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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: Everyone has an opinion on the best mashed potatoes -- here's our favorite method, with plenty of room for expressing yourself.
Mashed potatoes, we believe, were put on this planet to please. Happily taking on the supporting role in our most epic feasts, they remain innocuous and forgiving, spooned liberally onto our plates with a quiet plop. Chances are, you already have a family recipe. It’s memorized by now, the recipe card long lost or too stained to read, handed to you one sleepy Thanksgiving morning by Great Aunt Linda.
Maybe you boil a whole, peeled yellow onion along with your potatoes, or add cloves of garlic to a pot of hot cream. Maybe you roughly mash it all with a fork, or pass it carefully through a ricer. You might swear by white pepper, or no pepper. One thing is clear: Unlike a side of buttered pasta or rice, mashed potatoes are deceivingly versatile. They come creamy and runny like grits, or fluffy and high like buttercream frosting. It can get so complicated, so controversial, that entire chapters are written on it. Methods are created that seem both equal parts genius and excessive -- like Shirley Corriher’s twice-boiled method and Joël Robuchon’s half-butter potato purée.
Here, we offer a foolproof version -- barebones but sturdy, the kind with both height and creaminess, without any pastiness. We like to think of it as the perfect middle ground, welcome to deviations, but perfectly content on its own.
1. Start with your potatoes. Russet potatoes break down quickly, and become light and fluffy when mashed, but Yukon Golds would work just as well in a pinch.
In the meantime, prep your other ingredients: Take out your butter and cream to reach room temperature while you boil your potatoes, and thinly chop some chives.
2. Rinse, peel, and chop your potatoes into about 1 1/2-inch pieces (or quarter them, if they’re on the smaller side). Two pounds of potatoes will generously serve four people, so keep the 1:2 ratio in mind when shopping for dinner. Transfer your potatoes to a pot, add cold water and a pinch of salt -- don't season quite as aggressively as you would for pasta, since they'll be absorbing the salty water a bit longer and you'll have a chance to adjust seasoning later -- and bring to a boil.
3. Boil your potatoes until tender –- start checking at fifteen minutes. They’re ready to be drained when they effortlessly break in half when speared with a knife.
If you’re feeling fancy, now is your chance to infuse the milk or cream with extra flavor in a small saucepan over low heat. Smashed garlic cloves, black peppercorns, or sprigs of rosemary and thyme are all good bets.
4. Drain your potatoes into a colander, then begin passing them through the food mill or ricer over the empty pot. If you’d prefer a few enticing chunks in your mashed potatoes, opt for a hand held masher or even a plain old fork. You’re the boss -- just refrain from over-mashing, which can release too much starch and result in a tougher, gummier consistency.
5. Now switch to a spoon or spatula, and immediately add in your butter, slightly softened from hanging out on the counter. For every pound of potato, we like to use about two tablespoons of butter, but this is entirely up to you. No one will complain if your mashed potatoes are buttery.
6. Time for your dairy: As the butter melts, start adding in your cream, milk, or buttermilk. Feeling fancy? Sour cream, crème fraîche, cream cheese, and even kefir all perform surprisingly well. Taste and season accordingly with salt and black pepper.
7. To garnish, sprinkle your mashed potatoes with chopped chives. You could top it off with anything you like, though: fried and crisped up shallots, caramelized onions, bits of bacon, a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan, chopped herbs, or, of course, more butter.
Photos by Mark Weinberg