Perfect Mashed Potatoes: What’s the Secret?
The trouble with mashed potatoes is — what do you consider “perfect?” I like mine with lumps, skins and all the garlic in the world. Some people call those “smashed” rather than mashed, which is a nice distinction. Some prefer olive oil to butter. Others crave the smoothest texture and mildest flavor. One woman I spoke to prided herself on her Irish-style whipped potatoes and was mortified when her young daughter complimented a neighbor’s “nice lumpy potatoes.”
Far be it from me to be mortified by anything on my table — I’m just not that invested. But this is the perfect story to illustrate how individual mashed potatoes can be. So take all these tips with a grain of salt (or not, if you don’t like your tips salty!). These are just collected wisdom from different corners of the kitchen, and please, no fighting — mashed potatoes should not be a divisive issue.
Which potatoes to use?
Across the board, experts recommend russet potatoes for mashing; it seems that the high starch content of the potatoes makes for a good mash. Yukon Gold potatoes also work well. But if you like less-mashed potatoes or you know you want to keep the skin on, you might opt for red potatoes (delicious with olive oil). Or you might like a little color on your plate — mashed sweet potatoes can be gorgeous, and taste amazing.
Peel or no peel?
Most people peel before they cook the potatoes; others like to cook them first because it makes the skins easier to remove. It’s your choice: wound yourself with the potato peeler, or burn yourself with the piping-hot skins? Like I said, I keep the skin on because I like it rough. (My mashed potatoes, that is.) But if you’re going to peel first, it’s a good idea to soak the potatoes in salty water for 20 minutes or so after peeling and then rinse them before cooking. That removes some of the excess starch, which makes for fluffier potatoes.
Whatever your cooking method (see below), cutting your potatoes into uniform chunks will allow them to cook faster and makes for a more even result. You just want your chunks to be at least 2.5 inches each, so they don’t absorb too much water.
How do you cook them?
There are passionate proponents of every method of cooking. Personally, I find microwaving to be too uneven, and it takes so damn long you might as well save the electricity and use the stove. Boiling is the most popular method: Alton Brown says to cook until you can smash a piece of potato with a salad tong, but no longer. After you drain them, return them to the pot they boiled in, with the heat turned off, so that the leftover heat can evaporate the excess water.
As for me, I prefer to steam them. It uses less water, retains more nutrients, and keeps you from having the too-much-liquid problem. Plus I don’t generally like things boiled — they get so bloated, like a mobster in the Hudson River!
What do you add?
The standard addition, and the combo most often recommended, is tons of butter and heavy cream. But this is deadly for so many reasons, and may not be necessary. You can experiment with half-and-half, cream cheese, sour cream, buttermilk, and, of course, non-dairy versions of each of those things. Buttermilk, in particular, has a delightful thickness and tangy flavor that might set your mashed potatoes apart from the crowd. No matter what your liquid is, you should warm it before you add it to the potatoes for faster mashing (which isn’t just for the sake of convenience—less mashing means less starch is released, which means better texture).
As for how much, Alton Brown says 1/4 cup of liquid per pound of potatoes — but add it a little at a time, since you can’t take it back out.
A dash of vinegar will keep the potatoes creamy white, according to America’s Test Kitchen.
Julia Child’s secret tip was to simmer whole garlic cloves in the heavy cream (or other liquid), then strain the garlic out before adding the liquid to the potatoes. So basically you’re adding warm, garlic-infused cream to your potatoes. Lucky potatoes.
Lots of people recommend cheese: finely-chopped Parmesan or chunks of blue cheese seemed to be most popular. (You stir it in after the potatoes are mashed.)
My secret? I add a little chicken broth as well. It adds a bit of salt, and lots of flavor.
How do you mash?
You want to process your potatoes as little as possible so the starch doesn’t essentially turn to glue. That’s why your grandma recommended the potato masher or a ricer. Alton Brown goes even further and recommends a food mill.
But if your arms aren’t up to that kind of challenge, you can always use the dough-hook on your food processor or standing mixer. As long as you minimize the time you’re processing, you should be okay. That being said, Irish “whipped potatoes” depend on being pulverized into smooth submission with a hand mixer, so if that’s your preference — go for it!
Serve your mashed potatoes alongside bright green peas or green beans and, of course, gravy. Oh no, gravy! That’s a whole ‘nother can of … I mean jar of… That’s a whole ‘nother column!
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