Monday, 23 November 2009

The perfect mashed potatoes, Part I

I've been inspired to write about mashed potatoes after reading about this rather gorgeous version in Simply Recipes. It's sings with balance I think: the tang and sweet creaminess of blue cheese, the slightly pungent nose of the sage, the nutty earth in the brown butter...

you know it's funny, I've just realised I misread their recipe... I thought Garett and Elise used blue cheese, but they didn't. They used a fresh goat's cheese: more subtle, lovely. Still, I'm going to run with my version for now and add a little reminder to myself here that we need to talk about cheeses soon- not all cheese is 'good' cheese.

But even with these flavours, mash can still manage to disappoint. When I was at Ballymaloe Cookery School, we learnt to 'beat' our mash, but this, in my view, was a disaster. I'm sure there's some science behind why and that either Harold McGee or Jeffrey Steingarten have pointed me in its direction before (I'd tell you for sure, but both books are in a seamail parcel about 2 months shy of my bookshelf). I  think it's got something to do with how many of the starchy potato cells either disintegrate in the cooking or are smashed open in the whipping. Too little cooking and the little blighters don't cream up at all. Too much (ie, too high an internal potato temperature) and they turn to glue.

But don't stress out about the science. There's some pretty simple ways to ensure the potatoes will turn out mashable:

1. Size
Either leave small potatoes whole or cut big potatoes into evenly sized pieces, but not too small, mostly square pieces. Basically, you don't want too much of any of the potatoes overcooking (or becoming waterlogged), but you also don't want them to take too long to cook all the way through to their centres. Somewhere around 3 to 4 cm sounds about right, but use your instinct on this one.

2. Skin
I'm a skin-on kind of woman. As long as there are no green tinges to the surface of the potatoes, and they're well scrubbed, in my mash, they're staying on all the way through to the eating. All you're achieving by peeling the potatoes first is exposing them to more waterlogging. The skin and that area just below it are often the most tasty parts of a potato, so why get rid of that just for a skinless mash? But if you really disagree with the whole idea, just cook the potatoes with the skin on and then peel them once they're cooked. It's easier than peeling them before. And if you're going to keep the skins in the final mash, just make sure you score the skins' surfaces with a knife, roughly and randomly, so that the final mash doesn't end up with great big brown blanket folds in it.

3. Salted water
Start with cold water that is overly salty. Unlike the silverbeet I messed up in Skye's kitchen, I promise, it's very hard to oversalt potatoes. Just think about all the seasoning work that's done just by the water. The end result will be potatoes that have a deeper, more complex seasoning than if most of the salt were added later on. And there's another reason to do this: the water will boil hotter. I know this sounds strange, but salted water has a higher boiling point than pure water, and if the potatoes have hotter water around them, they'll cook more quickly at a gentle simmer (this 'simmering' is important) and so become less waterlogged. These are the same two reasons to salt pasta water well.

4. The water temperature, amount and cooking time
Cook the potatoes starting in cold water. This will mean that the potatoes have a chance to cook more evenly (not too quickly on the outside compared to the inside). Use just enough water to cover the potatoes well, and once the water's boiling, try to keep it on an even simmer- not too under the boil and not a rapid boil either. You don't want the cooking to take too long, but you also don't want the potatoes to fall apart and become soggy. You'll know they're just perfectly cooked when you can slip a knife into the centre of a few pieces and they almost want to break in half. Maybe not really easily, but you can see that they'd get there soon. Start testing pretty early so that you don't mess this timing up.

I'll explain the rest of the mashing fun and games in the next blog post. For now, I gotta sleep!

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