"What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow." A. A. Milne (1882-1956)
Ask a roomful of cooks how to make perfect mashed potatoes and the answers are all over the map. It seems everyone’s got their favourite one or two methods for this ubiquitous side dish. Having grown up on the Canadian Prairies in a mixed German and Ukrainian household, I can’t honestly think of another side dish that has graced my table more frequently. I imagine a warm bowl of mash got plenty of our early settler forebears through a bitter Prairie winter in a drafty sod house.
To be fair to the humble mashed potato, its allure must be stronger than just a biological need for sustenance. Even though we now live in big glass towers and have more money than ever with which to house and feed ourselves, mash still appears everywhere. It’s tasty and hearty and pretty darn easy to whip up. It’s dead easy to tart up by adding a few exotic-sounding ingredients.
Scientifically speaking, (inasmuch as my lifelong study of mashed potatoes can really be said to be scientific) there are really only 4 variables in the mashed potato equation: Potato, Fixin's, Method and Equipment. And everybody’s got an opinion on their correct combination.
The Humble Potato
There are definitely varieties of potatoes that work better for mashing and those that work best for baking or boiling. The selection within the "good for mashing" group is pretty impressive: Yukon Gold, Blue, Russet, Bintje, Sebago, Idaho White, Kennebec, plus heaps more are claimed by all and sundry to be good mashers. My personal favourites are Yukon Gold and All Blues. More on that later.
"Fixins" is the variable that probably bears the most responsibility for the evolution of mash over the years, from a simple farmhouse staple, to something just as at home in a fancy-pants restaurant, as say, crispy fried leek stacks. It's also the place to have the most fun! You can produce a classic and always tasty mash just using a little butter, milk and salt and pepper, or you can go a little farther out with buttermilk or sour cream and garlic, or parsley and cream cheese. Go wayyyyy out an add brie or fontina instead of cream and butter. Get low fat by using chicken broth in place of milk and butter. Go a little Mardi Gras by adding New Orleans Olive Salad! Some people add raw eggs or mustard. The sky really is the limit.
Method to the Madness?
Do you leave the skins on or do you peel your spuds? Do you microwave or boil or bake? All these are options. Personally, I’m a boiler but not a peeler, especially if the potatoes are new with lovely thin skins. If I’m in a hurry, I’ve even been know to use the microwave. But more likely, I’ll just cube the potatoes quite small so they boil faster.
I’ve heard tell of all sorts of mashed potato method madness out there. Some of the “secret to the best mashed potatoes” claims I’ve come across are:
- adding cold milk will “seize” your potaoes. For fluffier potatoes add warm milk;
- the secret to light and fluffy mashed potatoes is to let the steam escape for 15 minutes after the potatoes are cooked and before mashing them;
- whip Yukon Golds in a Kitchenaid with a whisk attachment and put it on 6-8 for 10-15 minutes.
Some people swear by a ricer. My mother used to use electric beaters. I swear by my good old-fashioned coil masher – the $26 fancy-pants one with the little holes in an oval of stainless steel doesn’t work worth a crap. The key is, whatever the implement you use, mash swiftly and under no circumstances over-mash. A few too many passes with the masher and your beautiful potatoes will end up gluey and sticky and gross instead of fluffy. Very breifly, this is because potatoes are made up of little sacs of starch - if you break the little sacs then the starch leaks out and gets all sticky and sugary. That’s why I tend to eschew my mother’s electric beaters – too great a risk of over mashing, although she always seemed to get it right.
Potato cook off!
Most people I know have been to a wine tasting. I’ve known a few who have been to a cheese or chocolate tasting. Well, Cakes and I had our own little mashed potato tasting party this afternoon. I made several pots of mash using three varieties of potato and simply seasoning with a dab of butter, a bit of milk and some salt and pepper. This allowed us to properly compare the various kinds of potato without the complication of crazy and distracting “Fixins”.
Yukon Gold: This mash feels creamy and is very fine grained. It's got a delicate potato flavour with a hint of sweetness. I bet they'd make a great buttermilk or sour cream mash. Definitely the fluffiest and lightest of the three, both in terms of texture and taste. I think these would be best as a side for a great grilled steak - where the meat is so filling you're not looking for a solid mash, but more of a creamy and light accompaniement.
Banana (fingerling): Touted by the potato lady at Strathcona Farmers Market as a great masher. The texture was firmer and not as creamy as the Yukon Golds (althtough this could be remedied to a degree by adding a bit more milk than you would normally). Definitely a "meaty" taste and texture. Very solid and filling, but not gluey at all. The taste was not sweet like the Yukon Golds - more potatoey tasting. They'd make a better accompaniment to a lighter main - maybe roast chicken or grilled fish. Their meaty texture leads me to believe that they'd make stellar potato pancakes the next day!
All Blues: Almost as fluffy as the Yukon Golds, but not so sweet. Of the three, this one had the most pronounced earthy potato flavour, which was really nice. Light on texture, but more flavourful than the other two. A really great taste, but I'm sure some folks might be a bit ooked out by the colour. This mash would do well as an all around side for any dish, but I bet it'd be stellar with lamb. Its stronger potato flavour would do a better job of standing up to the strongly flavoured lamb.
The recipe test
I made several small batches of different mashed potato recipes for the purposes of comparison.
Parmesan, Garlic and Green Onion: I added about 1/2 cup good grated reggiano, 1/4 cup sliced green onion and 2 clovesd mashed garlic to a 2 cups of mash - this worked really well with the Fingerlings. Was just the thing for settin' beside a grilled chicken breast.
Green Olive and Hot Pepper: I added a 1/2 cup finely chopped green olive and a tiny teaspoon of minced hot red (thai) pepper to 2 cups of mashed Yukon Golds (along wqith butter, salt, pepper and milk). It was amazing with some rich smoked turkey breast. Would be out of this world with a nice grilled rare steak.
Blue Cheese and Parsley: I added 1/4 cup crumbled bleu de bresse and 1/2 cup chopped Italian parsely to 2 cups mashed All Blues (along with butter, salt, pepper and sour cream)- amazing!
Wondering what to do with all that leftover mash? Click here to find out
Wondering who got the bright idea to eat that first potato? Click here to find out
You think that putting a raw egg in your mash is a bit crazy? Check out this weird potato lore:
- Laying a potato peel at the door of a girl on May Day showed her that you disliked her.
- If a woman is expecting a baby, she should not eat potatoes because the baby will be born with a big head.
- A potato in your pocket will cure rheumatism and eczema.
- If you have a wart, rub it with a cut potato, then bury the potato in the ground. As the potato rots in the ground, your wart will disappear.
- Treat facial blemishes by washing you face daily with cool potato juice.
- Treat frostbite or sunburn by applying raw grated potato or potato juice to the affected area.
- Help a toothache by carrying a potato in your pocket.
- Ease a sore throat by putting a slice of baked potato in a stocking and tying it around your throat.
- Ease aches and pains by rubbing the affected area with the water potatoes have been boiled in.