Photo from Jude Doyland
It would seem that nothing could be simpler than mashed potatoes. They are simple but there are a few basics that will help make sure yours are the best:
1. Pick the right potato! Russets from Idaho and Washington are the standard. My favorite are Yukon Golds which have a thin skin but starchy meat which is what you need for good mashed potatoes. Don’t use new potatoes (red or white) or fingerlings. Because of their texture and water content these are great for steaming, boiling and frying but not for mashing. I know I’ll get some push back from that!
2. I like to cook potatoes whole with the skin on so they don’t absorb so much water. As soon as they are tender, immediately drain and then peel as soon after as you can handle without burning yourself.
3. My favorite tool for mashing is the food mill, which yields a nice texture. Second choice would be a potato ricer that looks like a giant garlic press and after that the good old hand masher. If using a mill or ricer, press the potatoes right back into the pan over low heat and stir to evaporate any excess moisture. If using a hand masher then drain potatoes well and mash them in the pan over low heat. Never, never use a food processor! It’s too powerful and will quickly turn the potatoes to glue.
4. Stir in seasonings and serve mashed potatoes as soon as possible. If you’re adding milk or cream, heat it in order to keep the potatoes warm. Some great restaurants actually make mashed potatoes to order because they feel they lose subtle flavors even sitting just a short time.
5. If you need to hold mashers for a while, do it via the double boiler method, that is with a stainless or glass bowl over barely simmering water. Don’t cover with plastic or foil. This creates condensation that drips back into the potatoes making them soggy and creating off flavors.
How potatoes are stored also makes a big difference in the final product. Make sure you store potatoes in a dark, well-ventilated space. Stored in the light they will sprout and turn green which for some can cause a toxic reaction. You can cut out and discard the green but the flavor will still be affected. Cool room temperature (around 60 degrees) is best. Don’t refrigerate mashing potatoes, especially russets. Refrigeration causes the potatoes to convert their starch to sugar, softens them and they lose their potato flavor. Finally potatoes are sensitive to ethylene gas. Many fruits (like apples, melons and tomatoes) naturally give off ethylene, which is an odorless, colorless gas that promotes ripening resulting in sprouting and deterioration of the potato. Keep them separate!
Here’s a mashed potato recipe my Grandmother used to do for special occasions.
MASHED POTATOES AND PARSNIPS WITH CRISP BACON AND ONIONS
Serves 4 – 6
1 pound peeled Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 pound peeled parsnips, cut into 1 inch cubes
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons or more crème fraiche or sour cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 pound bacon, crisply fried, drained and chopped
1 medium onion, thinly sliced and floured and then deep-fried till crisp and golden
2 tablespoons chopped chives
Add potatoes and parsnips to a saucepan with lightly salted water to cover. Bring to a boil then cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and return to pan over low heat to dry them out. Mash adding butter, crème fraiche, drops of vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately topped with bacon, onions and chopped chives.