What is the best recipe for mashed potatoes?
Here's my Home Cook's Guide to Mashed Potatoes - the recipe is at the very, very bottom of the page.....In my family, mashed potatoes were one of the first things I learned to cook. It was also one of the first things I taught my daughters to cook. Mashed potatoes seem to appeal to almost everyone. But here's the tricky thing. Ask ten people how they like to prepare their mashed potatoes, and you'll likely get ten 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.
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.
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 wife and I have fortunately have the exact same taste when it comes to mashed potatoes. She makes them completely different from my mom who used a mixer to whip tons of air into hers. My wife prepares them with an old fashion tomato masher that she either found at a garage sale or grabbed from her mom's kitchen on the way to college.
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 tubors. 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.
Choosing the Right Potato to Mash
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 wife 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. My chef friend, Chef Ricco, said that 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.
But coming back to personal taste and those ten people we asked about perfect mashed potatoes, some people (like my wife) 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.
To Peel or Not to Peel
I have witnessed heated debates over this issue. Some people call potatoes mashed with the peels still on "smashed" potatoes. The smashed camp will usually say something about the texture variation being appealing. That there are more nutrients in the skin and that it's best to leave the skins on. That they just look better on the plate.
People on the "mashed" side talk about how the smooth, regular texture is one of the major appeals of mashed potatoes. That lumpy mashed potatoes are nothing more than under-mashed potatoes and that "smashed potatoes" is just a dish made up at restaurants who didn't want to take the time to thoroughly mash the potatoes.
I can see both sides of the issue, but I refuse to take sides. Each has their place. To me, it depends on personal taste and also, what else I'm serving. Smashed potatoes are a little more rustic, and smooth mashed potatoes are a bit more refined. So, I'd probably serve mashed potatoes with a really nice beef tenderloin whereas I might smash some potatoes to go with a piece of grilled sirloin.
When I was growing up, my dad used to grow potatoes in our back yard, and I really came to appreciate freshly harvested home-grown new potatoes mashed with their skins on. In my book, there's really nothing better. But that doesn't mean that I always leave the skins on. Again, it depends on the circumstance and on what potatoes are available. Believe me, though, if I ever plant potatoes in the back yard with my girls, we are definitely mashing them with the skins on!
If you do choose to leave the skins on, use new potatoes or thin-skinned red potatoes - I tried mashing russets with the skins on and the end result wasn't too pleasant. The thick skins were too much of a contrast to the creamy potatoes. And, whether or not you choose to leave the skins on, always wash your potatoes well and cut out any eyes.
Cooking them with the Skins in the pot, but not on the potato
I recently read about this interesting technique: peel the potatoes and then gather them up and tie them into a cheesecloth bag. Leave the bag in the pot to boil with the potatoes and then toss it out before mashing. I am not sure why they did it that way.
Maybe it was just the writer's family tradition, but it seems to me that maybe some of the flavor and nutrients in the skins leach into the water and then are drawn into the potatoes during the cooking process. Maybe this technique offers the best of both worlds. Creamy, smooth mashed potatoes with extra potato flavor and nutrition from the skins--sounds like the best of both worlds to me!
How to Boil a Potato for Mashing
I've always started my potatoes in cold water. My mother did it that way. I do it that way, and I've taught my girls to do it that way. But I never stopped to wonder if there was a good reason to start potatoes in cold water until someone asked me that in an email.
Keep in mind, I'm not a professional chef. I'm just a guy who wanted to be able to make a good meal. When people email me with questions like that, I generally don't already have the answer in my head. I'm not a chef, so the first thing I do is go find a chef and ask him or her.
So, when that email came into my inbox, my first thought was, "well, who wants to cook in water that has been sitting around in a hot water tank?" I didn't think it was the best, or even correct, answer, though, so I asked a chef friend, David Nelson. By his tone of voice, he obviously thought I was crazy and said that he didn't think it would matter but that he'd do some further research.
He found out from The Meat and Potatoes Cookbook to use cold water, but they didn't offer a reason. Now he was intrigued and posted the question on a chef cooking forum. Now, here's where things start to get a little scientific, so I'm just going to give you the gist of it to spare you the headache that I got.
- Starting the potatoes in cold water allows for more even cooking as the temperature of the potatoes rises slowly.
- Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, says that starch granules gelatinize, or swell up, between 137°F and 150°F. If you just throw the potatoes in already boiling water, the outside starch granules will gelatinize on contact with the water, effectively blocking the water from penetrating farther into the potato.
So, it seems as if there are at least two very good reasons why you should start your potatoes (or any starchy vegetable) in cold water. Now, this doesn't mean that you can't bring your potatoes up to a gentle boil, it just means that you should start them cold so they can gradually come up to temperature and cook (gelatinize, in this instance) evenly.
