A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re off-roading classic mashed potatoes.
When potato chips started being commercially produced in the early 20th century, plain was a given. They were “just thin slices of potato, fried and salted,” Janis Thiessen writes in Snacks: a Canadian Food History. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that flavors, like barbecue and salt-and-vinegar, started springing up.
In the decades since, such varieties have flooded the market. Lays famously hosted “Do Us a Flavor” contests, encouraging consumers to pitch their best ideas—think wasabi ginger, New York reuben, cappuccino—for a $1 million grand prize.
But despite all this hoopla, according to Statista, plain is still America’s favorite flavor (anti-flavor?), with runners-up in the following order: barbecue, sour cream–and-onion, and salt-and-vinegar.
There’s good reason salt-and-vinegar was one of the original potato chip flavors and still hasn’t lost its swagger. It’s a prime example of Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, aka the four components you need to ace any dish:
Generous salting amplifies potato-iness and encourages finger-licking. Fry oil is fatty and enriching, not to mention what turns a wiggly potato slice into a crunchy-munchy cracker (thanks to cooking super hot fry oil). And the vinegar interrupts all this starchy richness, so your palette doesn’t get worn out.
Pretty smart, right?
Mashed potatoes could learn a thing or three from this template. At its most basic, this Thanksgiving staple involves just-boiled potatoes (Russets yield a fluffy cloud while Yukon Golds are yellower and more flavorful—opt for either or a mix), warm whole milk and/or heavy cream, and butter (usually lots).
Optimizing the salt and introducing an acidic ingredient changes everything.
Let’s start with the salt: Many cooks season their mashed potatoes one time, along with the liquid-of-choice and butter. You and I are going to season them three times:
Generously season the water in which you’re boiling the potatoes. Like pasta, this ensures the spuds are salted throughout.
Salt again while mashing. Now is the time to taste and adjust, repeatedly, until you get it right.
Sprinkle more salt (flaky is great if you’ve got it) on top just before serving.
Picture each step as a confidence-booster for the potatoes, helping them be less soft-spoken and more sure of themselves.
Onto the acid: A teeny-tiny splash of vinegar transforms the mash. Think of it like squeezing a lemon cheek over fried rice or jumping in the ocean on a hot summer day. I love malt vinegar, which reminds me of tangy English chips (aka “steak fries” in America). You could also use white, apple cider, or rice, but something like sherry or balsamic would be distracting.
And, after all, the point here is subtlety. Like salt-and-vinegar potato chips, these mashed potatoes look utterly plain from a distance. But also like salt-and-vinegar potato chips, once you take a bite, you won’t be able to stop.
This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors and writers, and as an Amazon Associate, Food52 would earn from qualifying purchases. How do you make mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving? Share your tricks in the comments!
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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.