As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities—but we also have to rely on our tools. Some we couldn't cook without (knives, pots, pans). Others we don't necessarily need, but sure are glad we have around. Here, we talk about those trusty, albeit inessential, tools.
Today: The right tool for one job—making mashed potatoes.
I am a white foods aficionado. Bland, starchy, plain, pale-colored foods with a shmear of fat and a hefty sprinkling of salt are my eating-alone, fallback dinners. I love them all: pasta with butter, bread and olive oil, polenta made with chicken stock and cream. But above all, mashed potatoes are my go-to food. They are amazing on their own and they foil well with just about anything savory: fried eggs, chicken of all sorts, sautéed greens. When I was little, my mother’s friend Judy once told me that, for Thanksgiving, she budgeted one half of a pound of potatoes per person, but she knew that I needed a whole pound to myself. I am not ashamed.
There are plenty of ways to mash potatoes. A friend of mine who works in restaurant kitchens uses her stand mixer (she lovingly refers to it as her “mashed potato machine”). My mother, a minimalist in no other arena, uses a fork to make smashed potatoes. (Personally, I don't think this is sufficient. Cue her rolling her eyes at me.) My husband and I inherited a vintage potato masher (read: sad plastic) from his grandmother, which worked until it didn’t—and by that I mean that I broke it. The masher is a decent option (as long as it's not made of 1950s plastic), but you need elbow grease and persistence to get all the lumps out.
More: Curious about the science of mashed potatoes? Read on.
But I will tell you right now that I am slavishly devoted to my potato ricer. There is no tool that works more effectively at fluffing perfectly cooked potatoes (preferably russets). If I have been diligent and drained my potatoes just a smidge, they slide right through the smallest setting, resulting in a gloriously creamy, aerated purée. I love watching the potatoes flake and fall into tender crumbs, and then mixing in a decent amount of butter, salt, and cream.
Here’s the thing: There is nothing redeeming about a potato ricer. Potato flecks get all over the place and you have to manually put your potato pieces into the little barrel to get smushed. It is a largeish piece of kitchen equipment that takes up a decent amount of space. It only has one job. I am generally of the mind that tools should have more than one purpose and if they don't, I do not allow them to take up precious real estate in my tiny kitchen. My potato ricer also gets used little more than a few times per year, making it a doubly greedy piece of equipment. Sometimes I use it for other mashable vegetables, too (carrots and sweet potatoes), but only to help justify keeping the ricer around.
The thing is, what it does it does well—more than well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is the right tool for the job. And when the job is to make perfect mashed potatoes, that’s all that matters.
Photos by James Ransom