Mashed potatoes rank high on the list of American comfort foods for everyday and special occasions. The term dates to 1896 in print, but the enjoyment of this simple dish undoubtedly goes back much further, perhaps even to the days of the ancient Incas. While it seems like a straightforward process, a number of factors and techniques affect the outcome.
Choose the Right Potato
First comes the potato.
Choosing the right variety for your desired result makes a big difference in your chance for success. Mashed potatoes styles range from smooth and creamy to deliberately chunky (called "smashed" potatoes by clever chefs), but you always want to avoid a gummy ending.
Reach for the russets when you want the fluffiest mashed potatoes. The high starch content gives them a light consistency and allows them to absorb butter and cream. Russets tend to have the lightest flavor too, so these ubiquitous potatoes make a good choice when you plan to flavor your dish, such as with roasted garlic. You may see russets labeled Idaho potatoes or bakers in your grocery store.
Yukon Golds fall into the middle of the potato spectrum. Moderately starchy and more flavorful than russets, Yukon Golds yield a creamy yellow mash. You can boil smaller Yukon Golds whole, which prevents the absorption of water, the bane of a fluffy mashed potato.
Waxy potatoes, such as red and white varieties, do have a lot of flavor but work best for potato salads or other dishes benefiting from larger chunks that hold their shape. The lower starch content and higher moisture in these potatoes make them resistant to mashing and less able to absorb butter and cream.
Red skin potatoes do work well for a more rustic skin-on mash with a chunky texture, however.
Handle the Potatoes Properly
With either russets or Yukon Golds, you can use a potato masher for a "smashed" result, or a ricer or food mill for a silkier effect. Just do not put potatoes into a food processor or blender or use a hand mixer to whip them and expect to achieve fluffy mashed potatoes. Those appliances handle the potatoes too rigorously and can turn them into a mound of paste.
Incorporating a couple of additional tips into your potato preparation can help prevent gluey mashed potatoes. After you drain the boiled potatoes, put them back into the hot pot and move them around gently to evaporate any lingering moisture. Or spread them on a cookie sheet and put them in a 250 F oven until they feel completely dry to the touch. Also, heat the butter and cream before you add them to the potatoes and add the butter first if you plan to use both.
Is it any wonder that whole cookbooks have been devoted to the versatile potato? Here are just a few: