The Nostalgia Behind Great Mashed Potatoes.
Whenever I think of great mashed potatoes, my first thoughts always drift toward the rich flavor of butter that made my grandmothers mashed potatoes so special. This of course is followed up closely by the cream, sea salt and black pepper to round out the perfect flavor profile. In my opinion, it's those four ingredients, and how they are balanced with each other, that can make them the star of the show, or a dry tasteless afterthought. Top notch mashed potatoes should be enjoyed with every bite, more or less a vessel which can elevate its companions on the plate when executed properly. So how do you make the perfect mashed potatoes? What potatoes should you use? How do you cook them? And finally, how much butter is too much butter? (Hint: There is never enough butter! Almost.)
Our earliest memories of food as children are often of classic simple dishes our parents or grandparents made for us to satisfy our desire for simple easy to eat foods. Oftentimes we were fans of mashed potatoes long before those memories formed, due to the fact that mashed potatoes are pretty perfect for babies and small children to eat. However, a lot of us can remember those buttery mashed potatoes served during the holidays, loaded with turkey or rib roast, and slathered in gravy or jus. The memories formed over those meals were oftentimes our fondest. Mashed potatoes, whether you know it or not, are a part of your past and most definitely will be a part of your future. Who knew that five ingredients could be so satisfying! So, you might as well pay attention and read on so that you know all the secrets to making this classic dish absolutely spectacular, every time.
When picking your potatoes at the grocery store or farmers market, start with a traditional white or yellow potato. My personal favorite potato for mashing is the Yukon Gold. Superior in my eyes to all other potatoes, it is my opinion that this potato in particular requires less help when it comes to the necessary additions of the four previously mentioned ingredients of butter, cream, sea salt and black pepper, which from this point I will refer to as the "fantastic four". The Yukon Gold potato has a perfect balance of flavor, creaminess and lastly is one of the easiest and cleanest potatoes to peel.
So why not Red or Purple potatoes? How about the good ole Russet?
Certain potatoes are just not meant to be mashed, and whether it is a popular opinion or not I believe that red and purple potatoes are best for roasting, mostly due to their higher amounts of starches. Add to that their many dimples and hard to peel shapes and you have a potato that is definitely worth passing on. What about russets? If all you can find is a bag of russet potatoes, then they will do just fine. Just remember that russet potatoes are a bit dry by nature, even after boiling, which means you will probably be adding more cream and butter than you otherwise would with a Yukon Gold.
Can you use a Sweet Potato?
Yes, you sure can! The only difference is I recommend roasting your sweet potatoes whole or peeling and cutting them into chunks and cooking them in a covered pan until soft. Either way, make sure the sweet potatoes are cooked until a knife or fork passes through them without any resistance. By roasting the sweet potatoes whole, you gain extra flavor by allowing the sugars to caramelize a bit.
How should we cook potatoes to achieve perfect mashed potatoes?
This here, is where I will start to reveal the chef secrets that I have been taught over the years. Boiling a potato is not as simple as just dumping in potatoes and water and turning the burner on high. Just like pasta, bring your water and potatoes to a boil, and add some sea salt. By waiting to add the salt until the be water is boiling, you are preventing the salt from inadvertently pitting your cookware. After the salt has been added, cook your potatoes until soft. I often use a sharply pointed knife or fork to test whether they are cooked through or not. If the knife passes through and there is no resistance the potato is cooked. Do not overcook the potatoes because they will over absorb water and fall apart once they hit the colander for draining.
Adding the Fantastic Four.
Butter, Cream, Salt & Black Pepper. Such a simple combination of ingredients that when balanced perfectly can make a mediocre plate of food taste great, so let's get started.
While the potatoes are draining in the colander, this is a great time to melt your butter by tossing it into the hot pot you just dumped out. This does two things. First, it gets your butter and cream ready to mix with the potatoes, and two it keeps the potatoes from getting stuck in the corners of the pot when you put them back in. Rarely with cooking are there "smarter, not harder" moments, but that is one where you will save yourself from the dreaded dry flavorless potatoes lost to the edges of the pot!
Once your potatoes have drained a few moments, we like to run them through a ricer, rather than just mashing them. What this will accomplish is a silky-smooth texture that is light and fluffy. By adding this process lessen the risk of overmixing the potatoes and activating the starches they contain, which is what makes a bad batch of mashed potatoes gloppy and dense. If you choose to mash them and like that rustic chunky texture, which I totally understand and agree with, then make sure you follow the next steps as they will give you a better chance at achieving the results you are looking for.
Now that your butter and cream have melted, it is time to season the mixture with salt and pepper, give it a stir, and finally add back your potatoes. For the cooks who chose not to use a ricer, it is crucial to season your butter and cream prior to adding it to your potatoes, as this will lessen the amount of actual mashing that will need to be done to properly season your mashed potatoes. Your warm cream and butter mixture should taste just a bit saltier than you want the final product to be. The extra salt will be absorbed by the potato when you combine them. For those that did utilize the ricer, you can re-season as needed since the potatoes are mostly broken down and easier to work with. Once mixed, the mashed potatoes should look rather loose. The added moisture from the cream is not an issue and will mostly be absorbed by the potato as the mashed potatoes rest. The longer the mashed potatoes need to rest, the looser the mixture can be.
3 lbs. Yukon Gold Potatoes
2 cups Heavy Cream
8 oz Unsalted Butter
2 tbsp Sea Salt (more as desired)
1 tbsp Finely Ground Black Pepper (extra credit if you toast your black pepper seeds)