The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Perfecting Mashed Potatoes

In the pantheon of American comfort foods, few things rank higher than a bowlful of creamy, fluffy, flavorful mashed potatoes. Just like the ones Mamma used to make!

Unfortunately, if you're under, say, forty years of age, Mamma was probably a product of the “convenience generation” spawned in the '50s and the only mashed potatoes you ever got came out of a box. Or worse yet; if you had a “Microwave Mamma,” your little taste of heaven was either frozen or prepackaged in a plasticized pouch.

Comparing these culinary aberrations to the real thing is akin to likening a velvet Elvis to the Mona Lisa. Any of the former can fill a spot on your plate and either of the latter can cover a spot on your wall. But, in the same manner that only DaVinci's masterpiece can truly be considered as art, only a bowlful of freshly prepared mashed potatoes – made with real potatoes – can be considered as artistry.

Just so you understand, I'm not taking a “food snob” stand here. I grew up on French's Instant Mashed Potatoes and I've choked down the potato-flavored sludge that accompanies most frozen dinners. I've even ventured into the world of reheating plastic potatoes in reheatable plastic pouches. But, like the song says, “Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby. Ain't nothin' like the real thing.”

First of all, you have to define what constitutes “mashed potatoes.” In simple terms, mashed potatoes are made by mashing freshly boiled potatoes with a manual or mechanical implement such as a fork, ricer, food mill, or masher. In high-flown restaurants with outrageously overpriced food, they'll be listed on the menu as “potato puree.” In some Southern homes, they are called “creamed potatoes,” although that's a completely different dish to my Midwestern upbringing. Some people use “mashed” interchangeably with “smashed,” even though neither the process nor the result is the same.

But when the gods sit down to dinner, here's what they expect; a creamy, buttery, flavorful mound of potatoes, reduced to a delicate, fluffy texture that is light yet substantial. The potatoes should never be dense and soupy, nor should they ever be thick and lumpy.

“Lumps in mashed potatoes are okay,” I've heard it said. “Makes 'em more rustic.” I'm sorry, but more often than not, use of the word “rustic” is merely a cover for “poorly prepared.” People who make “rustic” or “homestyle” – that's another good euphemism – mashed potatoes, do so because they lack either the proper tools or the proper technique to make them correctly.

Let's start with the potatoes, all of which are not created equal. The key to any successful potato preparation is starch and moisture content. Low starch potatoes, such as new potatoes, red rounds, white rounds, or fingerlings are great for boiling, steaming or roasting. They're also good for pan frying. But they're dreadful for baking or mashing. Medium starch potatoes, like long whites and Yukon golds are often referred to as “all-purpose” potatoes and they are just that.

What you really want is the russet potato, also known as the Idaho potato, the chef's potato, the baking potato, or the starchy potato. High in starch and low in moisture, russets come in several varieties like Burbank russet and Norkotahs, and are the perfect potato for producing light, fluffy mashed potatoes.

When it comes down to it, most medium to high-starch white potatoes, like the white rose and the cascade, are good for mashing.

The Yukon gold potato, a Canadian hybrid of a North American white and a South American yellow, is also a good masher, but I'm not enamored of its yellowish hue or of its allegedly “buttery” flavor in my mashed potato dish. I'll let real butter do the flavoring, thank you.

Which brings us to the next ingredient; butter. Not margarine, not “buttery-flavored spread,” or any other concoction of wholly or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Butter. Period. And lots of it. One chef I know of proclaims the key to exceptional mashed potatoes to be “egregious amounts” of butter. And he's right.

The third and final ingredient in perfect mashed potatoes is milk. Real milk. Whole milk. Not skimmed, not reduced fat, two-percent, one-percent, half-percent or any other watered down variation. Milk. The way it comes from the cow. The only exception or addition here would be cream. If it's available, mixing cream with milk yields a richer, creamier taste to the finished product. If not, just plain milk is fine.

You'll also need salt and pepper.

Now, some people use chicken broth as a substitute for butter and/or cream. Okay, chicken broth can add an interesting flavor element. So can a little roasted garlic. But now we're getting away from basic mashed potatoes, in which nothing substitutes for butter and/or cream.

Next, we need to consider hardware. Craft projects, building projects, and cooking projects have one thing in common: they can all be ruined by either using improper tools, or by using the proper tools improperly. Forget the mixers and the blenders and the processors. To make perfect mashed potatoes, you need only two implements: a ricer or food mill and a good, old-fashioned masher.

