Thomas column: The perfect mashed potatoes
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Potatoes are America’s favorite vegetable with hundreds of varieties grown and just as many ways to prepare them. While the French fry is spud king for restaurant and Fast Food patrons, the mashed potato reigns supreme in the domestic kitchen.
From time to time, however, even the best home cooks have probably ended up with gummy potatoes better be suited for wallpaper paste. To make perfect, fluffy potatoes every time, a little science will help the home cook prepare great mashed potatoes if he or she follows five easy steps.
But first, it’s important to remember that aside from their water content, potatoes are composed mostly of starch granules that are normally trapped inside the potato cells. During cooking, the granules will swell. But if overcooked or crushed (e.g., during mashing) the cells can rupture and release starch. This is not good news because the liberated starch can become gummy, transforming the potatoes into an uninviting, pasty mess rather than the highly prized light and fluffy dish.
So, the first step in preparation involves selecting the right potato. While common potato varieties such as Russet and Yukon gold will both yield a respectable final mashed product, the starch content can affect the final texture. High starch Russets can be light, fluffy, and slightly mealy, while lower starch Yukons tend to be smoother and creamier.
Next, peel and chop potatoes to approximately the same size to ensure they cook evenly. The pieces should be placed in a bowl of ice-cold water for several minutes to remove some of the starch on the cut surfaces.
To cook, drop into boiling water making sure all the potatoes are covered with water and cook at a gentle simmer until they test just tender with a fork. Do not overcook.
During the mashing step, remember to treat your potatoes gently. Mash them by hand using a potato masher with just a few gentle but firm vertical strokes. Using a food processor or rapid electric beaters for anything more than a few seconds is grounds for calling the Kitchen Cops since the rapidly rotating metal blades may rupture the starch cells. The hand masher minimizes cell destruction so is the best tool for this delicate job.
Finally, after mashing, many cooks like to add flavorings such as salt, pepper, parsley, butter, milk, cream, sour cream or chicken stock. Liquid additives should be warmed slightly before adding to the potatoes. For instance, butter should be just melted because it coats the individual starch granules and creates an overall smoother mashed potato.
Potatoes may not be the most nutritious vegetable, but they are certainly one of the most delicious especially when prepared correctly with a little help from science.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 800 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.