With their creamy texture and earthy flavor, there's no more perfect vehicle for butter, salt, and pepper than mashed potatoes. Chunky or smooth, lightened with milk or made rich with cream and butter, it is hard to go wrong with this paradigm of comfort food.
The best way to cook potatoes for mashing is to peel them, cut them into large slices, and gently simmer them in lightly salted water. Steaming takes too long, and baking in the oven produces potatoes that are unevenly cooked.
A potato masher will work if you don't mind lumpy potatoes. If you want smooth, creamy mashed potatoes, there are two very effective ways to achieve them: with a potato ricer or with an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.
Peel and cut potatoes into 1 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water; add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a simmer. If using a potato ricer, fill another saucepan or bottom of a double boiler with water; place over low heat. Keep potatoes at a low simmer. After 20 minutes, start testing for doneness. Poke a paring knife into the middle of one of the potato slices; it should slip in and out easily, and the edges of the potatoes should be dissolving ever so slightly. Drain immediately.
For the electric-mixer method, transfer hot, drained potatoes to bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix on medium-low speed, until most lumps have disappeared, about 1 minute. Add butter; mix until blended. On low speed, add hot milk in a slow stream, then add pepper, nutmeg, and salt to taste. Mix to combine.
Ideally, mashed potatoes should be served freshly mashed. If this is not possible, prepare mashed potatoes up to 40 minutes before serving time, reserving a third of the hot milk. Place potatoes in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, and pour the reserved milk over the top of the potatoes. The potatoes swill stay hot, and the milk will prevent them from drying out and forming a crust on top. Stir the milk into the potatoes before serving.
Herbed Mashed Potatoes
Add fresh, chopped herbs such as parsley, dill, chives, or basil directly to mashed potatoes. Or, to make bright-green potatoes, substitute an herb-infused oil for the butter. To make it, puree herbs and olive oil in the bowl of a food processor until herbs are finely minced and olive oil is bright green.
Saffron Mashed Potatoes
While heating the milk, add a generous pinch of saffron. Allow to steep in milk for 5 minutes before adding to potatoes. Garlic Mashed Potatoes Add 3 smashed garlic cloves to milk. Cover, and simmer until garlic is mild and soft, about 20 minutes. Add milk and garlic directly to potatoes.
Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Wrap one small head of roasted garlic in aluminum foil, and place in oven at 400 degrees for 45 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel the roasted garlic and add to potatoes, to taste, while mashing.
Mashed Potatoes and Root Vegetables
Substitute 6 ounces cooked carrots, sweet potatoes, celery root, or turnips for 6 ounces potatoes. Carrots and sweet potatoes make a rosy, sunset-colored mash.
Leftovers can be transformed into delicious dishes. Potato croquettes make tasty hors d'oeuvres. Gnocchi is easy to make: Add flour and an egg yolk to bind and olive oil for smoothness. Slice long snakes of dough into tiny dumplings, and roll them off the back of a fork. Or season leftovers with garlic and lighten with egg whites to create a potato souffle.