Last week came the news, widely reported, that humans love foods that combine carbohydrates and fat.
My first reaction was that this seemed to come from the ‘no s—, Sherlock’ school of research. To be fair, this was a slightly new twist on it; brain research has shown our rewards centre lights up at this combination of nutrients even when we think we don’t want them. Our brains have not evolved to truly love salad, it seems.
That fat and carbs together (usually in combination with sugar and salt) is irresistible in food has been widely known by food scientists for years. There are squadrons of food technologists around the world employed in devising the best possible combinations of them to create snack foods that sell their socks off.
It strikes me that apart from potato chips and ice cream, one of the best expressions of the much-loved fat and carbs is that classic comfort food, mashed potato.
When I researched my previous blog on roast potatoes, it was easy to find famous foodies’ recipes for ‘best ever’ or ‘ultimate’ roast spuds. Everyone had their methods. When it comes to mashed potato, famous chefs are fairly quiet on the topic.
One of my all-time favourite food writers, though, Jeffrey Steingarten, devotes a whole chapter of his classic book The Man Who Ate Everything to mashed potatoes. He goes into forensic detail about the science of potato starch in a bid to get to the bottom of the best possible method. I love his attention to detail; although he doesn’t really come up with one ultimate method, either. He does however describe the potato as ‘the most important vegetable in the world’ and mashed potato as ‘a nearly perfect food’. Who am I to argue.
My own cooking of mash thus far has been fairly standard: Agrias; boil; mash (or break out the ricer if I could be bothered); add something creamy; season. My mash was OK. Most people probably follow a similar formula.
But what makes for really, eye-rollingly good mash? I surveyed NZ’s food writing community in my quest for local answers to the question.
Chef Damian Husted was quick to offer his solution: “Large Agria, stabbed with a paring knife a few times, baked at 210C on rock salt for roughly an hour. When cooked, halve and scoop out centres and push through a drum sieve. Fold through 60 – 80% diced butter to potato (like a certain Robuchon likes to do) in a saucepan over moderate heat, occasionally adding a small dash of cream to prevent splitting. Season to taste”.
This was interesting start. He’s referring to Joel Robuchon, multi-Michelin-starred chef who is super famous, and whose mashed potatoes are famous, also. Robuchon’s mash is done with a ratio of half a pound of butter to one pound of potatoes; in other words 2:1. If you’re thinking that sounds like an obscene amount of butter, you’re not wrong. But I bet you want to try it right now, too.
Other food writers agree with the butter sentiment. “Butter; lots and lots of butter”, said Sophie Gray; others including Anna King Shahab and Helen Jackson opted for cream.
Obviously I needed to do a couple of mash experiments. In the interests of research I undertook what Steingarten describes as ‘an escapade in animal fat’ so you, dear reader, did not have to risk your arteries.
What did I learn?
There’s no doubt that adding more butter than you think is possible to incorporate (or in my case, all the butter I had in the house) into your potatoes makes for a silky, creamy, buttery, soft and moreish mash. At the Robuchon ratio (200g butter to 400g potato) I found there was no need to add any other liquid, and the result was super luxurious – like restaurant mash. You need to eat this piping hot, though; as it cools it becomes a little on the greasy side, as you might expect.
I found a more stable (and cheaper – butter is expensive!) version using slightly less butter; for 420g of potatoes I found 150g butter gave the same buttery flavour and luxurious mouth feel once hot milk was added. It’s still a crazy amount of butter, though; even one small serving of this is going to give you your whole day’s worth of saturated fat and a hefty dose of refined carbohydrate. So it’s definitely a special occasion food.
For an everyday mash that won’t kill you, it is still possible to get lovely soft and creamy mash. The use of a potato ricer goes a long way towards achieving this. A ricer looks like an oversized garlic press; You put the cooked potatoes into it and squeeze them through, making for fluffy and lump-free mash, even when minimal butter is added. I’ve found using the ricer along with quite a lot of warm milk and a knob or two of butter gives mash I’m pretty happy with for everyday purposes.
Using hot milk is important; it incorporates better into the mash so you get a creamier result, and it means the mash stays hot, too. Keeping your mash over a low heat as you add the milk and quickly whisk will help this process.
Seasoning goes a long way. Potatoes love salt; if you’re being sparing with salt in the rest of your meal you can afford to add a bit to your mash. Experiment and taste; sometimes a little more salt is all it takes to get your mash to the next level.
How you cook the potatoes is up to you. Steaming gives lovely tender spuds, and I also tried the roasting recommended by chef Husted. This has the advantage of keeping the potato flesh nice and dry and fluffy. Boiling is convenient, though, so if you go this way, make sure you cut the spuds into even-sized, not-too-small pieces to avoid them absorbing too much water. When you’ve drained them, put them back into the pot over a low heat for a moment to evaporate off the last of the water. Watery mash appeals to no-one.
Last but probably most important: choose the right potatoes. Mash needs a floury spud like Agria; using a waxy or all-purpose spud is a recipe for disappointment. That way lies wallpaper paste.