In Season: Make your holiday potatoes pop

How to make perfect mashed potatoes

How to make perfect mashed potatoes every time.
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How to make perfect mashed potatoes every time.

Be they plain or fancy, don’t forget them. Potatoes are always a must for holiday menus.

That could be due to perfect timing. Potatoes traditionally are harvested in the fall and stored for winter use, which means the potatoes we enjoy now are at their best.

Not all potatoes are created equal. Some, such as familiar brown russets, were made for mashing or baking. Due to their high starch content, their flesh falls apart when cooked (that’s the secret to no lumps). Others, such as those waxy red potatoes, are lower in starch and hold their shape when cooked; that makes them great for salads, but not for mashing.

Mashed potatoes rank among America’s all-time favorite comfort foods. In their most basic form, they’re so simple yet so satisfying. Yet their variations seem endless.

Start with the right potatoes, such as russets or Yukon Gold, a yellow-fleshed potato that has won over many cooks due to its natural buttery look and flavor. It needs less fat to achieve a creamy texture.

In mashed potatoes, that fat usually comes in the form of butter, milk and/or cream. The ratio is 1/2 to 1 cup of additions per pound of potatoes; the more, the richer the final mash. Other additions include sour cream, softened cream cheese and yogurt. For a vegan-friendly alternative, substitute almond or soy milk for dairy products.

Or skip the milk and butter altogether. To slim down mashed potatoes, cook Yukon Gold potatoes in vegetable or chicken stock until tender. After mashing, stir in a little olive oil until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For Thanksgiving and other big feasts, mashed potatoes can be made up to 24 hours ahead and then warmed in the oven before serving. Make your mashed potatoes and spread them in a greased baking dish. Refrigerate covered until ready to cook. Drizzle 2 tablespoons melted butter over the top. Bake uncovered in a preheated 350-degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes and serve.

But this versatile vegetable goes way beyond mashing. Potatoes star in all sorts of celebratory side dishes, such as gratins, croquettes and salads. They’re wonderful roasted alongside almost any meat, fish or poultry. Of course, they make the best fries.

Sacramento cooking teacher Paulette Bruce annually hosts about 40 guests for Thanksgiving dinner. Mashed potatoes in some form are usually part of the menu.

Bruce’s favorite mashed potatoes variation includes a few white sweet potatoes; they add natural sweetness to otherwise bland russets. After cooking and mashing together the potatoes, she stirs in chopped chipoltes, adobo sauce, “lots of butter,” salt and pepper.

“When making regular mashed potatoes, I usually use Yukon Gold (potatoes), skin on, boiled in lots of salted water until fork tender,” Bruce said. “I drain the potatoes and return them to the cooking pot for a few minutes to dry out before mashing.”

Peeling is optional; leave the skin on and call them “smashed.” If you prefer peel-less mashed, the skins slip off easily after boiling.

“I use an old-fashioned potato masher for the mashing,” Bruce continued. “Never, never use an electric mixer for the mashing! That gives you awful mashed potatoes that are more like glue than potatoes.

“Also, I use really good butter – European-style with 82 percent butterfat content,” she added. “Plugra is my favorite, and it is available at most grocery stores. Then, I use warmed cream to finish. Sometimes, I squeeze a few heads of roasted garlic into the mashed potatoes for more flavor.”

While mashed potatoes often are a holiday hit, potatoes take many forms at the dinner table year round. Bruce’s go-to potatoes is a simple potatoes gratin. “But my family and friends have renamed it to ‘Best Damn Potatoes,’ ” Bruce said, “and they truly are the best.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Potatoes gratin

Sacramento cooking teacher Paulette Bruce shared this family favorite, an adaptation of Cindy Pawlcyn’s recipe from “Fog City Diner Cookbook.” “You will be making three thin but creamy, rich layers of potatoes – the best damn potatoes you will ever make!” Bruce said. “It’s very important to cut the potatoes very thin so they absorb the cream and cook through without drying out. I often use more cream and cheese than this recipe calls for. The potatoes soak up the additional liquid and it makes a richer dish.”

Serves 6

2 to 3 large russet potatoes

3 ounces grated Asiago cheese

1 cup cream

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8-inch thick by hand or on a mandoline. Rinse slices in cold water and dry.

For each layer, use one-third of the potatoes and lay them out slightly overlapping, sprinkle with one-third of the cheese and just enough cream to coat them, and then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until potatoes are fork tender.

Hasselback potatoes

Serves 4

Apparently a Swedish dish, the Hasselback is a thinly sliced, fanlike baked potato that – much like virtually any other type of baked potato – can be topped with any number of delicious items. This recipe does call for butter and Parmesan cheese, but it also requires no peeling and keeps all the nutrients that linger beneath the skin intact.

4 baking potatoes, scrubbed

4 tablespoons melted butter

4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs (or other dry breadcrumbs)

Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Place a washed potato on your cutting board, and set a wooden spoon handle next to it, running along the length of the potato’s base. With a sharp knife, begin making thin (1/8 inch to 1/4 inch) slices across the potato’s width. As you cut down, use the spoon’s handle to act as your cutting guide so you don’t slice down all the way through the potato. Prepare all 4 potatoes in this way.

Place the cut potatoes in a baking dish. Spread 2 tablespoons of butter atop the prepared potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and bake for 40 minutes.

Remove the potatoes from the oven and top each with the panko breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and the remaining butter. Re-season with salt and pepper and bake for 20 to 25 minutes longer.

Remove from oven and cool slightly before serving.

Potato dominoes

Serves 2 to 4

This technique using just three ingredients makes starchy Russet potatoes act like creamy Yukon Golds, and also makes some of the crispiest edges ever. Recipe adapted from Francis Mallmann in “Genius Recipes” by Kristen Miglore.

For the clarified butter:

4 ounces unsalted butter (1 stick)

For the dominoes:

4 Idaho potatoes

4 tablespoons chilled clarified butter

Coarse salt

Heat a home oven (with the rack positioned in the center of the oven) to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a Silpat or use a nonstick baking sheet.

Cut off the two ends of one potato and reserve them. Trim the 4 sides of the potato to form an even brick. Slice the potato about 1/8 inch thick on a mandoline, keeping the slices in order if you can (just like a line of shingled dominoes).

Hold the stack of potato slices in the palm of one hand and use the other to shape them back into a brick – as you would a deck of cards. Lay the stack on its side on the baking sheet, and put the reserved potato ends, cut side down, at either end to keep the stack aligned.

Then, with the palm of your hand, angle the slices slightly to resemble a line of dominoes that has tilted over. Adjust the end pieces to keep the stack in shape, and align the slices if necessary. Dot the top and sides with 1 tablespoon of the clarified butter.

Sprinkle with salt to taste. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, keeping the stacks at least 2 inches apart.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until the potatoes are browned on the edges and tender in the middle when tested with a skewer. Serve immediately.

Smoked salmon potato salad with buttermilk herb dressing

Serves 4 to 6

Recipe from Ellise Pierce, Cowgirl Chef blogger.

1 pound waxy potatoes, such as red, new or fingerling

Sea salt

2.5 ounces smoked salmon

Buttermilk herb dressing:

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

Sea salt and cracked pepper

Chopped dill and chives, optional, for garnish

Scrub the potatoes, slice them into 1/4-inch coins and put them in your largest skillet. Cover with water, salt well, and turn the heat to high. When it boils, reduce the heat to a simmer and let them cook just until you can put a fork in them – you don’t want them to fall apart. When they’re done, gently pour them into a colander to drain and cool.

Tear or chop the salmon into bite-size pieces and put in a large bowl with the potatoes. Add some of the dressing, and gently toss (I do this with my hands so the potatoes don’t break). Serve on small plates and garnish with additional chopped dill and chives.

To make dressing: Put everything in a bowl and whisk until combined. Chill for at least an hour before using.

