This is the time of year when we’re all thinking about soothing our weather-weary bones with some old-fashioned, just-like-mom-would-make comfort food.
When it comes to comfort, no dish says “sit down and warm up” better than a buttery bowl of mashed potatoes.
But if you think that making the perfect bowl of mashers is as simple as boiling potatoes and stirring in some butter and milk, think again. There’s science behind every spud.
Farmers, food scientists and chefs have devoted years of research determining to how to make perfect mashed potatoes. But even after all that study, personal preference will always be a factor.
So how do you like your mashed potatoes, fluffy or creamy?
Michelin-starred French chef Joel Robuchon introduced Americans to potatoes so creamy and laden with butter that they spread across the plate in a soft yellow mass. It’s a style the French would refer to as pommes puree, in which the potatoes are passed through a food mill and combined with half their weight in butter.
This rich puree is to the extreme of what most of Americans think of as creamy mashed potatoes, and creamy potatoes can be achieved without a pound of butter.
But there is a science to creating the perfect mashed potatoes.
CAREFULLY SELECT SPUDS
The starch content of potatoes plays a big role in determining how mashed potatoes will turn out. Two of the preferred varieties for making mashed potatoes are russets or baking potatoes, and yellow potatoes.
When boiled, high-starch russets become dry and crumbly. Their flesh will soak up copious amounts of melted butter and cream, making them a good choice.
Yellow potatoes, such as the Yukon Gold variety, have a dense texture that many chefs prize for making mashed potatoes. They aren’t as starchy as russets, but will produce a creamy finished product.
Save waxy red-skinned potatoes, such as the Red Bliss variety, for making rustic smashed potatoes with the skins on.
PEEL, CUBE OR COOK WHOLE?
Chefs disagree on whether to peel and cut potatoes before cooking them.
The editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, in their book “Cook’s Illustrated: The Science of Good Cooking,” maintain that potatoes cut into chunks before cooking can absorb too much water and have a soggy texture and washed-out flavor.
However, when potatoes are cooked whole they sometimes produce inconsistent results. Potatoes, particularly larger ones, can be bursting their skins on the outside while their centers are still hard.
Choose the method that works best for you, but use care to not overcook cubed potatoes or undercook whole ones.
DRAIN WELL AND MASH
Drain potatoes well and return them to their warm pot. Place over low heat to further dry them out, making them thirsty for butter and cream.
Every cook has a preferred masher. For fluffier potatoes, use a potato ricer; for creamier, a food mill; and for chunky with a few lumps left in, a potato masher.
Never use a food processor or blender, which will turn potatoes into gluey paste. Some purists will eschew an electric hand mixer as well, but others believe it produces a fluffy, whipped texture.
If using a hand mixer, take care not to overmix the potatoes. Consider putting them through a ricer first, then incorporating the butter and cream with a hand mixer to fluff them up.
ADD BUTTER AND CREAM
A good rule of thumb is one stick of butter for every 2 pounds of potatoes. Melt the butter and add it first. As “The Science of Good Cooking” explains, the melted butter will coat the starch molecules with fat, which will keep them from reacting with the water in the milk or cream, which can turn the potatoes gluey.
Whole milk, half-and-half or heavy cream can all be used, up to 1 cup depending on your desired final consistency. Always heat the milk first to keep the potatoes from turning cold and stiff before serving.
Here are three recipes for producing different types of mashed potatoes that will satisfy anyone’s craving for a bowl of comfort.