Saturday, April 13, 2013

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

I never thought to post about mashed potatoes before because I had assumed everyone made them regularly and new the several common variations.  But a note from a reader asking about 'what was in the mashed potatoes' that I showed as a side dish brought to light that not everyone makes mashed potatoes.  When they do, they are often the peeled white potato variety with no additional flavors.



Home made mashed potatoes should be a favorite on every family table.  They really are not hard to prepare and they are always satisfying, especially for children.  The flavor is mild and the potatoes are soft.  If you don't make them because you don't like peeling potatoes, then the red skinned variety are perfect for you.  I simply scrub these, cut out any eyes or bad spots, and quarter them.  Boil them in salted water until tender, then mash with warm butter and milk.  What could be more simple?  Here are a few tips to the perfect mashed potato.

Choosing the Right Potato

Your selection of potato variety will depend on whether you prefer the mashed potatoes to be smooth and creamy or to have more texture (i.e., lumpy or the new restaurant favorite, "smashed").

Waxy potatoes, such Yukon Gold or plain thin-skinned white potatoes, are recommended for boiling because they have less starch and a higher moisture content. They hold up to boiling and do not absorb as much water. Waxy potatoes tend to result in a more flavorful end product, but it can be difficult to get a really smooth texture without turning them a bit pasty.  These are my peeled potatoes of choice for mashed white potatoes. The red-skinned potato as noted above also boils quite well and can be used 'skins on' making preparation even more simple.  I make these more than any other type.  In these varieties it is best to select a larger potato if you are going to peel it, and even with smaller red-skinned potatoes that you do not plan to peel, they should be cut into a uniform size of 1-2" for boiling.



The cooking water should be plentiful and salted, and while I always put them in cold water and then put the pot on a high flame, my trials over the years have showed it does not matter whether the potatoes were started cold water or dropped into a rolling boil.  Boil the potatoes until they are very soft, when the tip of a knife goes all the way through the center.  Remove immediately when done so they do not begin to fall apart in the boiling water.

Idaho and russet potatoes have a higher starch content and lower moisture, resulting in a mealier texture when cooked. This means they absorb more moisture and tend to fall apart when boiled. Thus, if you prefer a more grain-like texture, use these potatoes and steam them rather than boil.

Prepare to Mash
While the potatoes are boiling heat the butter or a butter and milk mixture and if adding garlic, saute the garlic right along with the butter and milk.  When the potatoes are cooked, drain them completely and put them back on the hot burner (flame off or very low) and shake the pot a few times to let them steam for a minute or two to dry as much of the liquid off as possible.

Starting with hot, dry potatoes and hot butter/milk is important to preparing excellent mashed potatoes.


Ricer vs Masher vs Food Mill vs Mixer
One question that often comes up with potatoes is what device is best for mashing.  Most of our mothers preferred the electric mixer for this task although my aunt regularly used an old-fashioned potato masher. I  keep a hand-held electric mixer on hand just for this purpose.  I think it is quicker and easier than using one of the mashers or ricers for the task, but many believe these manual devices provide a better potato consistency.  In my experiments in this regard, the old-fashioned potato masher (shown left in the image below) makes for a lumpier result, which some people prefer as they seem more rustic.

Masher             Ricer                       Food Mill        Oxo Masher          Mixer
The ricers, food mill and the newly designed Oxo 'potato masher' which is much like a ricer, produce a very even consistency that works well, even if you are not planning on using much butter or cream and prefer a fluffier result.  These devices have a flat face, a grid pattern and tight edges where the potato meets the masher.  If you want to use a ricer or food mill, I do suggest the Oxo potato masher which is easier to handle than a traditional ricer.  Using these devices it should only take about two minutes for fluffy potatoes that are not the least bit gummy.  These fluffy mashed potatoes can be served as is. Alternatively, more mashing and mixing will quickly produce a creamier, denser result.




I generally prefer the creamier result and as such use a hand held electric mixer.  However, you must stop mixing as soon as the potatoes are creamy. Beating the potatoes further does not make them smoother.  Continued mixing causes them to become more pasty, as the cell walls are broken down allowing the starch to spread making them more viscous.  So a quick mix with the electric mixer until the lumps are gone and the potatoes are creamy is all that is required.




Flavors
Really with some butter, salt and pepper these are good to go!  But for variety, I sometimes add minced fresh garlic that I've briefly sauteed with the butter, or even garlic salt during the mashing.  This adds a nice bit of extra flavor when you do not have gravy for the potatoes. You can do the same thing with sauteed sweet onions. You can also add a few parsnips, or some carrot or celery root to the potatoes while boiling. Of course adding cheeses during mashing is also an option.

Then there is the question of what liquid to add to the potatoes during mashing.  If you are wanting the potatoes to be less fat filled, you can reserve a bit of the starchy water in which the potatoes had been boiled.  Whip this in as you would milk and the consistency will be similar.  Of course, milk, cream and/or butter are other options that will add flavor and improve consistency if you like them creamy.  If I have the latter on hand, I select it over the starchy water.  But sometimes I don't have milk/cream in the house and so use the starchy water with some butter.  They come out just fine too.



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