Why It Works
- Russet potatoes are easy to mash into a smooth consistency without overworking.
- Removing the potato starch both before and after cooking ensures fluffy, not gluey, mashed potatoes.
- Milk and butter give the potatoes richness.
During Thanksgiving, that most divisive of holidays, mashed potatoes are perhaps the most divisive side dish of the lot.
I like mine to be rich, perfectly smooth, and creamy with plenty of butter and heavy cream, loaded with black pepper, maybe some chives if I want to feel extra fancy. Somewhere between a dish on its own and a sauce, it should have the consistency of a pudding, slowly working its way across a tilted plate. I like to pick up a piece of turkey and swirl it in my gravy-covered potatoes so that they coat it, their buttery richness working into the cracks in the meat. Sounds good, right? Who could possibly want it any other way?
My sister. That's who.
For Pico (yes, that's her real name*), mashed potatoes are fluffy and thick enough to stand up under their own weight, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind–style. These are the kind of mashed potatoes that can hold their own on the plate. The kind that you want to turn into a TV commercial with a pat of butter slowly melting on top. I'm not talking about the uber-lumpy skin-on kind that more whimsical chefs might refer to as "smashed potatoes" or even "smashers" on cute and clever family-restaurant menus. I'm talking smooth, but light and fluffy.
So how do you arrive at such two different results with the same starting ingredients? It's all got to do with starch.
The Science Behind Potato Starch
For our purposes, potatoes can be thought of as basically three different things. First, there are the cells, which are held together with pectin, a sort of natural plant glue, and the walls of the cells are where starch is concentrated.
Now starch molecules—a type of carbohydrate—come bundled up in tight granules. As potatoes cook, pectin breaks down, and individual cells expand and separate, releasing starch granules into the outside environment. These starch granules absorb water like little balloons, eventually popping and releasing sticky starch molecules. The concentration of this released starch that makes its way into the final mashed potatoes to a large degree determines their consistency.
To put it simply: for lighter, fluffier potatoes, the goal is to incorporate as little starch as possible in the final product.
So how does one go about recognizing starch molecules from quite a long ways away? There are a number of factors that determine this.
- Potato type plays a huge role. Mealy russet potatoes have cells that readily fall apart from each other, meaning you don't have to cook them or work them too hard to get them to a relatively smooth consistency. Less working means less burst starch granules, which means fluffier mashed potatoes. Waxier Yukon Gold or Red Bliss potatoes require longer cooking, and must be worked fairly hard to separate their cells, making for creamier mashed potatoes.
- The mashing method can drastically alter your results. Carefully pressing potatoes through a tamis, ricer, or food mill will separate the cells with minimal shearing action to break up the starch. Throw potatoes in a food processor, and an avalanche of starch gets released, turning your potatoes the consistency of melted mozzarella cheese. Whipping the potatoes in a stand mixer will develop some starchy creaminess, but still keep the potatoes creamy.
- Soaking and/or rinsing the potatoes can help you modify the amount of starch that remains on them. Cutting potatoes into smaller pieces before cooking and rinsing them under cold water will wash away much of the excess starch. Cooking them in their skins, on the other hand, will help retain all the starch in their interior.
So just knowing these factors now, we should be able to determine the best way to get both styles of potatoes.
The Keys to Smooth and Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
Getting potatoes light and fluffy is a little bit trickier than the smooth and creamy texture of buttery French pommes purées, because you have to be more careful not to release too much of that starch. One thing is clear: You want to start with mealy russets that fall apart with minimal prodding and release starch in an easy-to-rinse-off manner. At first I thought that simply rinsing away as much starch as possible before cooking would be the key.
To do this, I made three batches of potatoes. The first I cut into large chunks, the second into 1-inch dice, and the last I grated on the large holes of a box grater. All three batches I rinsed under cold water until the liquid ran clear. By collecting the drained milky liquid from each batch of potatoes and comparing it, it was quite clear that the grated potatoes released far more starches than either of the other types of potatoes.
Turns out that another weird phenomena occurs when you try and cook grated and rinsed potatoes: They simply don't soften. I boiled those grated potatoes for a full 45 minutes to no avail. Even after forcing them through a ricer, pebbly, hard bits remained. What the heck was going on?
It's got to do with that pesky pectin. Turns out that when exposed to calcium ions, pectin cross-links, forming stronger bonds that are resistant even to prolonged cooking. As it happens, potato cells are full of calcium ions just waiting to burst out. By grating the taters, I ended up releasing so much calcium that the pectin gets strengthened to a point where it never softens.
Of the other two batches—the large chunks and the small dice—both formed a moderately fluffy mash, but to get the potatoes even fluffier, I found that rinsing the potatoes of excess starch both before and after cooking was the key. A quick pass through the ricer and a little bit of lubrication provided by some butter and whole milk gently stirred in with a rubber spatula, and my sister's potatoes were ready for sculpting.
Now my sister and I can finally get back to fighting over really important things like who gets to play the guitar part on Beatles Rock Band.
3 Ways to Make Delicious Mashed Potatoes in Advance
This recipe was originally developed by Kenji Lopez-Alt, and has since been edited and updated by Daniel Gritzer after additional testing to reduce the base amount of milk added and also cut the overall quantity of mashed potatoes produced.
2 pounds (900g) russet potatoes
1/2 cup (120ml) whole milk, plus more as needed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (85g), room temperature, cut into 1/2-inch pats
Freshly ground black pepper
Peel potatoes and cut into 1- or 2-inch cubes. Transfer to a pot of cold water and rinse, changing water 2 or 3 times until it runs clear. Cover potatoes with fresh cold water and season generously with salt.
Set potatoes over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook until potatoes are completely tender, about 15 minutes after reaching a simmer.
Drain potatoes in a colander and rinse under hot running water for 30 seconds to wash away excess starch. Allow potatoes to steam for 1 minute to remove excess moisture.
Set a ricer or food mill over now-empty pot and pass potatoes through.
Add butter and gently fold into potatoes.
Mound potatoes into the center of the pot and pour milk all around. Set over medium heat and bring milk to a simmer before gently folding it into the potatoes. If looser potatoes are desired, add additional milk in a similar fashion around the mashed potato mass and bring it to a simmer before folding into potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, then serve.
This recipe can easily be doubled to feed a larger crowd.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 12g||16%|
|Saturated Fat 8g||38%|
|Total Carbohydrate 34g||12%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||13%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 13mg||63%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|