April 18, 2012 at 3:12 PM ET
At New York’s Minetta Tavern, co-chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr nearly upstage their exceptional steaks with an arsenal of perfectly cooked potatoes—either fried, mashed with cream and butter or simply roasted. Here, they explain how to master potatoes at home by identifying and troubleshooting the most common mistakes.
Roasted potatoes mistakes
Roasting raw potatoes. Simply tossing raw potatoes into the pan before roasting will guarantee tough results because the high water content will steam out over the course of a long cooking time. “You feel more like you’re eating the skin, because the structure just collapses inside,” says Hanson. “It also gets too hard. There’s crispy, and then there’s tooth-shattering.” To achieve that perfectly crispy exterior and creamy interior, parboil potatoes until 3/4 cooked, when a knife tip can pierce the potato, but it won’t slip off when picked up. Drain before roasting for about 20 to 30 minutes at 425 degrees.
Starting with a cold pan. Putting potatoes in a cold roasting pan increases the likelihood that they’ll stick. Hanson and Nasr suggest heating a pan in the oven then adding oil. Let that heat to just before smoking before dropping in the potatoes.
Crowding the pan. Leaving space between the potatoes helps them cook evenly, so it’s best to keep them in a single layer.
Micromanaging. It’s important to let potatoes brown completely on one side before turning them over. “As with most food,” explains Hanson, “potatoes are just not as good if they’ve been handled over and over.”
Adding tons of oil. Only use enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan; otherwise, they’ll have a fried quality. “I prefer using duck fat, but I understand that can be hard to obtain for most folks, so olive oil or clarified butter works well too,” says Hanson. For an extra layer of flavor, the duo likes to add a few sprigs of rosemary or sage to the oil.
Using the wrong variety. Don’t try to roast a waxy potato like red bliss. It’s better to stick to Yukon golds. Otherwise, the chefs like German butterballs or even fingerlings.
Mashed potatoes mistakes
Using cold butter and cream. Having your butter and cream at room temperature or warmer helps them absorb more easily into hot potatoes.
Over-blending. Using all warm ingredients means you shouldn’t have to overwork the mixture, which can make the potatoes gluey. “You have to treat your mashed potatoes like a mousse: Avoid whipping it too much when you add the butter and cream,” says Hanson.
Mashing with a fork. For a creamy result, stick with food mills or potato ricers, which act like a press, pushing the cooked potato through tiny holes. “Mashed potatoes should be smooth, buttery and hot, almost like a puree,” says Hanson. “I completely disagree with people who like chunky mashed potatoes. They may say that it’s ‘rustic,’ but I don’t get it.”
Using small spuds. Unless you want really short fries, Hanson and Nasr insist on finding the largest potatoes you can, like Idaho russets.
Frying fresh-cut potatoes. Soaking peeled, washed and cut fries in cold water overnight removes excess potato starch, which prevents fries from sticking together and helps achieve maximum crispness.
Cooking them only once. Hanson and Nasr subscribe to a two-step cooking process: first, blanching the fries in oil until tender but not browned, and then—when you’re ready to serve the fries—cooking them in 380-degree oil until golden and crisp.
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