What’s the best way to make mashed potatoes?
Mashed potatoes topped with butter in a white bowl on a white background
While potatoes are delicious in virtually any shape and at any time of the year (or really any time of the day), the winter holidays are once again focused on making mashed potatoes. But how do you prepare the "best" mashed potatoes? And what does that mean anyway?
Whether or not something is really the best is obviously relative and relies quite heavily on personal preference and culture. But how you handle your potatoes and choose the right variety will make a world of difference when it comes to making the mashed potatoes of your dreams.
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According to Harold McGee's seminal food science reference work, On Food And Cooking, potatoes fall into two categories: "floury" and "waxy". Floury potatoes include the ubiquitous reddish brown, which is often referred to and sold as "baked potatoes" and contains a higher proportion of dry starch. When you cook them, their cells swell and then separate, resulting in a "fine, dry, fluffy texture" that is good for frying, baking, or mashing. Conversely, waxy potatoes - like red and gold varieties - have cells that stick together, and when cooked they have a texture that McGee describes as "firm, dense, moist". He writes that this is a great choice for gratins, potato cakes, and salads.
To make mashed potatoes with specific consistencies, you need to consider the starch content, how finely you mash the potatoes, to what extent you "smear and enrich" your mashed potatoes with fat and liquid, and how gently (or roughly) you treat your potatoes after they have been mashed.
For light, fluffy mashed potatoes, use floury varieties and shred them to what McGee calls "fine particle size". I like to use a food grinder for this as this way the consistency is more even, but a potato press works well too. Carefully ingest any fat or liquid, being careful not to beat the potatoes too hard. This damages the cell walls and releases more starch, making the mashed potatoes sticky. If you really want to make sure they're light, you can also rinse off any excess starch before cooking the potatoes. just peel them, dice them while they're raw, and rinse them in water before boiling them. This trick works for other types of potato recipes that you want less starch, like Fuchsia Dunlop's stunning fried potato slivers with chilli and Sichuan pepper.
For thicker, creamy mashed potatoes, use waxy varieties and puree them very finely. This releases more starch (which is what you want), but also makes it harder to incorporate fats and liquids. However, if you work them hard and long enough, you can get mashed potatoes with the "ease of whipped cream". If you want something denser, don't worry so much about whipping it so thoroughly.
These two specific preparation methods are hardly your only options. They just provide a few basic examples of using different potato varieties and their starch to get specific results. If you want mashed potatoes that is lumpier, thicker, or a mix of floury and waxy potatoes (which I highly recommend) then go for it. Of course, if you have a family recipe that you love, or a recipe from a particular country or culture that doesn't follow these instructions, then there's nothing wrong with that. If you've ever wondered how to make your potatoes lighter, airier, thicker, or denser, this is a great way to maximize your cooking process for the best results.
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