Which mashed potato is best?

For best results when making mashed potatoes, always add hot liquids rather than cold to steaming potatoes, and be sure the potatoes are absolutely dry before adding the liquids.

Scripps Howard News Service
Published: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.


Which potato to use?

Russets remain the tried-and-true potato of choice, but in the past two decades the Yukon Gold has come up fast from behind, and indeed now it is favored by many cooks for its creamy, buttery flavor. Gourmet Magazine, in its 2004 Thanksgiving issue, decreed that Yukons were "hands down" the favorite for mashed-potato recipes that call for boiling first, while Yukons or russets were both fine for baking.

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There really should be a Uniform Standards Act for mashed potatoes.
There's no consensus even on which potatoes are best for mashing.
How can such a simple, beloved dish engender so many different recipes and so much disagreement?
The possibilities are endless: Do you use a ricer or food mill? Bake or boil the potatoes? Use russets or Yukon Golds? Add hot milk or butter first? Is microwaving OK?
Right off the bat, in testing out mashed potato recipes, two rules became apparent: Always add hot liquids rather than cold to the steaming potatoes, so that the starch cells don't shrink and stiffen; and, whether you bake or boil them, be sure that the potatoes are absolutely dry when adding those liquids, or else they won't absorb the hot milk or cream, and you'll have a gloppier result.
Before mashing, place the cooked, drained, peeled potatoes back into the pot under moderate heat and gently shake it around for one or two minutes until dry.
The consensus ends there. Microwaving the potatoes is a strict no-no, according to the editors at Martha Stewart Living, but Barbara Kafka, in her classic if controversial book "The Microwave Gourmet," claims it produces a "superior" mashed potato. I have found that the microwave cooks potatoes unevenly, so for a special occasion, I was prepared to go the baking-or-boiling route.
When mulling over what mashing method to use, I found more disagreement. Former Cook's Illustrated editor Pam Anderson strongly recommends a food mill, seconded by Gourmet's editors, who say it produces the best texture - at least if the potatoes are boiled first rather than baked. But Roy Finamore and Molly Stevens, in "One Potato, Two Potato," warn that a food mill can easily result in overbeaten, gluey potatoes and is a pain to clean.
I ducked that argument by opting for a ricer for all the recipes, since it produces silky, lump-free results. Not a teeny plastic ricer, either, but a large, heavy steel ricer that rests easily over a pot or a large bowl and that can be easily purchased at any decent kitchen-supply store.
Others may prefer to use a masher, which leaves lumps, or just push the cooked potatoes through a sieve using a round spoon. But whatever you do, do not use a food processor, which will transform the potatoes into glue in seconds. Potatoes contain starch cells that swell when cooked, but the sharp blades from a food processor (or overbeating by a kitchen mixer) literally shear the starch cells in two, allowing the starch to ooze out and give the potatoes a sticky, gummy texture. Yech.
Another point of contention: Which potato to use? Russets remain the tried-and-true tuber of choice, but in the past two decades the Yukon Gold has come up fast from behind, and indeed now it is favored by many cooks for its creamy, buttery flavor. Gourmet Magazine, in its 2004 Thanksgiving issue, decreed that Yukons were "hands down" the favorite for mashed-potato recipes that call for boiling first, while Yukons or russets were both fine for baking. Anderson, in her book, "The Perfect Recipe," likes Yukons but preferred boiling russets in their skins for best flavor.
Next question: To bake or to boil? Anderson dismisses baking, since she says it takes too long and you lose too much flesh by scooping it out. On the other hand, in the early 1990s, noted food writer Maggie Waldron said baking brings out the deepest, earthiest, most "potatoey" flavor. Waldron's technique didn't gain much traction until relatively recently, when Gourmet's editors announced that the baked version of mashed potatoes was "a revelation. The concentrated, earthy flavor made converts out of most of us."
Not so for the folks at Martha Stewart Living, who, back in 1998 rejected baking out of hand because it produces potatoes that "are unevenly cooked and have a strong, earthy, roasted flavor that can be unfamiliar rather than comforting."
Personally, I found baking the potatoes did produce a more flavorful mash. In fact, Waldron's recipe using russets produced a dish that was earthy yet ethereal and silky smooth, probably the best of the bunch. But Anderson is right - baking just takes too long, especially on Thanksgiving Day when you need to free up the oven. Martha Stewart was right too - my three, slightly differently shaped Yukon Golds - which, unlike russets, do not come uniformly sized - baked unevenly, which meant one was undercooked and didn't go through the ricer, even after an hour in the oven.
Anderson also got somewhat hung up on whether to add milk or butter first, claiming that butter before milk coated the starch grains, preventing the milk from being absorbed. I couldn't detect any difference either way. In the end, I opted for Gourmet Magazine's method, which splits the difference - combining melted butter and milk/cream together before adding them to the potatoes. Its recipe, published in 2004, was my favorite: In it, Yukon Golds are peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks, boiled for 10 to 15 minutes, spooned into a ricer over a bowl of hot milk or hot milk and cream, stirred with a whisk, with salt and pepper to taste, and voila!

Boiled Mashed Thanksgiving Day Potatoes

Special equipment: large metal ricer, although if making mashed potatoes for a crowd, use a kitchen mixer, but at low speed. Be careful not to overbeat.
Potatoes can be made one day ahead: Reheat, covered, in a heavy saucepan over low heat with 1/4 cup additional milk stirred in after potatoes are warm. Stir until heated through, or in a microwave, stirring halfway through heating, about 2 minutes total. May also be kept warm over a pan of hot water, covered with plastic wrap for up to 20 minutes.
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2/3 cup whole milk, or 1/2 cup whole milk plus 1/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter teaspoon freshly ground pepper Peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Put potatoes in 3-quart heavy saucepan and add 5 cups cold water and 1 teaspoon salt, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, 10 to 15 minutes.
Drain potatoes, return to pan and cook over moderate heat, shaking occasionally, 1 to 2 minutes, until dry. Transfer potatoes to a bowl, and keep hot, covered. Heat milk or milk and cream, butter, pepper and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan over moderate heat until butter is melted.
Force potatoes through a ricer into hot milk mixture in pan and gently stir with a whisk or spatula until combined.
Serves 4.

Baked Mashed Thanksgiving Day Potatoes

This recipe calls for double the amount of butter than the others; use 4 ounces of butter if you prefer.
2 pounds washed, scrubbed russet potatoes (6 medium)
1/4 cup heavy cream or crème fraîche 1/4 cup milk 8 tablespoons salted butter, cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake russets for 1 hour, until flesh is soft when pierced with a fork.
Heat cream and milk in saucepan over low heat, slash open baked potatoes and scoop flesh into a ricer into a warm bowl. You may also want to try to peel the skins off with your fingers after the potatoes have cooled a bit; this preserves more flesh. With a fork or a whisk, whip in the cream-and-milk mixture, butter and season with salt and pepper.
Serves 6.

Thanksgiving Day Potatoes Boiled in Skins

This recipe calls for a food mill; I used my ricer.
2 pounds washed, scrubbed russet potatoes (6 medium)
Salt and pepper, to taste 1 cup hot half-and-half or whole milk 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, softened Cover potatoes, skins still on, with cold water in large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, until potatoes are tender when pricked with a fork, between 20 to 30 minutes.
Remove potatoes from saucepan onto plate. Grasp the potatoes with a clean kitchen towel; skin should come off relatively easily, although there is a risk of burned fingers. Cut the potatoes in half, and spoon each half into ricer bowl, push through ricer into large saucepan and add salt to taste and gently beat in hot half-and-half or milk. Whisk in butter, add pepper to taste.
Serves 6.

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