Easter’s coming up, and so is an article on gravy, so I thought this might be a good week to talk about mashed potatoes. Not only do they fit perfectly into a traditional holiday dinner, not only do they cry out for gravy — but they’re one of those foods that, in the past few decades, came close to getting replaced by an instant version. This leads people who’ve never made mashed potatoes from scratch to think it must be difficult, which it isn’t. It can be a lot of work, but it’s probably nothing you can’t handle.
First, you’ll have to wash and peel the potatoes. There are lots of dishes that’ll let you get away with not peeling, but mashed potatoes aren’t one of them. Not at my house, anyway. But there’s no need to try to peel them with a knife, like soldiers on KP in old war movies. Just get out your vegetable peeler and do the best you can. Don’t peel before you’re ready to cook, though, as potatoes discolor quickly.
Start a pot of water boiling with a sprinkle of salt in it. Use a bigger pot and more water than you think you’ll need — the potato pieces should have plenty of room to move around. Don’t worry if it boils before the potatoes are ready, just turn it down to low. When you’re ready, you can turn it to high again and it’ll go back to boiling quickly.
I just mentioned potato pieces, which are your next step. Chop each potato into at least four pieces, or more if you want. Smaller pieces will cook more quickly, of course. The important thing is to make them all roughly the same size so they’ll cook at the same rate.
Something equally important is to be careful putting them into the boiling water. Even a tiny drop splashing on you can be quite painful. Put them in with a ladle or spoon to be extra safe. The water will probably stop boiling, then start up again. After this happens, let it go for about 15 minutes, possibly less if the pieces are very small. Then fish out a piece and drive a fork into it. If it starts to fall apart, they’re ready.
Drain the potatoes either in a sieve, or by holding the pot over the sink with the lid open a tiny bit, if you trust yourself to do it. If you use a sieve, put them back into the pot. Shake them around a little to dry out the last bit of water.
Now for the actual mashing. You can use a potato masher, an electric hand mixer, or even a food processor. It might be good to break up the large pieces with the masher, then switch to an electric mixer. Add a splash of milk to make the mashing smoother, and go on till the potatoes are the texture you want. Put in salt and butter to taste.
And if there are a few lumps — they prove these aren’t instant.