Our second chapter in the series that follows my last coaching session. Mashed (or whipped) potatoes are filled with emotion. It seems like every family gathering has someone who is ‘responsible’ for the potatoes. And that person, having assumed the ‘responsibility’, becomes very serious about the business of potatoes. Zealous even. The method, recipe, specific ingredients, equipment?, and timing become a rigid and sacred heirloom, greeted at the table with raised eyebrows and verbal cues of admiration.
So I get it. People really like mashed potatoes; really, really. And they have a proud place alongside our other sacred foods (pies, roasts, gravy, cookies). And I love this. I love that people can get worked into a froth over a vegetable dish. That’s the power of food in action.
All I intend to lay out in this article are the bare-bones of this dish. When you cook at home, employ as many variations and tweaks as you see fit. Here’s the basic out line for the potatoes my client and I made.
Whipped Potatoes –
- Wash the potatoes well (we used one large Russet)
- Cut into uniform pieces
- Put in a pot with just enough room to hold the potatoes covered by less than an inch with cold, salted water.
- Bring the pot to a simmer
- Bay / Thyme / Garlic / Peppercorns are all welcome
- Cook until a paring knife easily enters the flesh
- Drain, saving only the potatoes
- Return the potatoes to the pot and cook them over a medium high heat for a couple of minutes
- Add the dairy (milk, butter, cream, sour cream, you name it) by whisking it into the potatoes (we used about 2 oz. of butter and a cup of milk)
- Add the seasoning (salt, pepper, cayenne, wasabi, olives, chopped basil, etc.) by whisking it in
- Correct the seasoning to your taste and keep warm or serve right away
And now the fun begins, endless variations, and some technical thoughts.
First, if you don’t want or like the skins, peel and proceed.
Some people simmer the potatoes whole, some like smaller pieces. No big whoop. The only point to remember is that if the pieces are smaller, the cooking time will be shorter, and therefore the cooking water should have more salt in it.
Choose a pot that will hold the potatoes and water (or stock), but it doesn’t need to have much more volume than that. If you are cooking four potatoes in three gallons of liquid, here are the things you are doing: wasting time, energy, and potato flavor. It will take a lot longer for the water to come to a boil, and the essence of the potato will be diluted instead of kept close. Just a thought.
Always taste the water before you start cooking. If it’s over-seasoned, there’s no coming back or saving thirty minutes worth of cooked potatoes.
I like to add bay, fresh thyme, and garlic to my cooking potatoes, if I have them around.
Cook until you can put your paring knife into the potato without resistance. Get those guys out of the water, and put them back into the same pot (minus any not-potato bits). At this point you could put a lid on them while you are heating up your dairy, or just continue full speed ahead. If you are making gobs and gobs of potatoes, I recommend heating the dairy up first to avoid a gummy mess. If you are only cooking three or four potatoes, dive in.
Cook the potatoes in the dry pot, and you’ll get rid of some unneeded moisture, making room for the absorption of more dairy goodness.
For making mashed potatoes, go ahead and use your potato masher. They will have lumps, and the lump lovers will rejoice. If you prefer a smoother, lighter consistency, invest in a sturdy wire whisk. Whisking produces a more homogeneous, emulsified end result, and I dig it.
The final step could be the addition of flavor enhancing garnishes. For instance, my client and I made Wasabi Whipped Potatoes. As a final touch we made a slurry (a mixture of powder and liquid, resembling heavy cream) of wasabi powder (a quarter cup total) and whisked that into the potatoes. It added a pleasant lingering peppery note.
Don’t forget to season. Potatoes love salt and pepper, and they can be really one dimensional in their absence.
As Harold McGee points out in On Food and Cooking:
Waxy potatoes require more mashing to obtain a smooth texture, exude more gelated starch, and don’t absorb enrichment as easily. The classic French pommes purees, pureed potatoes, are made from waxy potatoes, pieces of which are pushed through a fine sieve or food mill and then worked hard – to the point of having what an eminent French cookbook writer, Mme Ste-Ange, called a “dead arm” – first alone and then with butter, to incorporate air and obtain the lightness of whipped cream. American recipes take a more gentle approach, sieving mealy varieties and carefully stirring in liquid and fat to avoid excessive cell damage, starch release, and glueyness.
I try to avoid ‘dead arm’ at every step, so I’m on board with using mealy potatoes (the Russet, Long White, and Yukon families). I hope that there are some take home point in here. A well-made bowl of potatoes is a delicious gift. Cherish the next one you enjoy.
Never Stop Thinking / Learning –