November 15, 2020

A Tale of Two Mashes

Light and fluffy mashed potatoes or rich and creamy. What's your preference?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, it’s 2020, we’re probably leaning toward the latter, am I right?!?! 😒

Mashed potatoes are beloved. 🥰 And simple. You just boil potatoes and then add lots of butter and cream. Done!

Umm not quite. Those pesky taters can be tricky. And contentious!

Some people like light and fluffy mashed potatoes. While others prefer rich and creamy. Neither approach is wrong—unless you prefer them light and fluffy! 😉

Either way, you can’t have a great mashed potato, if you don’t first nail the texture. So whether you’re in the light and fluffy camp or the rich and creamy one, I’m going to share some tips to get the exact texture you want.

Make sure you make it to the end to check out some quick tips to sneak in extra flavor to your mashed potatoes.

Do you want starch?

No, I haven’t started a dry cleaning service…bad joke #1.

To nail the texture you want, we have to get nerdy about starch. 🤓

Let’s start with light and fluffy potatoes.

Starch molecules are sticky. The more of them there are, the more dense and sticky the final product. So for light and fluffy potatoes, we want as little starch as possible.

To be honest this was where things got confusing for me. Everything I read said starch makes for a thicker, creamy mashed potato. But every recipe I found for light and fluffy potatoes recommended Russet potatoes, which are SUPER starchy. It hurt my brain.

But then I learned that how you treat your potatoes impacts their starch level. The rougher you are with your potatoes, the more amylose is released, which is a sticky type of starch molecule. That sticky substance can turn your potatoes into glue.

So back to Russets. While Russet potatoes are high in starch, they are also low in moisture, making them fall apart easily. This matters because the easier they break apart, the less work needs to go into mashing them up. And less mashing and bruising mean less amylose is released. And less released starch means light and cloud-like potatoes! So yes, use Russet potatoes! (Whew that just felt like my college logic class 😅)

Here are two other tricks to rid Russets of even more starch:

  1. Wash the potatoes before and after cooking. That helps rid you of extra starch! Just be careful rinsing them after cooking. It’s a…hot potato! (Sorry couldn’t resist. Bad joke #2 )
  2. Use a potato ricer. This handy contraption will break down your potatoes without causing too much damage to the starch granules. This makes it easier to ensure you don’t overwork them.
Quick side note: You can skin your potatoes before boiling them to get rid of even more starch. The starch will release into the water, which then goes down the drain. But there’s a downside. Starchy potatoes like Russets also absorb water easily. So I’d recommend boiling your potatoes with the skin on so you don’t water down their flavor.

Now onto the rich and creamy mashed potatoes.

The French call them Pomme Purée. So fancy, right? 👩‍🎨

First, we’ve got to start with a denser potato. Yukon Golds will probably be your trusty friend in this case. They’re a middle-of-the-road potato when it comes to starch level. And they have a beautiful, buttery flavor.

Unlike making light and fluffy potatoes, we want to hold on to some of that starch in our Yukon Golds. It will help create that rich, denser texture, which means…

Cook your potatoes with the skin on. This keeps that starch inside and the water out. Less water absorption during the boil makes sure we leave room for more butter later.

And here are two quick tips for cooking your potatoes (this goes for light and fluffy ones too).

  1. Start potatoes in cold water when boiling them.
  2. And don’t actually boil them. A simmer is better. Both of these steps make sure the potatoes hold together better and are more evenly cooked.

So once they're cooked, how do we mash them? My instinct for making ultra-smooth, creamy mashed potatoes meant breaking out my handy dandy immersion blender. I’d go to town on those boiled potatoes while adding butter and milk. But then something weird happened: the potatoes got gluey. Why? Too much starch. Remember, the more we rough up the potatoes, the more sticky amylose is released. These potatoes are like Goldilocks: they like it rough, but not too rough. 😳

So third lesson, don’t use a blender or food processor. A potato ricer works great here as well. Or if you want to be extra refined, use a tamis—which is pretty much just a fine mesh strainer. Once riced or push through the tamis, you'll want to whip your potatoes with a spatula. And whip it good! 🎤 Whipping also incorporates a touch of air into the potatoes. We wouldn't want them too dense after all. Gosh, these potatoes are so high maintenance. 🙄

And now you’re free to add all the butter and cream your little heart (or stomach) desires.

Sneak in More Flavor

As promised…

  1. Use clarified butter or ghee: I picked this up from Thomas Keller’s MasterClass. Clarified butter gives you a more intense butter flavor. And who doesn’t want that in their mashed potatoes! It’s just so much butter… 🥁
  2. Infuse your cream with extra flavor: This tip is from Gordon Ramsay. He adds garlic, herbs, and a touch of nutmeg to his cream and then simmers it. When you can taste the flavor in the cream, simply strain it and work it into your potatoes.
  3. Garlic puree: If you’re like my wife and love all the garlic in your mashed potatoes, hold on to the soft, cooked cloves from #3 and push them through a strainer to get a garlic puree to add in! Since it’s cooked in the cream, it will be sweet and rich. 🧄💥
  4. Finish with a flavored fat: Most herbs and spices are fat-soluble (meaning they release more of their flavor when in contact with a fat). So use a flavored butter or oil as a finishing touch to get an extra burst of flavor.
Where I learned most of this: America’s Test Kitchen’s The Science of Good Cooking, Gordon Ramsay’s and Thomas Keller’s MasterClasses, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, and Alex—the French Guy Cooking’s wonderful video.