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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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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's a Ricer? (And Why Do I Need One?)

Indispensable For Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Holiday time is mashed potato time. And when it comes to mashed potatoes, every day is a holiday. But so often, homemade mashed potatoes are nothing to celebrate. Lumpy, gluey, heavy mashed
potatoes turn up all too often on family tables and it's usually because of either faulty technique or improper equipment. Or both. I'm not going to delve too deeply into recipes or technique here. That's a discussion for another time and place. But I will address the topic of proper equipment.

“Okay,” you ask, “so what do I need for equipment? I have a potato masher. What else is there?” Actually, if you want perfect, light, fluffy mashed potatoes, a traditional potato masher like the kind your mother, grandmother, and probably your great-grandmother employed to mangle spuds into submission is the last thing you need. And before you ask, that electric hand mixer that makes lovely glue but lousy mashed potatoes is the second-to-last thing you need. No, if you want to make 'em right, you really need a ricer.

What's a ricer? It's the thing over there on the right. “That looks like a big garlic press,” you say. You're right. It does. And the operating principal is similar. You take the food to be “riced” and put it in the hopper or bin portion. There's a plate attached to the upper handle mechanism and when you
squeeze the handles together, the food is forced through the perforated grate in the bottom of the hopper. The resulting particles are about the size and shape of a grain of rice, hence the name.

“And why, Professore Perfetto, do I need one of these things to make 'perfect' mashed potatoes?” Well, in order for your potatoes to come out light and fluffy in the end, they have to start out that way in the beginning. When you “rice” your potatoes, they come out light and fluffy because the ricer a) helps force out excess moisture, b) produces a consistent texture, and c) aerates the potato particles.

See, potatoes are made up of cells that contain natural starch grains (leucoplasts). These are refined starches with low gelatinization temperatures and high swelling abilities. When you crush the cells, the starch is released. The resulting substance is very sticky. So sticky, in fact, that it is often used in the manufacturing of wallpaper paste. And the variety of potato most popular for mashing is the Russet, a spud already noted for its very high starch content. Now, you take a potato that's high in starch and mash it to a starchy pulp and what do you get? Wallpaper paste. With butter or gravy.

When you run a boiled potato through a ricer, you're breaking the potato down into smaller pieces, but you're not mashing the cells within those pieces into glue. If you add your butter and milk to the riced potatoes and stir them gently together, you'll get lighter, fluffier mashed potatoes. If, on the other hand, you take chunks of boiled potato and mush them up with a blunt instrument or subject them to beaters whirling at 1,200 RPM, you're destroying the cells that contain the starches and allowing those starches to be released in their stickiest, most gluey form. Oh, you still get mashed potatoes out of the deal, but with a texture more suited to spackling drywall than to serving as a side dish. It's a matter of personal preference, I suppose. Some people like their potatoes whipped to within an inch of their lives. They use words like “smooth” and “creamy.” I use words like “overworked” and “gooey.”

Ricers come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are sold at a variety of price points. They all work on the same principle, but some have holes in the bottom, some have holes in the bottom and up the sides, and some have interchangeable disks that allow you to choose the size of the holes. Some have ridiculously small hoppers that will have you ricing the dinner potatoes at breakfast so you can get a good start on them and some have hoppers that would rice a five-pound bag of potatoes in one squeeze – if you had the hand strength to operate it. I've seen them priced as low as six or seven dollars and I've seen them sell for as much as forty or fifty. Some are really basic and will do one job – ricing potatoes – well. Others have features that allow them to be very versatile and take on everything from applesauce to egg salad.

A food mill will perform the same functions as a ricer. Food mills usually have interchangeable disks and larger capacities so you can process more food more quickly. I have one and I use it if I'm feeding a small army. But if I'm just making mashed potatoes for two or four or six people, my ricer is handier and has fewer moving parts. And it's easier to clean.

Now, if you're one of those folks who makes “mashed potatoes” by pouring water into a bowl of dehydrated potato flakes, you obviously don't need a ricer. But if you want to quickly and efficiently turn out consistently good mashed potatoes from scratch each and every time, you really should invest in a ricer.

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