The Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's a classic side dish.
Creamy. Fluffy. Smooth, white goodness that goes with everything and yet is the perfect, comforting bite all on its own.
Mashed Potatoes.
You'd be surprised how often I get asked for advice on making mashed potatoes. Of course, like with anything, there is the basic version and the "good" version. People have their own tricks for getting that perfect consistency (not to thick, not too runny), that exact taste and balance of flavor. Some people swear by adding some box mix. I hate these people and think they should be rounded outside and shot. Mashed potatoes need not involve a box mix of salt and preservative. Might as well lick a stick of MSG and be done with it.
Still others insist you need to add a whole slew of extra "things" to make it great. Some add garlic while others add cheese. Some people add both. Some add vegetables (colecannon anyone?) while still others add infused oils with truffle or herb.
All great. Done them. All. Love them. All.
Simple but perfect mashed potatoes are great on their own, and need just four ingredients: potatoes, butter, cream, and salt. These ingredients must be top quality, fresh, in no way cheap or chinzy and you cannot deviate from this recipe one. single. bit. Not even substituting milk for cream. If you don't have cream, then go out and buy some or don't make them.
Technique. This is just as important if not more important than the ingredients themselves. If you execute the technique just as written in this recipe, following every single step to the letter, I guarantee you will have the best mashed potatoes of your life.
Yes, I'm serious.
I'll break it down for you now with commonly made mistakes.
Use the wrong kind of potatoes. There is one kind of potato that yields itself perfectly for mashed potatoes. They are called Yukon Gold Potatoes. They are buttery in texture and flavor, boil very easily and cream very well. A lot of people use Russett potatoes which are also fine, but after trying this recipe with every single potato available to most people at your local grocery store, the Yukon Golds are the best in my opinion.
You don't peel them. If you think this is "rustic," you're full of shit. Just cop to it - you're lazy and don't want to peel potatoes. When the skin is left on and incorporated in the mashing, it is not mashed potatoes, but rather Smashed Potatoes. With an "s." Yes there is a difference. Mashed potatoes is a derivative of "potato puree" which does not include potato skins for the simple fact that the skin gets in the way of the puree process. Smashed potatoes are great but they are not, in fact, mashed potatoes.

They're still water-logged. A HUGE mistake most people make is they don't properly drain their potatoes. They dump them into the colander and in a desperate effort to keep the potatoes still hot, they transfer the half-drained potatoes back into the pot or into a bowl and begin mashing and adding the butter and liquid. This is the best way to get runny mashed potatoes. First and foremost, invest in a good colander! It can be plastic or metal, big or small. Just make sure it has enough holes to provide proper drainage. You'd be surprised how many actually don't. Then, when you dump your potatoes from the boiling water right into the colander, I want you to walk away. Literally step away five steps, take a breath, then walk back to it. You need to give it time to drain! They can stay there for 10 minutes if you like; they will still be hot when you rewarm them on the stove (see recipe below). Another trick to help get out every single piece of water is to put the potatoes back into the pot they boiled in (with water dumped obviously) and put them over a very low heat for 2 minutes. This will burn off any additional water and give you perfect potatoes to now work with.
People don't use cream. Milk, half n half, soy milk, almond milk...great stuff. Not good for mashed potatoes. You need heavy cream or whipping cream. Period. You can warm it up if you like to or keep it at room temperature. I don't care. Just don't substitute anything else for the cream. Yes it's fattier. That's what makes it good.
You use an inferior butter. No, not all butters are made alike. There is one kind of butter that absolutely rocks for mashed potatoes. It's called European Style Butter. You can find a French version, an Irish version, even a Romanian version. It must say European-style or reference Europe some way. This butter is also yellow in appearance whilst most American butters are whiter. Land O' Lakes unsalted butter is fabulous too (and the only butter I bake with personally), but for mashed potatoes or buttered bread or a fancy cut of steak, I always use European butter. It has a little salt in it and made with fattier cream so it tastes better.
You mash your potatoes...and expect them to do the rest of the work for you. Mashing is actually Part 1 of the process. Once you're ready and your potatoes are in the pot or bowl ready to be transformed into creamy goodness, mash them. You can use a fork or potato masher or run the potatoes through a potato ricer or food mill. Whatever. The point is to get them into teeny tiny pieces that will melt into the butter and cream easier, making one uniform dish rather than a collection of boiled potato pieces. Step 2 is you need to whip the mixture. Add your butter and cream, season with salt and pepper to taste and then switch up to a good and sturdy wooden spoon. Yes, wooden spoon. Then start to mix the ever-loving-shit out of it. You're whipping air into the mixture now to give it body as well as smoothing out any pieces left inside. You want to do this as vigorously as possible; your arm should hurt for a few seconds after you're done. A whisk won't work as well, actually, because the potato mixture is too thick. Whisks are better for liquids and batters (thinner compositions). So a wooden spoon will work great. If you're making a huge batch for say Thanksgiving or large dinner party, then throw the mixture in the bowl of a standing mixer and let the paddle attachment do the work for you. Just be careful not to overmix!

