Fixing spuds that aren't duds: how to get them just right

November 19, 2003|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

You say po-tat-o. I say a-troc-ity.

Nothing strikes a sour note during a holiday dinner quite like a bowl of bad mashed potatoes. You know the kind - gummy or lumpy or runny or dry and thick as library paste and flavored a bit like it, too.

When made correctly, mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food, warm, buttery, tasty and the perfect complement to Thanksgiving's roast turkey - a consensus pick for a holiday must-have. Creamy and rich, lump-free and soft (but still able to hold their shape), only a splash of gravy is needed.

The recipe couldn't be simpler: cooked potatoes combined with butter and milk or cream and seasoned with good old salt and pepper.

So how do we so often ruin a good thing?

"Sometimes, the simplest thing is the easiest to mess up," says Gary Welling, a veteran culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. "The most common mistakes we see are under-cooking, not adding enough dairy or getting the seasoning wrong."

But there are other ways to turn a spud into a lethal weapon, various culinary land mines that must be avoided. The trick is to know where the potential mistakes lie.

Step 1. Picking your potato

Like Calvin Coolidge's shirt collars, you need starch. The best mashed potatoes require a medium- to high-starch potato like the Idaho or russet potato. Yukon golds have become popular, too. They're not quite as high in starch but have a sweet, buttery flavor and a naturally yellow color.

Avoid the low-starch waxy potatoes like Red Bliss. They're fine to serve as boiled potatoes but won't fluff like the starchy varieties, which means your mashed potatoes will be sub-par before you even get started.

Step 2. Cook just right

Cut your potatoes to pieces 2 to 3 inches across. It doesn't need to be exact but if you leave them too large, it will take too long to cook the centers, too small and they'll get waterlogged. Skins can be left on, if you prefer, but that means you'll have to take them off after cooking (or else leave them on for "smashed potatoes" - but that's not very Thanksgivinglike, is it?)

Potatoes should be covered with water. The water should be salted to better flavor the spuds, and brought to a gentle boil until the potatoes are fork-tender.

You don't want the potatoes falling apart, but it's worse if they're underdone and you get little bits of hard, uncooked potato in your mash.

"You'd think that would be easy, but the fear of overcooking seems to be the stronger fear," says Welling.

After the potatoes have been cooked and drained, many chefs like to dry them out for a minute or two. The easiest way to do this is to return the spuds to the cooking pot and warm over medium-low heat.

Step 3. The mashing

A no-brainer, right? Well, not exactly. How potatoes are beaten makes a big difference in the texture of the finished product.

Edwin Ruiz, head chef at Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Baltimore, believes in using a mixer to get maximum creaminess. "We whip at a high speed to get a smooth consistency," says Ruiz. "That's what our customers want."

Others prefer a food mill or ricer to get the potatoes fluffy but not necessarily whipped. Still others like an old-fashioned mashing - with a fork or vintage masher - to get a rough, country-style effect with less air and more potato.

Step 4. Hot dairy

Most mashed potato recipes call for some kind of milk, cream or half-and-half to be stirred in next, depending on how rich (that is, how high in fat) you want them to be. No matter the choice, it's important that the liquid be hot.

Adding cold liquid is the fastest way to create the paste effect.

"Before the potatoes even come out of the water, you need the hot milk or cream ready," says Ruiz. "You can use the microwave to heat the milk if you want, but it has to be hot."

Cindy Wolf, chef-owner of Baltimore's Charleston restaurant, believes in cream, especially for holiday events like Thanksgiving.

"C'mon. You have to use heavy cream," says Wolf. "These people who use milk don't know what they're doing. Except, of course, for my Mom, who always uses milk."

Generally, you'll need about one-quarter cup of dairy for each half-pound of potatoes, but that varies (just like the moisture content of the potatoes), so it's best to add gradually until the mixture hits the right texture - not too dry, not too gloppy.

Don't overbeat the potatoes at this stage or they can get a bit gummy.

Step 5. Butter

How much butter to add is a matter of preference, but the pros like to stir in softened, room-temperature butter (as opposed to melted butter), a tablespoon at a time, as a final step.

In One Potato, Two Potato (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001, $35), authors Roy Finamore and Molly Stevens recommend one-half stick (4 tablespoons) for 1 3/4 pounds of russet potatoes to serve 4 to 6 people.

This is also the stage to adjust the salt seasoning and add some freshly ground white pepper.

Step 6. Serve immediately

Mashed potatoes are best served right away. Ideally, you want them hot, perhaps 150 degrees to 160 degrees. In a crunch, you can keep them tightly covered in a warm oven (200 degrees or less but not for long) or on top of a double boiler with plastic wrap on top.

Wolf suggests home cooks avoid making mashed potatoes too early when preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

"You need to make them as close to eating time as possible," says Wolf. "Really, it should be one of the last things you do."

Follow all six steps and there's no reason you can't eat perfect mashed potatoes for the holidays - unless, of course, you're on a low-starch diet.

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