Mashed potatoes have been one of my favorite foods since childhood. As a kid, I loved their flavor, their texture, and, perhaps most important for an eight-year-old, I loved the way I could mold them into mountains before I ate them. I still love mashed potatoes. And though I no longer play with them once they’re on my plate (that torch has been passed to my son), I do like to play with the way I make my mashed potatoes—silky-smooth and buttery for an elegant meal one night, or smashed with a hand masher and mixed with buttermilk for a more homey feel another.
The basic method for making mashed potatoes is simple: boil some potatoes, mash them, and then add some fat and liquid for flavor and texture. But because there are so many ways to tinker with the basic method—from the kind of potato you use, to the liquid and fat you add, to how you mash them—you can have fun trying all kinds of delicious variations.
Russets mash smoothest, but Yukon Golds are more forgiving
The best mashed potatoes are made from potatoes with a high starch content. If it’s a silky-smooth purée you’re after, choose the high-starch russets, also called Idahoes or Burbanks. Then treat the potatoes carefully. Roger Vergé, the renowned French chef who’s a master of mashed potatoes, abides by these strict rules when mashing starchy potatoes: peel them just before cooking (or they’ll harden); cook them until just tender (don’t let them fall apart); drain them without waiting (or they’ll become gluey); and serve them immediately (they don’t take well to sitting around or reheating).
I follow all of Vergé’s rules when I want a refined feel to my mashed potatoes, as in my Smooth & Silky Potato Purée. But I also enjoy more homey styles, like coarsely mashed potatoes flavored with olive oil and herbs, that are delicious and definitely less finicky to prepare. For these recipes, I usually use the more forgiving and flavorful Yukon Gold potatoes. Because they contain slightly less starch than russets, they’ll be less silky, but they’ll hold better and can be successfully reheated when we’re ready to eat. (And with a toddler in the house, dinner preparation can take unpredictable turns.) Yukon Golds also have a lovely golden color and a slightly nutty flavor.
Cook the potatoes in plenty of salted water until tender. Like most cooks, I usually start the potatoes in cold water. But I sometimes speed the process along by putting the water on the stove as I peel the potatoes, and it doesn’t seem to affect the results. “Cold is not the vitally strategic word,” says food scientist Shirley Corriher. “Starting the potatoes in moderately warm water won’t affect the outcome.” Just don’t start with hot water, or the outsides of the potatoes will cook before the insides are tender.
As for salt, add it right at the start. The potatoes need to cook in salted water to accentuate their flavor. And though it’s true that unsalted water will boil more quickly, if you’re afraid you’ll forget to add salt later, add it at the beginning.
The potatoes are done when a knife or skewer can penetrate to the center. If the pieces of potato offer a little resistance at the core, keep cooking. Though you don’t want to overcook them (they’ll fill with water and become soggy), it’s better to err on the side of too soft—underdone, gritty mashed potatoes are even less appealing. When I’ve mistakenly overcooked my potatoes, I don’t add any liquid as I’m mashing until I’m sure the potatoes need it. You can also dry out slightly overcooked, soggy potatoes by draining them, returning them to the pot, and cooking them over low heat to evaporate some of the liquid. Stir them gently and proceed with your recipe once they feel drier.
How to mash? I use a food mill, a sort of mechanical sieve, when I want perfectly smooth mashed potatoes. A ricer works well, too, but I find the food mill easier to handle. A manual masher won’t get the potatoes as smooth, but it’s great when you want a more homey feel. If you’re careful, you can whip the potatoes with a hand mixer, but don’t use a food processor or the potatoes will break down and be better suited for hanging wallpaper.
Different fats and liquids give differet results—all of them delicious
Mashed potatoes are great carriers of flavor and they can support a wide range of savory additions. For the liquid, you can use some of the cooking water, milk, cream, or buttermilk, which gives the potatoes a fresh tanginess. For the fat, try butter, olive oil, or duck fat (if you’re lucky enough to have some in the fridge). Each fat imparts its own distinct flavor while also releasing and carrying the flavors of the potatoes and any other ingredients. Because fats also coat and moisten foods, the more fat you add to mashed potatoes, the silkier they become.
Almost any root vegetable can be mashed along with the potatoes with great results. Some of my favorite additions are celery root, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips. I generally use equal weights of potatoes and other root vegetables.
I also love the perfume and flavor imparted to mashed potatoes by garlic and fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, and chives. Other wonderful additions to mashed potatoes include chopped olives, roasted garlic, and—if you’re feeling luxurious—truffles.
A final thought: when seasoning your mashed potatoes, don’t skimp on the salt. I don’t know where it goes, but it seems to disappear even if the potatoes have to sit for just a minute.