This is going to be a quick post.* And a simple one. But I’m putting it up because I want to include recipes for basic staples on this site – the sides and condiments that pop up over and over again, making all manner of main dishes shine. I’m also posting this because, well, can I ask a question? I’m sure you’ve made mashed potatoes, oh, probably more times than you can count. But do you have a recipe? Or do you just do as I did for years and years, and wing it?
Now, I’m not saying my mashed potatoes ever came out bad – yours probably haven’t either. But they were sometimes a bit… mediocre. Not bad under plenty of gravy, but nothing special either. And I could never remember how many pounds of potatoes fed how many people, or whether the type of potato I used actually made a difference. And then there were the mix-ins. Do I add skim milk, whole milk, half-and half, or cream? How much? What about butter? Do I add cream cheese, sour cream, or any of the other extras I see in recipes all over the internet? Do I warm my mix-ins first? Do I dry my potatoes before I add the liquids? How much salt and pepper do I actually use? Do normal people think about these things?
Okay, the answer to the last question is probably “no.” But… I really think that even a simple side like mashed potatoes deserves attention. Because while winging it is fine, nailing it – every single time – is so much better.
This is not a fancy mashed potatoes recipe. It’s creamy, but not super creamy. And it’s not dolled up with cream cheese, sour cream, chives, paprika, or any other chef-y innovation. There are five ingredients, including the salt and pepper. But, as you might have guessed from the questions above, making great mashed potatoes is all about the technique
Let’s start with the potatoes. Russet potatoes, or other high-starch varieties, will make the most fluffy mashed potatoes. The high starch content enables them to suck up all the lovely butter and cream you’re throwing at them, and they fall apart easily, producing a creamy, fluffy texture. (The downside of high starch potatoes is that they it’s easy to overwork them and cause the starch to become gummy, but more on that in a minute).
Yukon golds, or other all-purpose potatoes will also work , but not quite as well as russets. Waxier, lower-starch varieties like red, new, or fingerling potatoes are better for roasting or soups. Of course, if I want to make mashed potatoes and I only have red potatoes in the house, is that going to stop me? Of course not. But if you have a choice, potatoes high in starch are ideal. Waxy potatoes will produce a slightly denser, gluier texture, but don’t let that stop you from using them if that’s all you’ve got.
Whatever type of potato you use, remember to use cold water for cooking. Putting uncooked potatoes into a pot of already hot water won’t really speed up the cooking, but will result in the outsides of the potatoes starting to fall apart by the time the insides are cooked. Also, be sure to let the potatoes dry out for a minute or two after you drain them. This will help them absorb all that creamy, buttery goodness, and prevent the finished product from becoming waterlogged.
For the liquids, I use a mixture of half-and-half and butter for a finished product that’s creamy, but not absurdly so. For extra-creamy potatoes, you could substitute cream for some or all of the half-and-half. Or you could use milk, even skim milk if you really want to, although I’m of the opinion that mashed potatoes really do taste best with a decent amount of butterfat.**
Oh, and about those liquids. Warming them before adding them to the potatoes really does make a difference. Usually I try to cut down on the number of dirty dishes a recipe produces, but this really is worth it. Adding cold butter and half-and-half to a pot of steaming hot potatoes results in a lukewarm, somewhat dense mixture, which is often a bit over-mixed and gluey from trying to get that butter to melt and incorporate. Using hot liquids keeps the texture loose and fluffy, and the temperature hot and ready to serve.
One more thing to keep in mind. As I mentioned earlier, mashed potatoes tend to become gummy when they’ve been overworked, so it’s important to be careful when you’re mashing and mixing them. Electric mixers are out. A lot of cooking sites will tell you to go buy a potato ricer. Bah. Ricers aren’t bad – they do an excellent job of producing a nice, fluffy bowl of mashed potatoes with hardly any disturbance of the starch structure at all. And if you want perfectly smooth mashed potatoes, and you always peel your potatoes, then maybe a ricer is for you. Personally, I prefer my mashed potatoes with a few clumps, I sometimes leave the peels on (which would clog up a ricer), and I try to resist buying every cooking gadget known to man. I find that I can get the texture I like (mostly smooth, with a few potato chunks) with judicious application of a regular old potato masher. That being said, it does help if I warm my liquids before adding them, and add the all liquids and seasonings before I start mashing.
Wow. If you stuck around through all that, congratulations. Here is the very simple recipe that resulted from all that (over)thinking.
Serves roughly 6 people, as a side
3 lbs russet potatoes
6 T butter
3/4 C half-and-half
1/2 t each of salt and pepper (or to taste)
Peel potatoes, or scrub the peels well. Cut potatoes into large (roughly 2 inch) chunks, and place them in a large pan, covering with about an inch of cold water. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer potatoes for about 10 minutes, or until they fall apart easily when cut with a fork. Drain potatoes, and leave them to let off some steam and dry out for a few minutes. Meanwhile, bring butter and half-and-half to a simmer in a small pan. Pour the liquids over the potatoes, add the salt and pepper, and mash gently with a potato masher until the liquids and seasonings are incorporated. (If using a ricer, pass the potatoes through the ricer first, then stir in warmed liquids and seasonings to taste). Taste the potatoes, and adjust seasonings if needed. Continue mashing gently until you reach your desired texture. Potatoes can be kept warm, covered, in a 200° oven.
*Well, it was going to be a quick post. Then it turned into a dissertation on mashed potato technique. Whoops.
**If you want a lower-fat potato side dish, I recommend skipping the mashed potatoes altogether and making roasted potatoes instead. I toss chopped potatoes with a little bit of olive oil and salt, maybe some large chunks of onion, and roast them at 400° for about an hour, or until they turn golden brown and amazing.