do it is as important as what you add. Here’s how we do it:
Peel the potatoes and drop into a large pot of cold water. Cut large potatoes into chunks, but keep the pieces large. After all the potatoes are peeled, pour off the starchy water and add fresh cold water and about 1 tablespoon salt.
Place on the stove over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain a brisk simmer. When potatoes boil, the starch sets and can make them fall apart, so they become too watery. It’s better to cook them longer at a lower temperature. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes. To make sure they’re done, try this trick: Stick the tip of a sharp knife into a few chunks of potato. If you can slide in the knife but the potato still clings to the blade, they aren’t quite done.
Drain the potatoes and return to the empty pot on the still-hot burner. Shake the pot a few times to help remaining water evaporate. Then mash the potatoes roughly with a masher or squeeze through a ricer. Whisk in the remaining ingredients with a sturdy whisk or wooden spoon.
Butter or milk first? The order makes a difference:
When you beat in the butter before the milk, the fat coats the molecules so they don’t absorb as much liquid. That creates mashed potatoes that are fluffier.
If you beat in the milk before the butter, the molecules absorb more milk, giving you potatoes that are creamier. Neither is better, it’s just a question of which you prefer.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU ADD?
Part of the appeal of mashed potatoes is their blank-slate quality. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring. You can add a lot of things:
∎ Buttermilk. While we usually reach for nonfat milk, testing recipes with buttermilk was enlightening. It brings creaminess with less fat than whole milk or cream (although it is higher in fat than nonfat milk). The flavor is slightly tangy, but not so strong that buttermilk haters will object.
∎ Cheese. Cheddar is just the start. Try brie or Gruyere sometime.
∎ Mustard. It sounds bizarre, but Dijon mustard in mashed potatoes is magic.
∎ Roasted garlic. A natural, of course.
∎ Cooked cabbage: Trust the Irish to know what works with potatoes. Colcannon — potatoes and cabbage — is a classic.
∎ Bacon. As natural as roasted garlic.
∎ Sour cream and cream cheese. Plain mashed potatoes can take on an off-flavor when reheated. Adding sour cream and cream cheese creates a richer mixture that can be made in advance and reheated without changing the texture or flavor.
∎ Egg yolks. To make fancy Duchess potatoes, beat yolks into cold potatoes, then pipe them onto a baking sheet and bake until they’re browned in spots.
BUTTERMILK-CHIVE MASHED POTATOES
Adapted from “Cook Fight,” by Kim Severson and Julia Moskin (Ecco, 2012). Mixing both Yukon Gold and russet potatoes gives great texture, while combining buttermilk (lower in fat) and cream (higher in fat) gives indulgence while not making them too high in fat. Finally, the unusual step of using melted butter makes them very creamy.
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (about 5), peeled
1 pound russet potatoes (about 2), peeled
12 cloves garlic, lightly crushed and peeled
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup chopped fresh chives
Put the potatoes and garlic in a large pot of cold salted water, bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium to maintain a steady simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender, about 40 minutes. Set aside about ½ cup cooking water, then drain potatoes and garlic.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees while potatoes are cooking. Place buttermilk and heavy cream in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat. (The mixture will separate and look curdled, but that’s OK.)
Return the potatoes and garlic to the pot and place over medium-low heat. Pour in about three-quarters of the buttermilk mixture and coarsely mash the potatoes with a potato masher or heavy whisk or spoon. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk in the remaining hot buttermilk and reserved cooking water, as needed, to get the consistency you want. Stir in 6 tablespoons of the butter and the chives.
Serve as is, or transfer to a large baking dish and drizzle with remaining butter. Transfer to oven and bake about 20 minutes, until lightly browned.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
PIMENTO CHEESE MASHED POTATOES
Adapted from “Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides” (UNC Press, 2012). Thompson titled this “These-Sound-Disgusting-But-They’re-Wonderful Potatoes.” And they are.
2 ½ pounds medium russet potatoes (about 5)
About 1 tablespoon salt
4 to 6 tablespoons butter
½ to ¾ cup buttermilk
½ to ¾ cup pimento cheese (homemade or your favorite brand)
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel potatoes and cut into large chunks. Place in a large saucepan and cover with cold water and about 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 30 minutes, until potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
Drain the potatoes and return to the pan. Place back on the heat and shake the pan for a minute or two to dry the potatoes.
Mash the potatoes with a masher or ricer. Stir in the butter and buttermilk, then stir in the pimento cheese until blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
These are traditional for Thanksgiving or Christmas at my house. Like the very popular make-ahead mashed potato casserole, you use sour cream and cream cheese to get a potato mixture that is still good when it’s reheated. Putting them back in the baked-potato shell and topping with cheese makes them easy to put on a crowded holiday plate.
4 russet potatoes, unpeeled
4 to 6 ounces cream cheese, softened
4 ounces sour cream
2 tablespoons butter
¾ to 1 cup nonfat milk
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Scrub the potatoes, then bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until they are soft when squeezed.
Remove the potatoes from the oven and cut each in half lengthwise. Scoop out the insides, leaving enough in each shell to hold together.
Place the scooped-out potato centers in the mixing bowl of an electric mixer. Beat gently to break up, then increase speed and beat in the cream cheese, sour cream, butter and milk to make a creamy mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the potato mixture back into the potato halves. Divide the cheese over the top of each one. Refrigerate up to 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the potato halves on a baking sheet and return to the oven for about 30 minutes, until potato is heated through and the cheese is melted. Serve hot.
Yield: 8 servings.