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For a thoughtful home cook, whipping up a batch of mashed potato can induce an identity crisis. What kind of potato: Russet, Yukon, fingerling, blue or red? Do you boil or steam? Use broth or cream? Melt the butter or keep it at room temperature? And don’t even start on the add-ins: garlic, onions, herbs, chiles, even chocolate. Fortunately, while this humble concoction’s versatility resembles nothing so much as a choose your own adventure book, all roads lead to a delicious conclusion.
The first order of business for a mashed-potato cook is simply deciding which kind of potato to use, a debate largely settled amongst American chefs. It’s either Idaho russets or Yukon golds, depending on your flavor preferences. The former is the least likely to turn starchy while the latter has a mild buttery flavor. Be wary of other spuds, particularly smaller ones.
“Red potatoes tend to get a little more gluteny,” says Joseph Kaplan, chef-owner of Joe’s Garage, a Minneapolis restaurant famed for its mashers. “They don’t whip up as nicely.” Better, says Kaplan, to save those for roasting.
Once the potatoes have been selected, the home cook wades into murkier territory: Skins or no? Though leaving the skins on inevitably means a slightly coarser texture, it also yields a better flavor and, since the skins are rich in nutrients, helps to keep the dish from becoming merely a conduit for butterfat.
Now that the potatoes are ready to cook, another series of choices is at hand: Bake, boil or steam? Whole, chunks or diced?
The goal is to cook the potatoes evenly without going overboard. “If they get waterlogged, they can get more of a mealy texture,” says Bruce Weinstein, author of the “Ultimate Potato Book,” and whose recipes include unexpected additions like white chocolate. The temptation with a mealy mix is to add more butter or cream to try and repair the texture — and likely ending up with runny potatoes.
Go too far in the other direction and undercook, however, “and you’re going to guarantee lumpy potatoes,” adds Weinstein. Potatoes are cooked when they are soft enough that a knife easily penetrates the skin, but the skin is not blistering or peeling off on its own. Your best bet is to cut the potatoes into large, equal-sized chunks, maybe 2” cubes, and either boiling (faster but therefore easier to mess up, yields more moist potatoes) or steaming them (less likely to overcook, slightly drier potatoes).
Smashed or smooth?Once you drain the potatoes — don’t rinse them with cold water, you want them to stay warm and to retain the starch — it’s time for the mashing. This is where your texture preferences take hold. For coarse, smashed potatoes, simply use a hand-masher. A more typical American mashed potato requires at least a hand mixer, which you’ll want to start on low to break the potatoes up; for the silkiest potatoes, you have to use a hand-cranked potato ricer. Whatever you do, don’t reach for the Cuisinart. “Stay away from the food processor. That will guarantee you a gummy mess,” says Weinstein.
As with any starchy food, be careful about overmixing. “If you mix them for too long, you end up with kind of a sticky, wallpaper paste,” particularly if they’re also overcooked, warns Rizon Moss, the sous chef at Denver’s Rialto Café, a local mashed potato haven. As you’re blending the potatoes to a fluffy consistency, sprinkle in salt and pepper to taste—and here Rizon has a presentation trick: “Use white pepper. It gives a nicer color, and you taste it but you don’t see it.”
Keep in mind that this is a hot dish, so working quickly is key — if the potatoes cool and stiffen, your careful texture control will have been for naught. To that end, when you make your next culinary choice — do you use milk, half and half, cream or chicken broth to smooth them? — it should be hot, and the butter soft but solid. This helps to keep the potatoes hot, and gives you a fluffier texture. If you’re adding in any embellishments — roast garlic, caramelized onions, crumbled cheese, fresh herbs — this is the time to do it.
Having made most of the big choices of the day, there’s only one remaining: Do you serve the whole thing, or set aside a little extra for yourself?
The Perfect Mashed Potatoes
- 2 lbs. Idaho Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, skins on
- 2 T. unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 bay leaf
- ¼ c. milk
- ¼ c. chicken broth
- ¼-1/2 t. salt
- 1/3/-1/2 t. white pepper
- Add-ins: 1 head roasted garlic, 1 caramelized onion, 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil or chives
1. Wash potatoes thoroughly and cut into roughly 2" cubes. Try to make them all the same size.
2. Place butter, milk and chicken broth on counter to bring to room temperature.
3. Bring 2" water to a boil, with bay leaf, in bottom of large pot.
4. Steam potatoes, covered, and checking regularly, until knife pierces skin easily, about 15-20 minutes. Do not overcook.
5. As potatoes finish cooking, heat chicken broth and milk in a small saucepan over a low flame. Do not bring to a boil; you are just heating this up.
6. Remove potatoes from pan and place in large mixing bowl.
7. Using hand mixer on low-speed, begin to mash potatoes. Once they are broken up, begin to add in salt and pepper to taste.
8. Add soft butter to potatoes and mix well; mixture should become lighter and fluffier.
9. Pour in chicken broth and milk a little at a time, beating just until mixed, until desired consistency is reached.
10. Add in salt and pepper to taste.
11. Blend in any add-ins to taste; 1 head roasted garlic, or 1 caramelized onion
12. Serve hot.
For a heavenly, savory potato dish, you can’t go wrong with roast garlic.
- 1 head garlic
- Olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Remove excess papery skin from outside of garlic head.
3. Slice off top of head, exposing cloves.
4. Place head on sheet of aluminum foil.
5. Drizzle olive oil over garlic head.
6. Fold foil around garlic head, sealing it.
7. Place in oven; roast for about one hour, until cloves are soft and lightly browned.
8. Carefully remove cloves from skins.
It’s hard to beat the sweet, pan-drippings flavor of caramelized onions.
- 2 t. butter
- 2 t. olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
1. Melt butter and olive oil together in small skillet over the lowest flame possible
2. Add onion, stirring to coat. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
3. Cook for about one hour, stirring occasionally.
4. Once onions are thoroughly softened, increase heat to medium and stir constantly until they are well-browned, about 20 minutes.
White Chocolate Mashed Potatoes
Created by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, co-authors of “The Ultimate Potato Book,” for the U.S. Potato Board
Over the top? Sure. But melted white chocolate takes the place of butter for a decadent but healthy version of mashed potatoes. Look for pure white chocolate, made from cocoa butter, not one cut with hydrogenated shortening and other fillers.
Makes 8 servings.
- 3 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled
- 1 ½ ounces white chocolate, chopped
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 6 dashes hot red pepper sauce, such as Tabasco sauce
- 1 ½ cups fat-free milk
Place the potatoes in a large pot, cover with cool water to a depth of 2 inches, and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until tender when pierced with a fork, about 25 minutes. Drain in a colander set in the sink and return the potatoes to the pan.
Add the white chocolate to the still-hot potatoes; stir until the white chocolate starts to melt. Stir in the salt and hot red pepper sauce.
Use an electric mixer at medium-low speed to mash the potatoes slightly. Pour in the milk and continue mixing until creamy, about 1 minute. Serve at once.
Per serving: 182 calories, 6 g protein, 36 g carbohydrate, 2 g total fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 262 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 34 mg vitamin C, 1023 mg potassium.
Tracie McMillan is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers food and social issues.