It came to me in a dream the other night that I had to write a post about mashed potatoes. This was non-negotiable. So here it is.
I'm not saying I have all the answers. For that you'll want to look at Cook's Illustrated or someone else, who will tell you about starch molecules, and that you should definitely boil the potatoes whole in their jackets and then peel them, and lots of other things that are doubtless true. All I can tell you is that I've been making mashed potatoes since I was very young and have made them for hundreds of people in many lands and, while it may not be the definitive method, it is basic, and it works.
- For potatoes, I like one of two kinds: Yukon Golds, which make for a buttery, smooth mashed potato, or starchier brown Idaho russets (read: potatoes) which are fluffier. All sorts are good, but if we're talking my basic method, I stick to one of those. I then peel them and cut them up, into quarters or so. Like I said, this is not ideal: all kinds of water seeps in and if you want to really do things right, you'll give it a little more time and boil them in their jackets and then make a huge mess and burn your hands peeling them afterwards. But I peel them, and I quarter them, and I cover them in a large pan with salted water. I then bring this to a boil. Once it's boiling, I turn it down to a simmer, and simmer until tender. Not falling apart, although falling apart is better than underdone. In fact, let's put that in bold. Do Not Undercook Potatoes.
- There are few things as disspiriting as beginning to mash only to find you're stuck with a watery, vegetal mass flecked with lumps of undercooked potato. "Comfort food" it's not. They should be soft enough that a knife's blade or the proverbial "skewer" you have lying round can go through easily.
- Now, and this is very important, you are going to drain them. Drain them well, then RETURN THEM TO THE PAN. Turn the heat to low, and shake shake shake that pan until all the water's evaporated, and a little film of potato starch is starting to form on the bottom of the pot. This is very important, especially if, like me, you've peeled the potatoes and let them absorb water. I'd go so far as to call it crucial. Potatoes that aren't sufficiently dried out have a watery, school-cafeteria air to them that no amount of butter can camouflage.
- Now to the mashing. If you've dried your potatoes well, chances are they will be sort of falling apart already. Now. The best way to mash is with a ricer (sort of like a giant garlic press) or a food mill: both of these are good because they only press the starch once or something. They are also messy and you may not have them. (I don't.) In this case, use a potato masher. Mash them up well. Do not use a blender or a food processor, although a hand mixer's okay, since it sort of whips stuff up instead of chopping and pureeing it.
- Butter — a good hunk. Some people like to melt this; I like the texture better when you add it in soft chunks. I also think it's a good idea to add the butter first because you'll have a better sense of how much milk you need. Add it.
- Add warm milk. Blitz it in the microwave or heat it on the stove, but you want the chill taken off, or those mashed potatoes will be clammy and cold, and they're never, ever as good reheated. Add as much as you like to get the right texture.
- Add salt and pepper — plenty. Purists would say white pepper, but unless you have white pepper around, don't sweat it. In some ways, salt is the most important part, next to the drying out. The difference between undersalted and properly salted is revelatory.
- Now you want to sort of whip some air into everything with a wooden spoon. Give it a good beating. You're done!
On the subject of reheating: the finest minds of countless generations have attempted to solve this puzzle, and the fact remains that mashed potatoes are never as good as when they're first made. Quickly, they get that institutional flavor, and no matter what a recipe tells you about a layer of melted butter or a double-boiler or a slow-cooker, don't believe it: while they'll certainly be edible, it's not the same. Or perhaps like me you enjoy mashed potato cold from the fridge the next day with a green salad on top. Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
Why my dream insisted I tell you that, I don't know. But now I am going to make mashed potatoes.