Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mashed Potato Tutorial

Mashed potatoes are a staple cooking technique that every home cook should be able to do.

Yes, I know there are those tubs in the refridgerator section of the grocery store that will try to lure you in with the instant gratification of just "heat and serve".

Worse yet are those bags of dry flakes in among the canned goods --- "instant mashed potatoes" --- only in a dire emergency folks! They are good to add to soups for thickening and for some other things, but not to serve in a bowl bare naked.

Nothing tops a really well prepared batch of mashed potatoes from SCRATCH!

So, in response to requests, here is a tutorial on how to do this.

Good mashed potatoes begin with good potatoes! (Ok, DUH, it seems so obvious) Here it helps to know about potatoes. When I was a kid (back in the "dark ages"), there were White Rose potatoes, Red potatoes, Baking potatoes, New potatoes -- but there were no Gold potatoes or Blue potatoes. You can make mashed potatoes from any variety, and which you use will largely depend on what you find in the store where you are and what you like (and at our house, which one is on sale).

Red, White and Gold potatoes have a somewhat "waxier" and firmer texture. The skins of these kind of potatoes are smooth and really thin. A lot of these look almost round. Blue ones fit in this catagory too, I personally just can't get my head around the idea of blue mashed potatoes. If you want to give it a try though, I can't think of any good reason to say no (someone let me know if you do this, I'd love to see the pictures!)

Baking potatoes are generally used for -- well, baking -- but they make excellent mashed potatoes too, and they need to cook less time. These potatoes are more of what most of us think of as "potato shaped" and the skins have a rougher feel to them.

Either way, just pick good firm ones, and if you're going to buy a whole plastic bag full, give that bag a real looking over. Don't buy one that looks wet on the inside. And give it a sniff too -- it should smell like good clean dirt -- you'll know a bad one when you smell it -- and unless you really want to make your own vodka in your kitchen, don't buy those. Stay away from potatoes that have a greenish tint to the skin -- those haven't been stored properly, and they won't taste as good.

Generally I try to find large, regularly shaped ones with no cuts or black spots on them. The shape helps when peeling, and you just have to throw away all of those areas that are already damaged, so don't pay for that and take it home.

When doing mashed potatoes, there are some other ingredients that you will need. They are: salt, butter and milk (you'll also need water, but I'm assuming here that you've got indoor working plumbing)

And then there are the tools -- two different sets of tools for the two stages of this process.

These are the tools needed for prep and cooking:
*potato peeler of your choice (this is not absolutely necessary, my grandmother used to peel potatoes with a paring knife, but I don't recommend it)
*a good sharp knife (my favorite is a small chef style) the important thing is that its long enough to cut through the length of the potato in one stroke so you aren't "hacking" at them
*a large pan for cooking with a lid (the more potatoes you're cooking, the bigger the pan needs to be. Don't try to crowd them, they don't come out as well)
*a section of newspaper (even if you have a good garbage disposal, potatoe peels are notorious for plugging up the plumbing, so unless you have a plumber instantly available and want to spend a couple of hours dealing with backed up sinks and mopping, just don't go there. Besides, potatoe peelings are a great addition to your compost bin!)

And this is the set for the mashing part:
*potato ricer -- this is the tool with the flat bottom that has holes in it
*hand mixer and beaters -- you can make mashed potatoes without this step, but there will probably be lumps, and its harder to make the whole batch consistant

A lot of you will have seen this tool and perhaps believe this is the way to mashed potatoe nirvana, but don't be fooled -- it will only produce a pale shadow of the lovely consistant texture that a ricer will, so you'll have to work harder with your mixer, but it will do in a pinch. (You DESERVE a good ricer! Go find yourself one!)

Step One

Peel the potatoes.

Here you can see the pile of peelings on the newspaper all ready to go out.

and here are the peeled potatoes in the pan waiting for the next step.

Step Two

Cut up the potatoes.

Cutting the potatoes into pieces is good for two reasons:

1. they will cook quicker and more evenly if they are cut into pieces that are roughly all the same shape

2. its easier to mash them if the pieces you start with are smaller to begin with

I usually slice the potato in half down the length of the potatoe, then cut them into about 4 pieces across so I have 8 half "circles" of potato from each medium potatoe.

The main thing is that it leaves each piece about 3/4 of an inch thick.

Step Three

Cover the potatoes with water.

Some people will tell you that you have to start with really cold water, but I think that as long as the water isn't warmer than the potatoes are at the start you'll be ok.

Using water that is a lot warmer than the potatoes are at the beginning may turn them dark brown which is pretty disgusting. That's why you start the water heating with the potatoes in it instead of boiling the water and adding the potatoes afterwards like you do with pasta.

Notice there is head room in the pan for nice boiling without trashing your stove top with water and potatoe starch.

Add salt.

Yes, this is REQUIRED!

There's nothing worse tasting than a flat, unsalted potato, and if you try to add the salt after they are cooked, it takes a lot more salt to do the same job. There's something about the whole cooking process that makes the entire batch take on just the right amount of taste from the salting.

Personally I use sea salt because I like the taste, and you actually get less sodium than from other kinds.

Step Four

Put your pan on the biggest burner on the stove that the pan covers (this makes the most efficent use of the energy you're using to do the cooking), put on the lid and turn the burner up to high.

When the potatoes come to a boil, turn down the burner so they continue to bubble, but not so low that it is only a simmer -- you're not making soup, you want these to cook fairly quickly but not make a huge mess on your stove.

Here's where the cooking instruction gets less precise -- you cook these until they are at over 6000 feet in elevation it takes about 20 to 25 minutes from the time I put the pan on the stove until they are done, but this all depends upon what your elevation is, what variety of potato you used, how warm the water and potatoes were when you started, how small you cut the pieces -- you get the idea.

Here's how I test to see if they are done.

Use a regular table fork and insert it into the middle of a piece of potatoe. If they are done the fork will go in easily and the potato will split into two pieces, leaving the little "fork marks" when it does.

If this doesn't happen, give them a few more minutes and test again.

If it does, its time to drain -- PRONTO! Don't leave fully cooked potatoes sitting in the water or you will have potato soup!! Drain them right away.

CAUTION! Draining a lot of boiling water out of a pan of potatoes can be a scalding hazard. If you are at all unsure, use your colander in the sink and pour the whole batch of potatoes and water into it, then put the potatoes back in the pan to move on to the next step.

Step Five

Set the pan on the counter on a hotmat or a folded towel.

Add butter. This is largely a "to taste" issue. In the pictures here, I had 5 medium potatoes and I used about 3 tablespoons of butter.

Cut the butter into chunks and drop it into the pan and put the lid back on.

While you're getting out the mixer and the milk, the butter will be melting, which makes it easier to mix into the batch than trying to mash really cold chunks.

Using your ricer (or the masher if you haven't gone out for that ricer yet), break the potatoes into fine pieces.

The smaller the better for the next step.

Step Six

Using your hand mixer on a medium speed, start beating up the potatoe (and butter) pieces.

Add just enough milk to make the mixture smooth. For those 5 medium potatoes that I did in this batch I used about 1/4 to 1/3 cup milk.

A lot of the "how much milk" depends on rather you used one of those "wax-y" potatoes, or a baking potato. The baking potatoes will need less milk.

When you are done, the whole batch should look smooth.


At our house potatoes always went in an oval bowl, but whatever you serve them in, you can do it with pride!!