What Tool to Use to Mash Potatoes
Like the answer to most questions about cooking, the right tool for the job depends on your personal taste. If you like very light and fluffy mashed potatoes with no lumps, there's a tool for that. If you like mashed potatoes with some texture, well, there's a tool for that, too.
I have four different tools in my kitchen that I can use for mashing potatoes. I also have a couple of tools that some people might want to use but shouldn't.
First, the list of approved tools for the job:
- a wire masher whose mashing surface looks kind of like the electrical coil in your oven - this is the one I use most often.
- a stainless steel masher whose mashing surface looks kind of like a miniature manhole cover--solid stainless steel with holes for mashing punched out.
- a ricer, which looks like an over-sized garlic press and
- an electric mixer, either hand or stand
I bet almost everyone in America has a wire potato masher in their gadget drawer. The only exception might be low-carb households, but even then, you might want to mash some cauliflower!
The wire masher is generally my go-to tool for mashing potatoes. It's very versatile: mash a little to have potatoes with some lumps and chunks in them--it's ideal for making smashed potatoes--mash a lot and get perfectly smooth mashed potatoes. Since the masher has a relatively small mashing surface (after all, it's just a thick wire), a wire masher will leave your potatoes relatively light in texture since it doesn't crush too many delicate starch granules.
Stainless Steel Masher
A stainless steel masher comes with either a long or a U-shaped handle that supports the mashing disc on the end. The disc has lots of little holes (maybe 1/4" to 1/3") in it. Mash the masher down through the potatoes, and the potatoes sort of squish through the little holes. This can require some elbow grease. I think it's a little too much work for a side dish, but lots of my friends swear by theirs.
You can make either smashed or mashed potatoes with this type of masher, as well, but the potatoes will be a little heavier since the increased surface area of the masher tends to crush more of the starch granules than does the wire masher.
Forcing cooked potatoes through a ricer is akin to pressing garlic. Place the cooked potatoes in a cylindrical enclosure fitted with a metal die positively riddled with holes at one end, push the plunger and force the potatoes through the little holes. The resulting potatoes will be completely smooth and light in texture, making it very easy to incorporate butter and/or milk or any other liquids.
Although silky smooth, riced potatoes can be a little dense. No air gets incorporated as with the other two mashers mentioned above. With those types of mashers, the repeated up and down mashing action incorporated a bit of air, lightening the potatoes. With a ricer, it's once through and done, so almost no air is incorporated. I like them that way (along with a bunch of other ways!) but my wife thinks they're too heavy. See why I learned to cook?
I recently received an email from a home cook who says that he uses a ricer with skin-on small new potatoes. One press, and the potato is forced through the die leaving the skins behind in the ricer. I'm definitely going to have to give that one a try!
An Extra Step - If you like extra air incorporated into your mashed potatoes, after mashing with either a wire masher, stainless steel masher or ricer, beat them for just a minute with a whisk. This will lighten the potatoes a bit. In fact, if your significant other likes lighter mashed potatoes and you like them denser, just whisk their portion, and everyone is happy.
Mashed potatoes made with a hand mixer are the mashed potatoes of my childhood. This is the way my mom used to make them. I can still see her standing there, holding the mixer in one hand and periodically adding some butter and milk.
This style of mashed potato is more accurately called whipped potatoes since a lot of air in incorporated while beating. A chef friend told me that this is the way that restaurants often mash their potatoes. It's quick, and it increases the volume of the potatoes, making it economical.
What looks like a lot of mashed potatoes is actually partly air bubbles. He also said that whipped potatoes hold up well in a steam table and are great for piping out of a pastry bag.
Again, some people find whipped potatoes to be their favorite kind--light and almost fluffy. Others will find them over-processed. Again, it's all a matter of taste. Make them the way you like them!
The Food Processor--Not Approved for Mashed Potatoes
The food processor is the enemy of starchy vegetables everywhere. While you'll want to use it to make tapenade, pesto or hummus, do not use it to mash your potatoes. While it seems like a good idea to make short work of the job, the extremely high speed at which the blade spins literally smashes the starch granules, and what you end up with is a gluey, starchy, nasty mess.
Choose Your Style
Now you have some options for mashing potatoes. If you want lighter mashed potatoes, whisk them or use a mixer. If you like dense, smooth mashed potatoes, use the ricer. It's really all about the tool you choose to use.
Just like a painter will get a different result with each brush he chooses to use, you'll end up with a different version of the same dish depending on what mashing tool you choose.
Mashed Potato FAQ
- Should I peel the potatoes before cooking? This is purely a personal preference. I peel my potatoes first, but I also know people who leave the peels on and then peel them after they are cooked. This sounds like more work than I want to do, but it is an option. Alternately, you could bundle the peels together in cheese cloth and boil them along with the potatoes like that technique I read about awhile ago.
