Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Basics: Mashed Potatoes

Mash. Mashers. Taters. Mashed-a-taters. The perfect white canvas of the food world. They go by so many names.

While posting the 1/(Shepherd's π), I thought that doing a post on another simple-yet-flexible recipe would be a good way to give instructions on making the mashed potatoes used. Sure, you can buy a box of flakes. Some of them actually aren't that bad in a pinch, but if you have a little bit of time you can make these mashed potatoes pretty quickly.

Potatoes are fascinating vegetables to me mostly because of how versatile they are, not to mention the fact that you can eat the entire thing. If you don't want to get a little technical on what happens when you cook potatoes, feel free to skip ahead.

It's pretty well known that potatoes are high in starch. Starches are made up of two polysaccharides: amylose and amylopectin. When potatoes (and their starches) are heated, the amylose is released. Amylose has the ability to bind water, making it a great thickener. However, in mashed potatoes, this thickness can show itself as the kind of gummy texture you usually get from the boxed or flaked potatoes.

There are a lot of recipes out there for "perfect" mashed potatoes, and if you want to use a thermometer to maintain 70C degree water or turn a simple process into something ridiculously complex with boiling, steaming, and rinsing, then by all means go ahead. We're trying to keep it basic here, and I can assure you as long as you are paying attention during the cooking process you'll be okay. Basically, we'll be stopping the cooking process before too much amylose is released, and rinsing the potatoes to try and eliminate as much of it as we can.

For the most part you need:

  • 4-6 small or medium sized potatoes, washed

Honoestly that's it for literal mashed potatoes. Here are some additives you can use to give it a smoother, richer taste (use any combination of these):

  • 1/2 c milk
  • 1/2 c sour cream
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • herbs or spices
  • bacon/pancetta bits
  • cheese

Take note that different potatoes may require different amounts of milk or sour cream. Russet potatoes are great for making mashed potatoes because of their high starch content, but I love the flavor of mashed potatoes made with Yukon Golds. Sweet potatoes also work, but they have a completely different flavor profile so try starting with just milk and see where it takes you.

For the herbs and spices, I like to use some garlic powder and salt, but feel free to get creative here! Try adding some thyme or chives, or an interesting store bought spice blend you might have. If you're serving a more simple meal, like steak and potatoes, take this opportunity to really add some flavor to the mashed potatoes. If you have some pancetta or bacon, you can incorporate those cooked and crumbled or cut bits into this as well.

First you should decide if you want the peel on or off. If you want pristine looking potatoes, go ahead and peel them. Cut them into slices or small cubes.

Place potatoes in a pot and bring the pot to a boil. After about 8-10 minutes, start poking at the potatoes with a fork. If they give a lot of resistance, then they still need more time. When a fork can piece them easily they are ready. Don't overcook them! Drain them and give them a quick rinse with some cold water.

Now you have a couple of options. You can either mash them with a potato masher, a ricer, a food processor, a stand mixer or a hand mixer. I prefer attacking them with a hand mixer: it's a good balance between manual (masher) and automatic (stand mixer).

Start mixing or mashing the mashed potatoes on low. Do it enough to really get the chunks of potato broken up and starting to form thick mashed potatoes.

Add in your additives. Most of this is really to taste or to texture. Milk, olive oil, spices, sour cream. Play around here! Got a spoonful of sour cream leftover? Go ahead and toss it in. Tiny bit of green onion you didn't need? Give it a dice and invite it to the party.

This a chance to make a simple food interesting. I haven't tried it, but while writing this I'm thinking of trying some avocado and diced pancetta, and maybe a little bit of feta cheese. Why? Why the heck not?! Cooking is very much an adventure, and mashed potatoes are the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure book. By themselves they are the neutral carbohydrate canvas. Go ahead and throw some paint on it and we'll call it art ... then eat it!

1 comment:

  1. I have never in my life made mashed potatoes- a sin, I know. Seriously, thank you for this post, because I feel much more relaxed about the whole thing now. I have always been intimidated by them for some reason. And I love the idea of adding pancetta and green onion- genius!