Ask almost anybody with a fair amount of culinary knowledge and they will tell you that the only difference between a really good home cooked meal and a perfect meal served at a restaurant is that the restaurant uses (a lot) more salt when seasoning!
This is a culinary fact! It holds true for every dish under the sun… Except for mashed potatoes. In the case of mashed potatoes, the only difference between your mashed potatoes and the perfect mashed potatoes served in restaurants is the amount of salt AND the amount of butter used in the restaurant dish.
Restaurant style mashed potatoes contain butter, lots of butter! How much butter? Well, you’ll have to read on, but the answer may well shock you!
As part of my 2013 Thanksgiving Menu for Friends, I recently had a stab at making real restaurant-style mashed potatoes at home, inspired by the work of Heston Blumenthal, Chef John and others. The project was a real eye opener for me and while it took a little more work and a few more ingredients than your ordinary every day mash, it was definitely worth the effort.
Want to try it out for yourself? Follow these eight steps below for mashed potato perfection:
Step 1: Thoroughly wash and peel potatoes
Yes, you need to thoroughly wash and peel the potatoes. The reason for this extra bit of work being that much of the flavor of a potato is actually in the skin. We can extract that flavor and exploit it for a bit of extra character in our finished mash.
After washing, carefully peel the skins, but reserve the skins as you do. Put the skins in a pot and top with whole milk, then boil the skins for five minutes. Leave to cool, then strain out the skins and toss them. All the flavor and character of the skins will have infused into the milk. Reserve milk and add a bit to the potatoes after mashing as you usually would. This really helps boost the flavor of your mash.
Feeling really generous? You can use (heavy) cream rather than milk, or a combination of cream or milk. Fat is a great carrier of flavor, its’ also a great carrier of calories. The choice is your’s.
Step 2: Rinse, rinse and rinse your potatoes, then rinse them again.
There’s a lot of starch in potatoes. Starch is the sworn enemy of perfect mash. After peeling your potatoes, cut them into large chunks and rinse under cold water. Continue rinsing till water runs clear. This may take a while.
Step 3: Time for a hot bath (optional step)
Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal insists that for an even smoother mash, you need to dump your potatoes in a pot of 72 degree (Celsius) water and keep them at that temperature for a full 30 minutes. The scientific reasoning behind this rather curious step apparently is that a 30-minute bath in hot water traps whatever starch remains inside the potatoes and make the finished mash less gluey.
For my experiments, I was unable to locate a suitable thermometer, so I skipped this step. I don’t see why Heston would lie, though.
Step 4: Boil potatoes in generously salted water till fall apart tender
This is the part of the recipe we all know. There seems to be some controversy as to whether or not the boiling water should be salted. I’ve tried both alternatives and I say go for it. Salt away. When potatoes are fall apart tender, drain water and allow potatoes to steam dry in a colander for a couple of minutes.
If you know a good reason why salt should not be added at this point, speak now (in the comments, that is) or forever hold your peace!
Step 5: M*A*S*H
When potatoes are relatively dry, start mashing away. Mashing should be done by hand, not by immersion blender, hand mixer or any such tool. Do so and you run the risk of your mash turning to glue. Use a hand masher and a whisk and really go to work, using your forearms as the primary tool.
If like me, you have a hot, little, blonde friend by the name of Tina, you can do what I did and let her do the work. While you mash, it’s time to slowly start adding the butter.
Step 6: Add no less than 25% butter
No, really, you heard me! A really good mash contains at least 25% butter by weight and upwards of 50% is not at all unheard of. Hey, I said it was good mash, I didn’t say it was particularly healthy mash.
Seriously, just give it a go. It may sound totally gross, but you’ll be amazed at the result – oh, and you’ll be fine and healthy as long as you don’t eat it too often. That goes for you ladies as well, by the way, have a little butter, it does the body good. Just don’t overdo it.
But I digress… Anyway, keep adding butter and mashing things together until you start feeling ashamed by your actions. This should occur somewhere in the 25 – 33% butter-by-weight zone. In the beginning, you’ll probably think the potatoes won’t possibly hold this much butter, but trust me, they will, and the result will be silky, shiny, smooth and gorgeous. Just keep working them until smooth and velvety.
Step 7: Add milk and season to taste
The final step on our journey towards mashed potato nirvana involves adding a bit of milk for flavor and texture; use the potato infused milk you made in step 1. You don’t need a whole lot, just enough to lighten things up a bit and make the texture less firm and dense. Mix it in thoroughly, then season generously with salt and pepper (more of both than you think you need) and, if the mood strikes you, a bit of freshly grated nutmeg.
That’s it. You’ve just made the best damned mashed potatoes you’ve ever had, you’re ready for the best part:
Step 8: Serve up, dig in!
Serve this perfect mash up as quickly as possible and enjoy. You’re in for a downright decadent experience, I promise.
A word of warning, though: Don’t overfill the plates, you’ll be able to eat much less of this than you think you can. These perfect mashed potatoes are yummy, but also dense and the generous addition of butter will knock the air out of you pretty quickly.
Don’t get over-excited, less is more. Also, don’t worry about possible left-overs, they’ll fry up beautifully the next day in a bit of oil on a non-stick skillet and be even yummier then!
Too rich? As indicated above, this is a bit of a rich and decadent side dish. Some of us might need a bit of acidity to cut through the richness. This can be achieved in a number of ways. A few drops of sherry or apple cider vinegar will do the trick, but may not look too attractive. Heston Blumenthal suggests using a mix of lime zest and fresh lime juice set using agar agar (a natural and heat-resistant gelling agent available at Asian markets and health food store). Me? Well in the picture above, I used blended home-pickled gherkins set with agar agar. It worked beautifully.