Often the recipes that people have the least understanding of are the simple dishes that we eat every day. It is common for keen cooks to spend a lot of effort on perfecting the focus of a plate, getting a sauce exactly right, grilling the steaks correctly and then the final product is let down by something as basic as over cooked vegetables. One dish that we all cook that suffers from this inattention is mashed potato and yet it is the simplest thing to get it right every time.
When mash fails in its perfect creaminess of texture it is always either overcooked or worse, undercooked. In a pinch undercooked mashed potato can be microwaved and, with luck and a balloon whisk it might be brought back from the brink but overcooked potato will never mash well and will always end up as a sloppy unpalatable mess on the plate. It would be better to add some sautéed bacon and onions, a generous amount of chicken stock and then to blitz the potato slurry into soup- in the kitchen there are never really disasters only menu changes.
So how do we avoid these culinary traps without increasing the attention that we pay to the staple base on the evening dinner plate? Chefs rarely have time to stand over a pot of potatoes and watch them cook and neither does the domestic chef but by following a few simple principals an excellent result can be guaranteed every time. Choose large potatoes, preferably brushed rather than washed and if possible white potatoes rather than red ones. The starch content of these larger white potatoes will ensure that even if they are a bit overcooked that the resultant mash will still be reasonably stiff.
Do not cut the potatoes up too small, halves or quarters, if they are really large, is usually small enough. Too small and they will break down in the cooking water and the soup option will be the only solution. Even whole is better than small dice. The potato should be cooked in plenty of water and I like to start in very hot water with a generous amount of salt dissolved into it. Most importantly is not to cook the spuds to fast. Once they begin to boil reduce the heat and let them simmer more gently, this will cook the potatoes evenly through and make the mash more consistent in texture. Cook the spuds until a small knife penetrates right into them. Once the potatoes are cooked let them drain really well so that the surface of the potato is almost dry and a bit sticky- water only dilutes the flavor of the mash.
Finally, microwave the milk or cream to warm it up before adding it to the potatoes when mashing as it will keep the heat in the spuds, also add plenty of salt and white pepper (so you can’t see the specks). I like to use a whisk to whip my mash but a ricer or a masher is just as good. Either way really work the potato, make sure there are no unpleasant lumps and then mont the potato with knobs of soft butter to give the mash a velvety richness. If you follow this technique you potato will always be mashed to perfection.