Here we go. I'm going for four servings. For your mis en place, you will need four to six russet potatoes, at least four to six tablespoons of room temperature butter, a half-cup of milk (or 1/4 cup milk and 1/4 cup cream), slightly warmed, and salt and pepper to taste.

Peel the potatoes, then quarter or cube them. Just make sure the pieces are roughly equal in size to ensure equal cooking. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the cooking time.

Add the potatoes to cold, salted water in an appropriately sized pot or pan. You don't need to salt as aggressively as you would for pasta, but you still want to impart a little flavor. A couple of teaspoons will do. How much water? Just enough to cover the potatoes. Why cold water? Starting from cold water allows for more even heat distribution and penetration, resulting in more even cooking. It's just better that way.

Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until just tender. When a fork or knife pierces the potatoes easily, they're done. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, cooking the potatoes for too long will make them mushy. “So what,” you say? You're just going to mash them up anyway? Believe me, there is a world of textural difference between “mushy” and “mashy.” It has to do with cell structure and moisture content and the release of amylose and … just trust me on this one.

Drain immediately, don't rinse, and put the potatoes back in the pan. Set the pan back on the stove for a minute. If you're cooking with gas, turn the burner to a very low flame. This will help remove excess moisture from the potatoes, resulting in a drier, fluffier texture. If you have one of those wretched electric stovetops, the residual heat from the burner will accomplish the same thing. Don't leave them unattended and don't leave them for too long. They'll stick and burn pretty quickly.

Warm a mixing or serving bowl and put about half of your butter into it. Then run your potatoes through the ricer or food mill into the bowl. Why?

Ricers and food mills both work through a process of relatively gentle extrusion. Ricers look like garlic presses on steroids, while food mills are funny-looking bowls with rotary hand cranks attached. They both work the same way, forcing the foods – in this case, potatoes – through little holes in the bottom and/or sides. This makes for very dry, airy, fluffy little potato buds that look like grains of rice. Hence the name. More vigorous mechanical devices, such as food processors, produce more kinetic energy, which, like excessive heat, break open the starch cells and release amylose. Amylose attracts water and gluey, sticky, and generally unpalatable substances result.

Working quickly, process all the potatoes through the ricer or mill and add in the rest of the butter, as well as the salt and pepper. Now, bring your masher to the party – I don't really have to explain a masher, do I? – and begin … mashing.

Be gentle about it. The potatoes are already broken up as far as they can possibly be, so you are actually mixing and blending more than mashing. (Remember amylose?) Add the warmed milk or milk and cream mixture a little at a time as you mash. If you dump it in all at once, you may wind up with potato soup, so just add it slowly until the potatoes reach the consistency you like. Remember, it's easier to loosen up tight mashed potatoes than it is to tighten up loose mashed potatoes. (My guilty little secret for when this happens? Instant potato flakes. Sshhhh! Throw in just enough to correct your boo-boo.)

You have now created a bowl of perfect, light, fluffy, creamy, buttery, deliciously flavorful, exquisitely textured, divinely-inspired mashed potatoes. I almost always stop and serve right here.

But, if you feel the need to gild the lily, if you must seek to improve upon absolute perfection – try an electric mixer. The mixer whips air into the potatoes giving them more volume. We're kind of tiptoeing into whipped potatoes here, but it works if you're trying to stretch the dish – to get more out of less. Old restaurant trick. But don't overmix! Amylose. Too much and you'll go from mashed potatoes to wallpaper paste in a heartbeat.

Whatever you do, serve 'em up piping hot! Cold mashed potatoes have the same texture and flavor appeal as the aforementioned wallpaper paste.

O-o-o-o-h-h-h, but that's SO much work! Instant, frozen, or ready-to-eat are SO much easier!” I feel your pain. It takes about twenty minutes to make mashed potatoes my way. And most of that time is spent watching the water boil. Such inhuman kitchen drudgery should be illegal. Come to think of it, so should serving your family and friends a bowlful of dehydrated potato flakes with sodium bisulfite, BHA, citric acid, monoglycerides, partially-hydrogenated cottonseed oil, natural flavor, sodium acid pyrophosphate and butteroil, mixed with milk, margarine (or butter), water, and salt. But, if chemistry is your thing, go for it.

Or maybe since “green” is the word of the day, you can look at it from an ecological standpoint. With a potato, you can either eat the outer packaging or use it as compost in your garden. Can you say that about cardboard boxes, plastic trays, or foil pouches? I think not.

Save a tree. Mash a potato.

Buon appetito!

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