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Perfecting Mash Potatoes

As a young line cook in the ’90s, I mashed my fair share of potatoes. Whether it was amped up with roasted garlic or left unadulterated, back then mash was served with just about everything. When I was an apprentice at a small French bistro, I made them every night, right before service, and heated each portion to order so it was hot, fluffy and perfect.

Despite being a four-ingredient recipe, there are many variables involved: often the simplest dishes are the hardest to get right. To help you make the Horseradish Whipped Potatoes in our holiday menu in the November 2013 issue. Here is a breakdown of the art and science of mashed potatoes.

Pick The Right Potato

For mash, you need a starchy potato that will absorb plenty of milk and butter. The two best options are russet (aka baking) potatoes or Yukon Golds. Russets are starchier, so they will take on more liquid and yield richer results. I prefer Yukon Golds for their sweet flavour and golden hue.

The Boiling Point

Mashed potato purists will roast potatoes in their skins so they will be as dry as possible, but when you’re preparing a big holiday feast, it’s much preferable to do them on the stovetop as the oven is usually booked up for the day with desserts, roasts, etc. Peel the potatoes, cut into large, even chunks and simmer in aggressively salted water until just done — they will be just starting to disintegrate at the edges and a pairing knife inserted into the centre will meet with little resistance. Keep a close eye on them, as over-boiled potatoes will absorb too much water, leaving less room for milk and butter.

Drying Time

Once the potatoes have drained in a colander, return them to the pot they were cooked in, off the burner, and allow the residual heat of the pot to remove some of the excess moisture. Again, the less water in the potatoes, the more milk and butter they can take in.

Mash Up

I prefer smooth mashed potatoes, and to achieve this you need one of two tools. A food mill purees and strains the potatoes by forcing them through small holes. A ricer, which looks like giant garlic press, essentially does the same thing. I prefer a food mill, as you can set it over a pot or bowl. If you don’t mind a few lumps, a potato masher does the trick.

Start Fluffing 

While the potatoes are cooking, heat the milk (homogenized) and butter (unsalted) in a saucepan. My basic ratio is 2 lb. of unpeeled potatoes to ¾ cup milk and ¼ cup butter. It is essential that the potatoes and liquid are both hot when they meet, so they emulsify properly and yield fluffy mash. If either one is cold the end result will be unappetizingly gluey. (The first and only time I did this, the chef dumped them into garbage without comment.) Add the hot milk and butter in stages, and mix it in with a heatproof silicone spatula. This will produce fluffy mash without splattering up the counter.

Season

I only season mashed potatoes with salt, either fine sea or kosher. Never pepper, especially, God forbid, white pepper. Some old school European chefs use white pepper in mash, but I find it’s bizarre flavour so dominant that even a pinch will yield white pepper flavoured mashed potatoes. Not on my watch.

Reheat

The beauty of mashed potatoes is that they can be made a few hours before dinner, left to cool at room temperature, then slowly reheated over a low flame until hot and fluffy.

Photo Credit:
1. Eric Vellend