Perfect mashed potatoes

A small plate with a serving of mashed potatoes.

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In my family, mashed potatoes were one of the first things I learned to cook. Mashed potatoes seem to appeal to almost everyone. But here’s the tricky thing. Ask twelve people how they like to prepare their mashed potatoes, and you’ll likely get twelve different answers. That’s because, as with all food, defining the “best” mashed potato is a very subjective thing.

Mashed potatoes are one of those side dishes that you probably had more times than you can count when you were growing up, both at home and at the school cafeteria. And the way your mom made them – whether they were red potatoes smashed with their skins on or some mysterious reconstituted potato flakes – is quite probably the way that you like them today. The latter was at my house.

Or maybe you didn’t like your mom’s version of mashed potatoes and grew up thinking of them as bland, gummy, watery or just plain gloppy. And then, when you had mashed potatoes at your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s house or at a restaurant, you suddenly realized that mashed potatoes were fantastic. Sorry mom, the recipe has not been lost, as told to my little sister.

But what happens when a reconstituted potato loving person marries a red potatoes mashed with skins person and they look at each other for the first time and one says, “Hey, how about mashed potatoes for dinner tonight?”

“Oh! My favorite!” says the other. What happens next could get ugly.

My better half and I have fortunately have the exact same taste when it comes to mashed potatoes. In-law’s make them completely different from my mom who used a box and spoon. They use a mixer to whip tons of air into theirs. Over the years I have watched many friends make their mashed potatoes and it’s amazing how many different ways there are to smash these tubers. Below we will look at how choosing the best potato, how to cook them, how to mash them and then how to season and add additional flavor.

A potato is basically a package that contains starch, sugar and water along with some nutrients, especially in the skins. But, there are many different varieties of potato, and they differ in the proportions of each component.

Most cookbooks tell you to use high starch potatoes for mashing, like the russet or the slightly less but still starchy Yukon Gold. Starches swell at about 150°F, so the more starch your potato contains, the fluffier your mashed potatoes will be. That makes sense to me, but just when I start to think I have a good handle on the right potato to mash, I hear otherwise.

My friend, who happens to be a chef, likes to mash waxy (lower-starch) potatoes like the thin skinned red or round white varieties. He says that waxy potatoes absorb less water, hold up better while cooking and have more potato flavor than high starch potatoes.

Well, I just had to test out his theory, and so I mashed two pounds each of both starchy and waxy potatoes. I cooked and then mashed them exactly the same way with the same ingredients. I found that it was a bit harder to mash the waxy potatoes, but with a little extra elbow grease, I managed to get them just as smooth as the starchy potatoes.

As it turned out, I liked the flavor of the waxy potatoes better, but my better half thought they tasted waxy and preferred our usual russets. If the first word that comes to your mind to describe mashed potatoes is “starchy,” then you might want to switch to mashing waxy potatoes. And this makes sense. A potato that contains less starch is less apt to taste starchy than a potato that contains more starch.

What about color?

I really love to mash Yukon Gold potatoes because of their rich, buttery color and flavor, but these contain a relatively high amount of starch, especially when compared to waxy potatoes. Fellow’s menu maker circa 1901 gives these instructions. To reduce the starch content in starchy potatoes before mashing, peel and quarter them the night before, and let them soak in cold water overnight. After the long soak, the water will be very cloudy because of the excess starch. Just pour that water away, add fresh water, cook, drain and then mash. To make them white people of that era would boil with ½ inch piece of salt peter. I tend to skip that part because degree of whiteness is not that deep for me.

But coming back to personal taste and those twelve people we asked about perfect mashed potatoes, some people (like my better half) like starchy mashed potatoes. Not gummy, of course, but nice and fluffy and starchy. In that case, skip the soak.
In the end, you will probably need to experiment with a few different varieties of potatoes to come up with your favorite for mashing. You might even find that you like to mash a mixture of high and low-starch potatoes to find your ideal.

This is where I am at, for every 3 pounds of Yukon gold, I add 1 pound of Wisconsin russets. This ends up being a family affair.  My better half peels the potatoes with our titan peeler. I cut them in ¾ inch slices and rinse under cold water.  

Perfect Mashed Potatoes Recipe

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 lbs Yukon gold potatoes peeled and cut into ¾ inch slices
  • 1 lbs Wisconsin russet peeled and cut into ¾ inch slices
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 8 Tablespoons heavy cream
  • 5 Tablespoons salted butter (must be real)
  • 1 or 2 Tablespoons of milk
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

 

METHOD

1 Put potatoes into a saucepan. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add water until potatoes are covered. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, 15-20 minutes, or until done – a fork can easily be poked through them.

2 Warm cream and melt butter, together, either in microwave or in a pan on the stove. Drain water from potatoes. Put hot potatoes back into the hot pot. Add cream and melted butter. Use an electric beater on low to mash potatoes until well mashed. Use a strong spoon to beat further, adding milk to achieve the consistency you desire. (Do not over-beat or your potatoes will get gluey. Think pulses of energy.) Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

This post is dedicated to my sister Angela as belated Birthday present. Who despite her great intelligence and creativity was fooled into believing the “secret to mashed potatoes was lost forever”.

I love you little sis.

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