Per serving, based on 4, using half the buttermilk herb dressing: 167 calories, 5 grams fat, 23 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 19 milligrams cholesterol, 243 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 29 percent of calories from fat.

Garlic-parsley potato cakes

Time: 1 hour, plus 1 hour’s chilling

Serves 8 (can be doubled)

Adapted from “Recipes From Home” by David Page and Barbara Shinn.

2 1/2 to 3 pounds medium-starch potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and quartered

12 whole garlic cloves, peeled

Kosher salt

1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

2 tablespoons whole milk

1 tablespoon olive oil, more for frying

Black pepper

Place potatoes, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt in a pot and add water to cover by 1 inch. Bring water to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until potatoes are just tender all the way through, about 10 minutes. Drain potatoes, return to the pot, and shake over medium heat for 1 minute to dry them out.

Add 3 tablespoons cornmeal and the parsley and mash everything together with a potato masher, leaving the mixture chunky.

Whisk together egg, egg yolk, milk and 1 tablespoon oil in a small bowl. Stir mixture into potatoes and season with 2 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Form potato mixture into rounds about 3/4-inch thick. Put remaining cornmeal in a shallow dish.

Working in batches, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Coat potato cakes on each side in cornmeal, brown on both sides in the skillet and transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining potato cakes, adding more oil as needed between batches. (At this point, cakes can be set aside at room temperature for up to 4 hours.)

Bake until heated through, 10 to 15 minutes.

Chive and sour cream potatoes

This variation on mashed potatoes includes vegan options. Almond milk subs for traditional dairy products.

Recipe courtesy Blue Diamond almonds.

2 pounds (about 6 medium) potatoes, boiled until fork tender

1/2 cup Unsweetened Original Almond Breeze

1/2 cup sour cream or vegan sour cream

1/4 cup fresh chives, chopped

4 tablespoons butter or vegan margarine

2 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large bowl, mash all ingredients together. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with additional chives, if desired.

Potato-chive croquettes

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Serves 6

4 medium russet baking potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds total), scrubbed, peeled if desired

1/4 cup half-and-half or milk

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup loosely packed finely chopped chives or green onions

1 cup panko or other coarse breadcrumbs

1/4 cup safflower, sunflower or expeller-pressed canola oil

2 tablespoons butter

Cut potatoes into 2-inch cubes; put into a large saucepan. Add salted water to cover the potatoes. Heat over high to a rolling boil; reduce heat to a gentle rolling boil. Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 15 minutes.

Drain off the water. Working in the pan, mash the potatoes with the half-and-half, egg yolk, salt and pepper until smooth. Let stand until cool enough to handle, then stir in the chives.

Put the breadcrumbs into a shallow dish. Use your hands to shape the potato mixture into small football shapes, using 3 generous tablespoons per piece. Roll in the crumbs to coat on all sides. Set on a wire rack for a few minutes or up to several hours. Repeat to continue making croquettes, you’ll have 12 to 14.

Heat oil and butter in a very large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the croquettes in a single uncrowded layer. Fry, turning gently, until golden and crisp on all sides, about 5 minutes. Serve hot.

Per serving: 282 calories; 16 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 45 mg cholesterol; 31 g carbohydrates; 5 g protein; 321 mg sodium; 2 g fiber

Roasted potatoes

Serves 6 to 8

If you want to hold the potatoes for 1 to 2 hours, reserve them in the roasting pan, loosely covered. Do not add the parsley. Just before serving, heat the potatoes in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the parsley as directed. Recipe from The Washington Post.

3 pounds baking potatoes, peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large sweet onion, cut into 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine the potatoes and oil in a nonstick roasting pan large enough to hold all of the potato and onion pieces comfortably. (Two smaller pans will also work.) Season with salt and pepper (to taste); toss to make sure the potatoes are thoroughly coated.

Roast for 15 minutes, then add the onion. Use a spatula to turn the potato pieces over and distribute the onion. Roast for 25 to 35 minutes, until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer to a large serving dish. Add most of the parsley and toss to incorporate, then sprinkle with the remaining parsley. Serve right away.