Slowly heat the butter in one pan and the half-and half in another.
Is there nothing more comforting and delicious than mashed potatoes? This warm, creamy, dairy-laden starch might be more of an indulgence than everyday fare these days, but even if you only have them once a year (Thanksgiving!), I say go all out and do it right. Read on for a recipe for classic mashed potatoes, with recommendations for potato type, dairy additions, and mashing methods.
Mashed potatoes are one of those dishes that looks deceptively simple. Because of this simplicity, many people just throw them together in any old way using any old potato with very mixed, if not disastrous, results. Because mashed potatoes consist of nothing more than potatoes, butter, half-and-half (or cream), and salt, each ingredient is important.
And the mashing method is important, too. After a couple of dozens of years making mashed potatoes and a quick consult of the new (and amazing!) Cooks Illustrated's The Science of Good Cooking to understand some of the science behind the method, I offer to you my take on the perfect mashed potatoes.
Before we get to the method, though, let's look at each important component of the process.
Choosing the proper potatoes is critical. There are basically three types of potatoes: very starchy like Russets, very waxy like Red Bliss, and somewhere in the middle like Yukon Golds. First rule: Don't use the waxy, red potatoes for your mash. They just won't break down enough (read: lumps) nor do they absorb the dairy very well. Stick with Russets and Yukon Golds. Of the two, the Russet will give you the creamiest mash, but many people prefer the flavor and golden color of Yukon Golds. It's a trade-off and totally up to you. I used Yukon Golds when testing and photographing this recipe and loved the results.
It is important that your dairy is warmed up before adding it to your mash and, equally important, add the butter first. The amount of water in the half-and-half combines with the starch molecules which makes the potatoes gluey. When you add the butter first, it coats the starch and results in silkier potatoes. Then add the half-and-half.
I use unsalted Irish butter (Kerrygold) because I like its taste and texture. Butter will be one of your primary flavors in mashed potatoes, so use the best quality you can. I use unsalted in this recipe so I can control the salt. If you want to use salted, do not add the additional salt in step 2 and simply taste and add salt as needed in the final seasoning.
Additionally, I use half-and-half for the liquid as I think it's plenty rich enough. You can use cream if you want for over the top, decadently wonderful results.
Folks have been wielding the potato masher in the kitchen for generations, so if this is your preferred method, I say stick with it. I used a ricer for testing this recipe, and while I feel it results in superior potatoes (less lumps, more fluff) I actually prefer a food mill which, besides also producing less lumps and more fluff, separates the skins so no peeling is necessary. I also find it easier to use than the ricer, which is really a two person process: one to peel, another to rice.
Don't ever use a blender or food processor to whip your potatoes! You will end up with glue and then you (and your guests) will be sad.
Removing the Skins
I don't peel or slice my potatoes before cooking them. The reason for this is threefold: Unpeeled and unsliced potatoes will absorb less water while being boiled, preserving the starch within the potato. Less water avoids a gluey, watery mash and allows the potatoes to absorb the dairy. Plus the potato peels contribute to the overall potato flavor. And finally, taking the peels off after cooking is quicker and easier.
As mentioned above, if you are using a food mill, the skins are easily removed as a part of the milling process. You may have to clear them out of the mill now and again, but really it's the most efficient method in my book. If you don't have a food mill, you will have to peel the potatoes when they're hot. I found, however, that in the case with the Yukon Golds, the skins were already peeling off just from their dump into the colander. I picked up each potato, held it in a potholder-covered hand, and used a paring knife to coax off the rest of the skins.
The Quantities and Ratios
This recipe serves 8 to 10, but it can easily be halved or quartered. When working on this mashed potato lesson, I reduced the amount of dairy in my usual recipe by a small amount just to see if it made a difference. It did, slightly, but not enough for me to go back to the higher amounts. I think the combination of slightly less dairy with the Yukon Gold potatoes is stellar but I if you want to go all out, just add another 4 ounces of butter and an additional 1 cup of half and half.
How To Make the Best Mashed Potatoes
Serves 8 to 10
What You Need
5 pounds Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes, well-scrubbed
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter
2 cups half-and-half
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt, divided
Additional pat of butter (optional)
Food mill, ricer, or potato masher
Two smaller pans for heating butter and half-and-half
Spatula or wooden spoon
1. Boil the potatoes. Place your well-scrubbed potatoes in a large pot and add cold water to an inch above the potatoes. Stir in 1 tablespoon of salt. Cover and bring to a gentle boil. Test for doneness at 30 minutes. A sharp knife should easily go through the potato. Larger potatoes may take longer, up to 45 or 50 minutes total.
2. Heat the butter and half-and-half and add salt. Slowly heat the butter in one pan and the half-and half in another. I usually start this about 20 minutes after I start cooking the potatoes. Be sure to heat them over gentle heat so you don't have to worry about burning. I also add the 2 teaspoons of salt to the half-and-half so it dissolves and can be easily and evenly distributed.
3. Drain the potatoes. When the potatoes are done, drain them in a colander in your sink. At this point, turn off the heat on the butter and half-and-half.
4. Mash the potatoes. If using a potato masher or ricer, peel potatoes as instructed above. If using a food mill, don't peel the potatoes. In either case, the potatoes should be processed back into the pot they were boiled in. This will cut down on extra dishes and help the potatoes to stay warm as there is still some residual heat in the pot.
5. Add the dairy. Add the hot butter, gently stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula to incorporate. When all the butter is absorbed, add the hot half-and-half. It will seem soupy at first, but the potatoes will gradually absorb the liquid and turn into a creamy mixture.
5. Taste, garnish, and serve. Taste your potatoes and add up to another teaspoon of salt if needed. This is also a good time to add pepper if using. Spoon into your serving dish and top with optional garnishes such as a merry pat of butter or some chopped chives.
• You can make your potatoes in advance of serving. If it's just an hour or so, leave them in the pot you mashed them in and don't garnish yet. Place the pot on the back of the stove over gently simmering water to keep warm. If they've been refrigerated, the best way to reheat them is to place them in a low oven, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes. Reheated mashed potatoes are often drier and may need additional (warmed!) dairy to bring them back to their creaminess. This post from the Kitchn's archives has some great tips on reheating mashed potatoes.
• Some people get away with using a stand mixer or hand-held beaters. I personally find that this over-mixes them but if you're happy with the results, go right ahead. Just be very careful and don't let it rip or you will also end up with the unhappiness of gluey potatoes.
• Cream cheese, sour cream and yogurt are a popular additions to mashed potatoes. They all add a nice dairy tang and contribute to a creamy texture. Feel free to substitute some or all of the half-and-half with either of these ingredients if you like a little tanginess in your mashed potatoes.
(Images: Dana Velden)