- How should I cook my potatoes for mashing? Most people boil their potatoes. If you are going to boil yours, start your potatoes in cold water, turn the heat up to medium high and bring the potatoes to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the potatoes until you can pierce them with a fork with almost no resistance. The time this takes depends on how many potatoes you have in your pan and how large or small you have cut them.
- Can I bake my potatoes for mashing? You can absolutely bake your potatoes for mashing. By nature, boiling introduces water to the potato and can dilute the flavor somewhat. You can get rid of some of this water by letting the boiled potatoes dry over low heat in a lidded pot for about five minutes after draining. Baking very nicely sidesteps the issue of watery mashed potatoes. Baking doesn't introduce any water. In fact, some of the water in the potato will evaporate in the oven, giving you a more concentrated potato flavor. The only downside that I can see is that it takes longer to bake a potato than it does to boil one. If you plan ahead, though, that shouldn't be a problem.
- Should I salt the water for my mashed potatoes? If you are going to boil your potatoes, you should definitely salt the water. As when cooking pasta, this is the only way to get flavor into the potato. Well salted water will taste just like sea water. You can also add pepper or even herbs to the cold water. Those flavors will be drawn into the potato right along with the salt. I wasn't sure this would work, but I experimented with it one day, and the potatoes tasted wonderful--well seasoned and peppery--before I added additional seasonings.
- When should I add the butter? The dairy? This is how I mash my potatoes:
a. mash the potatoes alone with some salt and pepper
b. add the butter and continue mashing
c. add the dairy and mash some more.
d. Taste and add any additional seasonings until I like how they taste
Well, it turns out that this is actually the right way to mash potatoes. Just like when you make pie crust, you work in the butter to coat the flour and limit gluten formation. The butter (or whatever fat you're using) coats the starch granules and helps to keep them intact and from getting gluey when you add the other liquid. Once the fat is thoroughly mashed into the potatoes, go ahead and add the other liquid.
Can I add other ingredients to my mashed potatoes? Of course you can. After all, they're your potatoes! You can mash in fresh herbs, cheeses--anything from cream cheese to cheddar to Swiss--crumbled bacon, anything that a) sounds good and b) goes with whatever else you're serving.
For example, for a British-inspired twist to mashed potatoes, try mashing in some mustard powder and cheddar cheese. Having roast beef? Mash in some prepared horseradish and some roasted garlic. You don't have to use all potatoes, either.
Substitute part of the potatoes with turnips or parsnips. If you're feeling very gourmet, mash in some cooked celery root or sunchoke.
Half and half? Really? I'm watching my figure! I mash my potatoes with half and half because that's how my mom did it, and I like them that way. You can use any dairy that you choose: buttermilk, 1% milk, skim milk, whole milk are all options. If you're not concerned with the calories, consider mashing your potatoes with sour cream, full fat plain yogurt or even some heavy cream.
I'm lactose intolerant. Can I still make mashed potatoes? Just because most mashed potatoes contain dairy doesn't mean that they have to. You can certainly mash your potatoes with any broth or stock. You can even use some of your potato (or other vegetable) cooking water as part of your liquid.
Experiment with using plain soy milk, rice milk or similar. If you have a juicer, mash your potatoes with some fresh vegetable juice. Celery would be especially tasty, I think. Stay away from brightly colored juices, though--the color might end up being a little weird, and remember, we eat with our eyes first!
I'm watching my cholesterol. Do I have to use butter in my mashed potatoes? Just like dairy seems to be the go-to liquid for mashed potatoes, butter is the go-to fat. Substitute for some or all of the butter with olive oil. I like to use extra virgin olive oil, because I like the flavor, but you can use regular olive oil if you don't like how assertive extra virgin olive oil is. Of course, if you're not watching your cholesterol, try using some duck fat, chicken fat or even some bacon fat.
- What can I do with my leftover mashed potatoes?Mashed potatoes taste best right after you cook them. We rarely have any leftover mashed potatoes because we really like them, but if you find yourself with some leftover mashed potatoes on your hands, here are a couple of ideas.
a. Reheat them on the stove--not in the microwave--in a covered pan. Add a little bit of butter and cooking liquid of your choice. Reheat them over medium heat, stirring occasionally only after they start warming up. The starches firm up in the refrigerator, so it will be easier to incorporate the extra ingredients once they warm up.
b. Mix in an egg for every cup of leftover potatoes you have. You can also add in some grated Parmesan cheese. Mix together well and scoop 1/4 cup portions onto a hot griddle. Spread to about 1/2" thick. Cook until golden brown, flip like a pancake, and cook the other side.
c. Make cream of potato soup. Mix leftover mashed potatoes with chicken stock and a touch of cream, heat and season to taste.
d. Heat them up and spread them in a pie pan to make a "crust." Fill with any savory meat and/or vegetable filling and bake for an unconventional "pot pie" or upside down shepherd's pie.