Now that you know the common pitfalls, look at the recipe for...
Perfect Mashed Potatoes
yukon gold potatoes, peeled
cold water
kosher salt
european butter, at room temperature
heavy cream (or whipping cream), at room temperature or gently warmed (not scalded)
Take each potato and cut them into small pieces, about 1 in x 1 inch in size. Make sure you cut all the potatoes the same size so they all cook evenly; larger pieces will take longer to cook than smaller ones, so you don't want half of your potatoes to be under and half to be over cooked! Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Add a good amount of kosher salt (depending on amount of potatoes, 1 tablespoon per pound of potatoes is a good rule). Set to boil on high heat.
Once potatoes are boiling, reduce heat a little so water doesn't over flow the pot and onto your stove top flame.
Cook potatoes until extremely tender. You'll know they are done when you pierce a fork through and the piece of potato just falls apart. If you encounter resistance from the potato, they are not boiled enough so keep going.
Once potatoes are thoroughly soft, drain in colander. Let stand in colander at least 3 minutes before mashing. Return potatoes back into the pot they boiled in (the pot will still be hot so be careful) and put the pot on top of a very low flame for 2 minutes. As described above, this will evaporate any more moisture hidden in the potatoes or the pot.
Next, taste a piece of potato. Add more salt to taste (you usually will have to add another pinch or two). Add a couple of tablespoons of butter (again this is proportional to the amount of potatoes you have) and begin mashing. I like to use a simple dinner fork. Gently mash the potatoes up against the sides of the pot, bringing the center back up against the side. Mix around and repeat this process until all the potato has been broken up and very crumbly.
Switch to a wooden spoon and begin stirring, incorporating the butter in to melt with the potato. Add a splash of cream until reached desired consistency. If you want stiffer potatoes then add less; softer potatoes then add more. But make sure to begin with a small amount as you can always add more and can't take out. Once you've added the cream, begin to whip vigorously until very fluffy.
Taste and adjust with seasoning again. If adding additional ingredients like cheese or garlic, add it now and give another stir. Serve hot.
My Notes:
Butter at room temperature will incorporate better and faster into the mashed potatoes. If you forget to bring the butter out, then don't worry. You can use butter straight out of the fridge (cold), but try to cut it up into smaller pieces then to help it melt in faster.
For the same reason, cream should be at room temperature also. You can also heat it in a small saucepan on the stove top on very low flame, removing it before scalding (means a skin forms on the top). If you forget to bring the cream out, pour desired amount to use in a microwave safe cup (a glass measuring cup works great or you can even use a tea cup!) and heat for 20-30 seconds just to take the chill off.
By not using cold butter or cream, you'll be able to incorporate those ingredients easier while also keep the potatoes hot as adding cold ingredients will bring the overall temperature down immediately.
If you need to keep your potatoes warm, place them in a bowl covered with plastic wrap on top of a pot with a small amount of boiling water. In essence, creating a double boiler. You can keep potatoes warm like this for 20 minutes. Or, transfer to a casserole dish with lid and keep warm in a 250 degree oven for up to 30 minutes. Just make sure to cover the dish so the top doesn't burn!


Anonymous said...

I would make 2 tweeks to your recipe. I personally prefer Norkota russets, if it doesn't say norkota then it is an inferior russet. Next I would not boil the potatoes, you can fit a lot more butter and cream in the potatoes when they're not filled with water and the only way to achieve that is by steaming the potatoes with a vegetable steamer. Other than that you're spot on with your recipe.

Mishy said...

I've done it with russets as well, and often still do. But my personal preference is still Yukon gold. I think they have a natural buttery flavor and creamy texture that makes a great consistency for mashed potatoes. But that's my personal preference. Interesting thought re steaming them.