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Practicing the basics: mashed potatoes

Potatoes, in many different forms, are easy to prepare and cook, though it can take some time because they are thick and dense — especially if you are intending to serve them intact (e.g. baked potatoes). Many recipes, including this one, call for cutting potatoes up into smaller pieces to reduce the cooking time.

There are many different kinds of potatoes, and they are not interchangeable; they have different tastes, but they also have different textures after cooking that make them better or worse for various dishes. There are two kinds of potatoes that are preferred for mashed potatoes: Russet and Yukon gold. Try others at your own risk.

One nice thing about mashed potatoes is that you can make them in advance and keep them warm, or stick them in the fridge and then reheat just before serving. Just make sure to re-whip them (either by hand or with an electric mixer) after re-heating.

Mashed potatoes can also be customized in many different ways to create a family recipe: adding herbs, spices, garlic or chives, hot sauce, or even cheese.

Suggested reading:

Makes 6-8 servings, depending on portion size. Time required: 40 minutes.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled (potato skins are edible; peeling is optional and is more about appearance than anything else)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk

Cut potatoes unto equal-sized chunks about 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Place in pot and add just enough cold water so that the water level is about 1 inch above the top of the potatoes. Cover pot and bring to boil over high heat. Remove cover, add salt, and boil uncovered until tender enough that you can squish a chunk of potato with a fork, about 10-15 minutes. Starting the potatoes in cold water allows them to gradually heat up and helps them to cook evenly throughout (it takes a while for heat to penetrate into the center of a potato).

While potatoes are cooking, add the butter and milk into a small pan or pot and heat until the butter is melted and the milk begins to steam (around 180-190 degrees). Remove from heat and set aside. Don’t let the milk/butter mixture boil; milk burns quickly and easily, so watch it carefully when it’s getting near the right temperature. Alternatively, you can put the milk and butter in a microwave-safe bowl or measuring cup and microwave it until it’s the right temperature; start by heating it for one minute on high power, then in 15-20 second increments, checking the temperature in between until it reaches about the right temperature.

When the potatoes are done, drain into a large strainer or colander. Move the potatoes into a mixing bowl and use a potato masher or fork to break up the chunks. Add 1/4 cup of the milk/butter mixture, and stir in by hand until incorporated. This is preparation for whipping the potatoes with a whisk or an electric mixer: thinning out the potatoes and breaking up the chunks so they whip more easily.

Whip either by hand with a whisk or with an electric mixer, slowly adding just as much of the milk mixture as necessary to reach the desired consistency.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve hot.

Tips and suggestions:

  • Garlic mashed potatoes are a great variation on this recipe. Instead of heating the butter and milk together, start by melting the butter in a small pot or pan over medium heat, then add three minced garlic cloves and saute for 15-30 seconds just until fragrant (garlic burns very quickly, so be careful!). Add the milk and heat to about 180-190 degrees. Add the milk/butter/garlic mixture into the potatoes following the above directions.
  • Try adding 1-2 teaspoons of chives or parsley (finely chopped) at the end, just before seasoning to taste (they don’t require cooking).
  • Add hot pepper sauce as part of seasoning to taste at the end.
  • Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese just before seasoning to taste; stir in to melt the cheese. This will add some saltiness, so make sure you do this before you season to taste so you don’t over-salt the potatoes.
  • As mentioned above, mashed potatoes can be made in advance and either kept warm or reheated just before serving. To keep warm, preheat an oven (or warming drawer, if you’re lucky enough to have one) to 160 degrees F. Put the mashed potatoes in an oven-safe bowl, partially cover, and place in the oven. Five minutes before serving, remove from the oven and re-whip with a fork or whisk until the potatoes are fluffy. It’s important to leave the potatoes partially uncovered so that condensation can escape, otherwise it will drip back down on the potatoes and discolor and harden them. To re-heat: place the mashed potatoes in a microwave-safe bowl, cover and microwave on high until reheated (180 degrees F); after the first two minutes, check the temperature and stir the potatoes every 30 seconds to ensure that they are heating evenly and that they don’t overcook. Re-whip by hand with a whisk or with an electric mixer until the potatoes are once again fluffy.
  • If you’re planing to make mashed potatoes frequently, you might want to consider buying a potato ricer. You use it on the cooked potato wedges to break them up into thin threads, sort of like raw pasta dough, rather than mashing them up by hand; it gives the mashed potatoes better consistency and more fluffiness (and honestly, it’s easier than mashing them up by hand). Using a potato ricer is absolutely not required to make delicious mashed potatoes, so don’t feel that you must run out and buy one, but it does help a bit and is worth the investment in a largely one-use tool if you plan to use it a lot.