Homemade mashed potatoes get even more important at this time of year because of both colder weather and the approach of Christmas.
What is it with people and mashed potatoes?
Mention comfort food, and they’re always on the list. Ask almost anyone for their favorite dish, and they’ll come up. Last-meal requests by prisoners? Mashed potatoes (with brown gravy) make that list, too.
They’re served so much in restaurants and school cafeterias that it’s impossible to say for sure how many servings we eat a year. It gets you into tricky numbers like fresh potatoes versus dehydrated versus frozen. But a 2010 study by the U.S. Potato Board showed that in-home consumption is about 16 times a year per person — that makes it about every three weeks.
Restaurant use means we eat them even more often than we make them.
“The popularity is amazing,” says Don Odiorne, the vice president of food service for the Idaho Potato Commission. “One of my favorite quotes is from a chef who said, ‘I could serve a brick if I paired it with mashed potatoes.’ ”
If chefs want you to try an unusual fish or a new cut of meat, he says, they’ll serve it with mashed potatoes. “People already know they like half the dish, and they’ll give it a try,” says Odiorne.
Consumption of all potato dishes fell for a few years in the early 2000s (thanks, Dr. Atkins). But numbers released early this year show they’ve been going back up (thanks, economic slowdown).
Since restaurant visits also slowed for a few years, that also has meant an increase in people cooking at home, and in tough times, we reach for things that are familiar, cheap and comforting.
“People said, ‘I’m going to go to the store, and I’m going to make things from scratch,’” says Odiorne.
Odiorne says traffic on the Idaho Potato Commission website doubles from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15: “We have the same effect that Butterball turkey has.”
The biggest question on their “Ask Dr. Potato” section, he says, is about mashed potatoes.
“If someone moves away from home and they’re inviting their boyfriend (or) girlfriend over for Thanksgiving, the turkey and the mashed potatoes are the two critical items. And a lot of times, they weren’t in the kitchen watching how they were made. So it’s a panic call: ‘How do I make mashed potatoes?’ ”
We’ve got you covered on that.
Potatoes and their mashability fit into three categories:
• Baking potatoes. Usually called russets, they’re longer and flatter. They are higher in starch, so they have a drier texture when cooked. They make fluffy mashed potatoes.
• Boiling potatoes. These usually have red skins and are sometimes called new potatoes. They have a waxier texture, so they don’t absorb liquid as well. Even though they usually aren’t recommended for mashing, they can be tasty, with a pronounced earthy flavor. Fans of lumpy mashed potatoes will love them. Leave the skins on for more texture, and don’t over-beat them because they can become gluey.
• All-purpose potatoes. The best known are Yukon Golds. They have a texture between the other two and a flavor that’s complemented with butter. They make creamy mashed potatoes. For the best of both potato worlds, combine Yukon Golds with a russet potato: Creaminess and fluffiness.
• Peeler. Y- or U-shaped peelers are great for long potatoes, like russets and sweet potatoes. Shorter straight-blade peelers are great for round potatoes, and the rounded tip of the blade does the best job of lifting out “eyes,” or indentations in the skin.
• Masher. A true potato masher, with a flat bottom attached to a handle, is great for mashing potatoes in the pot, especially if you don’t mind (or prefer) a few lumps. (A sturdy whisk with heavy tines can double as a masher.) A ricer is usually round with two handles for pressing together and a grid with holes.
You squeeze out long strands of potato and then whisk in milk and butter, making really smooth mashed potatoes. (A food mill works, too, but usually has more parts to clean.)
• An electric mixer can overbeat potatoes, making them gluey, so save it for really big batches. Never use a food processor: The blades cut across the molecules, releasing too much starch and giving mashed potatoes the texture and flavor of library paste.
• Beater. After you mash or press the potatoes, you need to add liquid and butter. A whisk is best, although a wooden spoon with a comfortable handle also works.
BASIC MASHED POTATOES
Like many things with only a few ingredients, how you do it is as important as what you add. Here’s how we do it:
Peel the potatoes and drop into a large pot of cold water. Cut large potatoes into chunks, but keep the pieces large. After all the potatoes are peeled, pour off the starchy water and add fresh cold water and about 1 tablespoon salt.
Place on the stove over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain a brisk simmer. When potatoes boil, the starch sets and can make them fall apart, so they become too watery. It’s better to cook them longer at a lower temperature. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes.
To make sure they’re done, try this trick: Stick the tip of a sharp knife into a few chunks of potato. If you can slide in the knife but the potato still clings to the blade, they aren’t quite done.
Drain the potatoes and return to the empty pot on the still-hot burner. Shake the pot a few times to help remaining water evaporate. Then mash the potatoes roughly with a masher or squeeze through a ricer. Whisk in the remaining ingredients with a sturdy whisk or wooden spoon.
Butter or milk first? The order makes a difference:
When you beat in the butter before the milk, the fat coats the molecules so they don’t absorb as much liquid. That creates mashed potatoes that are fluffier.
If you beat in the milk before the butter, the molecules absorb more milk, giving you potatoes that are creamier. Neither is better, it’s just a question of which you prefer.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU ADD?
Part of the appeal of mashed potatoes is their blank-slate quality. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring. You can add a lot of things:
— Buttermilk. While we usually reach for nonfat milk, testing recipes with buttermilk was enlightening. It brings creaminess with less fat than whole milk or cream (although it is higher in fat than nonfat milk). The flavor is slightly tangy, but not so strong that buttermilk haters will object.
— Cheese. Cheddar is just the start. Try brie or Gruyere sometime.
— Mustard. It sounds bizarre, but Dijon mustard in mashed potatoes is magic.
— Roasted garlic. A natural, of course.
— Cooked cabbage: Trust the Irish to know what works with potatoes. Colcannon — potatoes and cabbage — is a classic.
— Bacon. As natural as roasted garlic.
— Sour cream and cream cheese. Plain mashed potatoes can take on an off-flavor when reheated. Adding sour cream and cream cheese creates a richer mixture that can be made in advance and reheated without changing the texture or flavor.
— Egg yolks. To make fancy Duchess potatoes, beat yolks into cold potatoes, then pipe them onto a baking sheet and bake until they’re browned in spots.