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How-To

Mashing Potatoes to Perfection

Fine Cooking Issue 56
Photo: Scott Phillips
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For classic, fluffy mashed potatoes, there’s just one potato for the job—russets. But that doesn’t mean classic is the only mash or that russets are your only option. You can mash with yellow potatoes, or red-skinned potatoes, or just about any potato. But to do so with success—and not end up with a gluey, gloppy mess—it’s helpful to have the right tool for the potatoes at hand and to know a few important techniques. Regardless of the type of potato or the type of mash you’re after, the first few steps are always the same.

For quick, even cooking, cut potatoes into pieces and simmer—don’t boil

Begin by peeling the potatoes (unless you’re making the smashed red-skinned ones) and cutting them into large chunks. True, a potato boiled in its jacket will absorb less water  during cooking, but then you have to play hot potato, peeling it while it’s steaming. The key is to mash the potatoes while they’re as hot as possible. Besides, there’s a trick for drying them that we’ll get to later.

Start the potatoes in a generous amount of cold water, and be sure to add salt at the outset or they’ll never be quite as tasty as they should. When the water boils, lower the heat to a steady simmer, covering the pot partially to maintain an even temperature. Don’t let the water boil vigorously or the potatoes will bang around, break up, and get waterlogged.

The best way to know when a potato is done is to stick it with a thin metal skewer. (A fork will poke the potato full of holes and invite water in.) A potato is tender enough to mash when the skewer slides into the center with no resistance and slides out just as easily. You don’t want the potatoes falling apart, but if they’re too firm in the center, you’ll have hard bits in the mash.

Waterlogged potatoes make a dense, soggy mash, so here’s the trick for drying them out: After you drain them, put them back in the empty pot and set it over medium heat; shake the pot and stir the potatoes with a wooden spoon so they don’t stick. They’ll break up a bit and become noticeably drier, brighter, and more starchy looking. Medium- and high-starch potatoes will leave a floury film in the pot when they’re dry enough.  

For really great classic mashed potatoes, we reach for the ricer. It’s a bit more trouble than a hand masher, but it makes the lightest, smoothest mashed potatoes ever.

You can get good results with a hand masher as long as you’re methodical. Start mashing by pressing down firmly and steadily at the 12 o’clock position in the pot and then move just slightly clockwise to 1 o’clock, 2-o’clock, and so on, until you’ve worked your way around the pot. If there are unmashed potatoes in the center, give them a mash, too. Repeat the circle, pressing with a bit more energy and giving the masher a little twist as you press. As the potatoes start to come together, work the masher even more quickly, almost like a whisk, and whip the potatoes into a smooth mass. Be sure to get to all corners of the pot, and keep going until the potatoes are as smooth as you want.

Low-starch, waxy salad or boiling potatoes are best coarsely “smashed.” A big metal spoon is the best tool to get this job done.

Starch content matters

High-starch potatoes make the fluffiest, lightest mashed potatoes and happily absorb all the cream and butter you care to add.

Medium-starch potatoes make a mash that’s a bit denser than high starch potatoes but is still smooth and light. Our favorites, Yukon Golds, often need less butter and other enrichments since they’re intrinsically creamy.

Low-starch potatoes will turn gummy if you try to make a classic mash.

High starch potatoes: russets, Idahos, or baking potatoes.
A ricer is the ultimate tool for entirely lump-free, light, and fluffy mashed potatoes.
Medium-starch potatoes: Maine, white all-purpose, Yellow Finns, and Yukon Golds.
That old stand-by, a hand masher, is best for mashing medium-starch potatoes.
Low-starch potatoes: reds, creamers, and waxy salad or boiling potatoes.
A big metal spoon is the best tool for making smashed potatoes where you want to retain texture and lumps.

Use a wooden spoon to beat in enrichments

If you want perfectly smooth mashed potatoes, then get them completely mashed before you start adding enrichments like butter, cheese, or milk. (Lumps somehow manage to elude the masher once you add liquid and fat to the potatoes.) We like to beat in enrichments with a sturdy wooden spoon. This last step really fluffs the mash and ensures that the ingredients are evenly distributed.

When it’s time to add ingredients, be sure they’re warm or at room temperature so they don’t cool the potatoes and make them stiff. Butter should be soft but not oily. Cheeses and olive oil should be at room temperature. And the liquid—milk, cream, or potato water—has to be hot (a microwave is handy).

Butter or olive oil goes in first. Then add the liquid in small additions, no more than 1/4-cup at a time. This lets you best judge how much you need—potatoes vary in how thirsty they are. And remember to beat the potatoes as you go so they come out extra fluffy.

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