Pet peeve alert! As part of my continuing crusade to debunk the notion that processed boxed food can be a suitable replacement for whole ingredients, I decided to devote today’s Food Faceoff to the humble mashed potato. I know I’m not the only one who feels her blood pressure rise every time she sees a commercial bemoaning the difficulty, the pain, of making mashed potatoes by hand. Maybe this is why I don’t watch the Food Network anymore.
To my parents’ credit, I remember nothing of eating the boxed flakes as a child. Rather, it was my high school cafeteria’s semi-regular Turkey Day that sent me running, nay, sprinting down the hall to wait in line for a scoop of pasty starch covered in a supple slick of vivid yellow gravy.
Nothing about this meal screamed authentic, but it was a salt lick in a bowl and as someone who also ate entire bags of Doritos in one sitting and brought turkey bacon (no bread, no mayo) as her lunch entree at this point in time, it’s no shock to see why this was right up my alley.
Now I’m enlightened, right?—a student of Slow Food and locavorism, someone who’d never let dehydrated taters touch my lips. Or would I?? Let’s start with the real deal.
Homemade Mashed Potatoes
Total time: 30 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 2 russet potatoes
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup half and half
- kosher salt
Peel and rinse the potatoes (try your hand at making potato peel chips if it kills you to peel off all those nutrients), and cut into eight pieces of roughly equal size. Place the potato chunks in a large pot and add cold water to cover them by an inch, and add salt (about 2 tablespoons per quart of water).
You might be wondering why all mashed potato recipes specifically mention this method instead of adding the potato chunks to a pot of already-boiling water, like you’d do to blanch green beans or other vegetables. The reasoning behind this step is to make sure the potatoes cook evenly, much like the process of hard-boiling an egg.
Truth be told, I always thought it took far longer to bring water to a boil with potatoes already bobbing around in there than it did for an “empty” pot, so to speak, so in the name of science, I put on my Mr. Wizard hat and set up two identical pots that would each hold one potato’s worth of chunks. Each went on the burner at the same time, although the pot containing only water needed twice as much H20 as that containing potatoes + liquid to account for the drop in temperature that would occur when I dropped the spuds into the boiling water.
It took both pots 12 minutes to come to a boil, with or without potatoes. The potatoes that were brought up to heat with the water cooked through in 10 minutes with minor feathering around the edges. The potatoes that were dumped into boiling water took four minutes longer to be fully cooked through and were falling apart around the edges by the time they were tender in the centers. Case closed.
So then. Bring your potatoes and salted water to a boil, and cook for 10 minutes or until a knife slides evenly through a potato chunk without resistance. If you undercook the potatoes, you’ll never get a smooth mash, so test early and often.
While the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the half and half. Drain the potatoes and return the chunks to the pot, stirring them gently over the still-hot but turned-off burner to fully dry them. Mash with your choice of potato masher, stir in the butter/half and half, and add extra salt to taste.
To summarize: peel, rinse, cut, boil, drain, mash, butter, milk, salt. Not so hard when you put it that way, eh?
Total time: 29 minutes
Instant Mashed Potatoes
For comparison’s sake, here’s the process for making instant mashed potatoes as directed by the package of Betty Crocker “Creamy Butter” mix.
Pour the contents of the package into a large bowl. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, then stir the hot water into the dry mix until fully incorporated. Let the mixture rest for 2 minutes, then whip with a fork until smooth, about 2 minutes more.
Total time: 9 minutes
The taste? Gimme some of that yellow Campbell’s chicken gravy in a can and I’d be right back at the corner booth in high school, wearing brown corduroy overalls from Old Navy and cropping yearbook photos with a plastic ruler and a red wax pencil.
I know food scientists are hard at work replicating the look and feel of the real thing in instant form, and they’ve clearly succeeded in improving the consistency over the years. The mouthfeel was smoother than I remembered, less grainy and more of a real puree.
But the lingering coating on my palate, not to mention the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!—oh wait, I can, it tastes like movie theater “butter” from a pump—finish makes me firmly believe that the extra 20 minutes spent to make the real version are well spent.
Advantage Mother Nature, though I’m not gonna lie and say I didn’t eat a few spoonfuls of the instant version out of the fridge later that evening—my late night snacking habits seem unchanged over the years.