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Welcome to Blooper Week, where we'll be polling various cooks and food writers -- as well as the Food52 staff -- about their biggest Thanksgiving bloopers and their essential tips to avoid future disasters.
Mashed potatoes are tricky. As a concept, they’re straightforward (most of us can make them without a recipe), but that doesn’t mean that we’re thrilled with our mash, or that we can’t make it better. After all, mashed potatoes should be more than just a vehicle for gravy.
Here are some tips for improving this year’s mash -- without any mishaps -- whether you’re making it for the first time or the fifteenth.
Choose the right potato. This sounds simple, but it’s worth stating: When you’re making mash, you need a fluffy, fairly starchy potato, not a waxy one. Yukon Golds are a great bet: They’re available in nearly every grocery store and farmers market, and they have a velvety texture that works well in all kinds of preparations. Good old Russets are excellent, too. When in doubt, stay away from fingerlings and those little red potatoes that are so good in potato salad: the waxiness that helps them hold their shape in salad makes for a gummy, gluey mash.
Don’t peel or cut your potatoes before boiling. When peeled and cut potatoes are cooked, they lose valuable starch and flavor to the cooking water, and that water also gets into the potatoes themselves, making for a thin, bland mash. Instead, cook your potatoes whole, and then peel them as soon as they’re cool enough to handle. And while we’re talking about boiling potatoes: Hey, don’t forget to generously salt that cooking water.
Use the right tool for the job. If you like smooth, silky mashed potatoes, use a ricer or food mill to mash them. If you like it chunkier, a potato masher is your tool -- or even the back of a wooden spoon. But steer clear of the food processor, which can make potatoes gooey and weird. Your goal in mashing is always to limit the amount of damage to the cells of the cooked potato, because breaking open those cells releases starch and leads to sad, gluey mash.
Butter! The most famous mashed potatoes in the world are Joel Robuchon’s, which use an infamous 2:1 potato-to-butter ratio. Take a minute to let that soak in: For every pound of potatoes, Robuchon uses half a pound (2 sticks! 2 sticks!) of butter. It sounds outrageous, and it is. It’s also outrageously good. You don’t have to get quite that freewheeling, but if you want your mash to taste as good as what you find in restaurants, you’re going to need more butter than you think. Chefs often disagree on the order in which butter and milk should be added: Some swear by adding butter first, followed by warmed milk, while others melt the butter into the milk and mix them together into the potatoes. Whatever you do, keep the potatoes hot while you mix, and mix quickly and briefly.
Don’t be shy about adding other flavors. There’s nothing wrong with the traditional potato-butter-milk-salt combination, but you can get big boosts in flavor from small, easy additions. Try adding some celery root, which mashes like a potato but brings with it a faintly nutty, celery-like flavor. Or roasted garlic. Or, hey, caramelized onions! Brandon likes to slice up a ton of onions, cook them slowly until they’re golden brown, zizz them in the food processor with butter (or olive oil, if we’ve got vegans at the table), and then mash that purée into the potatoes instead of plain butter and milk. Delicious, especially with a good dose of Parmigiano Reggiano, too.
What are your secrets to perfect mash? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by James Ransom