With Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season approaching, Americans everywhere will be making the ubiquitous and delicious side dish of mashed potatoes. What is the secret to making mashed potatoes and what tools can help create a creamy, light batch for you and your guests this holiday?
I can remember my grandmother standing over a bowl of recently boiled potatoes, wailing away with her simple wood-handled, steel wire masher while she made mashed potatoes the old fashioned way: one smoosh at a time. Then, when I started cooking on my own, there were times where my attempts to create a light, airy batch of mashed potatoes results in a white, gluey paste with a consistency more useful for putting up wallpaper in a parlor. Preparing the right potatoes, and utilizing the right tools can be instrumental in creating the perfect mashed potatoes and here are some tips to help steer you down the right path to creamy potato goodness.
A brief history of Potatoes and their mashing.
Mashed potato recipes started appearing in the early 17th century, yet the ‘father’ of the mashed potato is generally accepted as Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. As a major supporter of bringing the potato into the accepted diet of everyday Frenchmen, Parmentier proposed a competition to ‘discover’ new nourishing foods and won his own competition with a mashed potato recipe, which he published in his Examen chimique des pommes de terres (1774). Over the next two centuries, the potato has become an everyday part of the North American and European diet, and new ways to mash, roast and fry potatoes has made it an integral part of gourmet and holiday fare.
Why Are Mashing Tools/Technique important?
The first thing to say is that under-mashing your potatoes isn’t ‘wrong’. Differing recipes can call for a completely smooth, homogenous bowl of mashed potatoes, as well as mashed potatoes with chunks and skin still included in the mix. The danger in making mashed potatoes is in OVER mashing. This can produce ‘gluey’ potatoes with the consistency of wallpaper paste and will distract from the flavors of your delicious tubers.
This result is caused by the high level of starch naturally occurring in potatoes. The initial step of boiling potatoes swells starch cells and when initially mashed, this starch is released. The more smashing, the gummier the potatoes and this starch can start working into strands.
One way to sidestep this issue is to make sure ALL of the water is drained from the potatoes before beginning to mash, and making sure not to overcook the potatoes in the first place. You should be able to just put a knife through the center of a potato chunk but before the edges of the potato start to wilt.
Sometimes this starchy, gluey result is from using wrong ‘type’ of potatoes. This isn’t to say that any type of potato is wrong for mashed potatoes, and experimenting is encouraged, but using low starch/waxy red potatoes takes more effort to mash to a uniform consistency, and may result in over-mashing, whereas Russet-type, high starch potatoes break down easier. This simply means that the type of potato being used needs to match the level of smooth/chunky that you’re attempting to reach.
The Tools of the Trade
Potato mashers come in all shapes, sizes and materials. The original mashers looked like mortar and pestles, but in the late 1800’s, the metal wire devices recognizable as the forbearers of the modern potato masher arrived. Since that time, new options have arrived and offer different pros and cons to any level of chef attempting to prepare their holiday side dish. Here are three different tools to mash your potatoes that are offered by the Zabar’s housewares department and some tips on how to utilize them.
Manual hand masher
This is what we all picture when we think of when we hear ‘home-made’ mashed potatoes. Like my grandmother’s recipe, this method calls for both a large amount of physical force, as well as enough restraint to stop mashing before you reach the ‘gluey’ texture. I personally believe that manual hand mashing is better for using recipes in which you want chunkier pieces of potato in the mashed potatoes, such as with certain flavored (such as garlic) or home-style mashed potatoes which also are supplemented with pieces of potato skin still in the final result. As a native New York with a kitchen that seems smaller every time I add a new kitchen tool, the PREPARA FLIP MASHER ($19.98) is a great space-saver that does its job to the fullest. Utilizing a ‘grid’ type mashing face that really gets all the big chunks with minimal repetitions, the most endearing attribute is the foldaway design. As someone who doesn’t just make a big bowl of mashed potatoes on a whim, the ability to slide this masher away in my tool drawer until the next time it’s needed is a huge bonus for this product.
Potato Ricers and Food Mills may seem like an extraneous product that only people with infants who need to make baby food should buy, but after making a batch of mashed potatoes with the Oxo Potato Ricer (29.98), I can tell you that the deliciousness of the end result makes the purchase of this tool totally worth it. Essentially an oversized garlic press, Potato Ricers allow the user to quickly work through an entire bowl of cooked potatoes without a great deal of physical effort. As the potato is extruded through the die (and the Oxo Potato Ricer comes with three screen settings for different textures/uses) air is incorporated into the potatoes which results in a finer, smoother texture of mashed potatoes. Because each potato is only being processed once, as opposed to repeated strikes from a hand masher, there is less chance of pulling too much starch out of the potatoes. One tip is to remove the skin from the potatoes before putting them through the ricer. Although not necessary, you won’t have to stop and remove the skin from the inside cup of the ricer between potatoes, which can result in an extremely quick and easy process.
Electric Counter-top/Hand Mixer
The quickest and easiest way to get from solid potatoes to mashed is with a standard electric countertop/hand mixer like this KitchenAid stand mixer ($349.99). Mechanical power allows the chef to make larger amounts of potatoes with a more homogenous texture, but it is extremely easy to over-mash! I typically only use it for a few quick revolutions as each ingredient is added. I initially mash the whole, cooked potatoes with the mixer whisk, then I fold in the cream and butter with a spatula, and give one last mix with the machine to incorporate all of the ingredients evenly.
Whichever method and tools you utilize for your potato mashing endeavors, there is no ‘wrong’ way to do it, but be cautioned that over-doing the mashing can result in a poorly textured final product. If you feel like skipping the whole process, you can find delicious Zabar’s mashed potatoes here. We’ll take care of the mashing and schlepping.