Do's & Don'ts: Mashed Potatoes Edition

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

With Thanksgiving tomorrow and mashed potatoes being a staple on the table, I've been reading many articles offering advice for perfect mashed potatoes and comments from readers on their own takes. Some are great advice while others are simply horrifying. Please trust me here on this blog and forward this posting on to your family and friends. Help me save them from themselves.

As Jacques Pepin says, often the simplest appearing dishes are in fact the most difficult to make. It's not because of complicated recipes or multiple steps, but rather a combination of reliance on quality ingredients and perfectly executed technique. Mashed potatoes will fall into this category.

Everyone has their version, their grandma's version, their so-and-so's distant relative from the old country who came on the May Flower to America who brought with them the mashed potatoes recipe given to them from Moses at Mt. Sinai. I get it: your recipe is important. That's all great but I pit my mashed potatoes against your any day of the week. And I will win. This is because I follow some simple rules and accept some basic truths.

Basic Truth About Mashed Potatoes #1: They are fatty and not good for you and this is why you love them. They involve carbs (potatoes) and fat (butter and cream) and sodium (salt). If they do not involve these things, the mashed potatoes suck. This is why I don't eat mashed potatoes every day.

Basic Truth About Mashed Potatoes #2: There are no shortcuts -- it does not count if you make them from a box mix. Seriously? We can't peel and boil some potatoes? I don't want to hear anyone say they make their mashed potatoes from a box. Ever. This is for long voyages by sea and apocalyptic scenarios when potatoes are scarcely to be found.

Basic Truth About Mashed Potatoes #3: They must be made and consumed fresh. Your window of keeping mashed potatoes warm is very small before you completely compromise the integrity of the dish. The good news is they are very easy and fast to make so there is no reason why you should be making them a day or even a hour in advance.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's proceed with some Do's and Don'ts for mashed potatoes.

DO use Russett or Yukon Gold potatoes for your mashed potatoes. All the others are too waxy or tough or starchy and won't yield themselves as well to the classic fluffy and creamy mashed potatoes we're going for.

DO peel your potatoes. Otherwise it's called smashed potatoes and not mashed potatoes (but also very, very yum).

DON'T under or overcook your potatoes! You want them easily pierced by a fork or knife, but not falling apart into teeny tiny crumbled pieces either. It's not a huge deal if you overcook them; it's better to overcook than undercook. But still pay attention and really try to get them at their maximum texture. This will ensure a perfect flavor and texture for your mashed potatoes. Undercooking will leave you small little pebbles of undercooked potato that will be oddly crunchy when eating.

DO use butter. I don't care if you use it cold or melt it, but you need to use butter. The only difference between melted butter and cold butter is that the softer the butter the easier and faster it will incorporate into your potatoes. That's all.

DON'T use margarine instead of butter in a desperate attempt to save on calories. It will make your potatoes oily and have a peculiar taste to them. And heads up: you're not saving that much in calories anyway! Just eat less of the potatoes!

DO use cream. You can use heavy cream, light cream, whipping cream, or sour cream. Cream gives you the fat percentage needed to help the potatoes when mashed and whipped keep a nice form. When you use milk your mashed potatoes will turn out thinner. Especially if you like to serve them with gravy then use cream. Only difference when you use sour cream is it will give the potatoes a slightly tangy taste (which can be very delightful). Buttermilk is fine too and will give you that tangy flavor as well.

DON'T use fat free milk or anything under whole milk fat percentage-wise. You will end up with potato soup.

DO use kosher salt when seasoning. Save the course sea salts for finishings. Kosher salt will season and melt in better with the potatoes. When using a courser sea salt like fleur de sel you run the risk of having pockets of salty potatoes and other pockets unseasoned. Kosher salt will give a nice even flavoring throughout every bite.

DON'T use instant mashed potatoes boxed mixes. They taste nothing like real mashed potatoes. They taste like cardboard. And are not delicious.

DON'T use evaporated anything. I've seen some people say they use evaporated milk in their mashed potatoes and then it mixes with the water from the potatoes and gets thicker....WHY??????!!! Use the real godamn milk!

DO use cheeses to help give your mashed potatoes depth of flavor. I like grated sharp cheddars, hard cheeses like parmesan or romano, and even smoked goudas. You actually want a really hard cheese that you can grate finely to help melt into the mashed potatoes. Super soft cheeses with flavored rinds like brie or camembert won't work; their flavor is too strong and will more than overpower the potatoes. But a little of the salty cheeses like mentioned above will add just the right balance.

DO use some fresh herbs for color and flavor. I like any green herb especially thyme and the classic chopped chives or scallions.

DON'T make your mashed potatoes too far in advance; they are best served fresh!

Hope these tips help you this holiday season serve up the best spuds ever!

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