Mastering the fine art of mashed potatoes

Step-by-step instructions for splendid spuds.

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Who doesn't love mashed potatoes? They're an American comfort food staple, a great addition to your holiday table or a simple Sunday dinner. Their preparation seems easy enough in theory — boil some potatoes, then pulverize them along with some butter and salt — but making the "perfect" mashed potatoes is like the search for the Holy Grail. Many have failed miserably on this quest.

First, you must figure out which type of tuber best suits your needs. After researching "perfect mashed potatoes," I noticed that Yukon Golds were the spud of choice across the board. Hey, if they're good enough for the likes of Alton Brown and Martha Stewart, they're good enough for me.

Yukon Golds — aka "all-purpose" potatoes — are a cross between the moist new potato and starchier Russet types, making them versatile in just about any culinary situation. You get the best of both worlds: starchy enough to hold up when slathered in butter and gravy, but maintaining just the right amount of moisture to produce light and fluffy mashers.

Next step: Cooking. The intended result here is creamy and thick, not, as Alton puts it, "pasty and gummy enough to build a mountain." To avoid this, the taters need to be cooked to the proper degree of doneness, and the liquid ingredients (butter, milk, etc.) need to be warmed before incorporating.

Cut the potatoes so they're all the same size, about 1-2 inch pieces, so they cook evenly. If you're like me and want added texture, leave the skins on. Throw them in a pot and fill it with enough cold water to just cover them. Put that pot on the burner, bring the water to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook the potatoes until you can easily crush one with a set of tongs or poke it through with a fork or knife — no longer. Drain them in a colander and return to the cooking pot.

If you want ultra-smooth potatoes (and a ridiculous piece of kitchen equipment you'll probably only use for mashed potatoes), run them through a ricer or food mill. Otherwise, a handheld electric mixer or masher works just fine. Mash 'em up until they're just at the smooth stage, then cover them to keep them warm while preparing the next step.

Now it's time to add some flavor. Milk, buttermilk, cream and half-and-half are interchangeable for this; it just depends on the flavor and creaminess you're looking to attain. There's no exact liquid-to-potato ratio, but for about 2 pounds of potatoes this is what Martha recommends: "For stiffer mashed potatoes, use only three-fourths cup milk or cream; for richer potatoes, add another two tablespoons butter [in addition to the four tablespoons the recipe calls for]."

Heat your desired liquid, butter, a big pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper in a small saucepan over low heat until the butter is melted. (At this point, I also like to throw in minced or crushed cloves of garlic.) Slowly pour about half of the liquid into your potatoes, stirring slowly with a spoon or whisk. Pour in more liquid if needed, but you may not need all of it. When the potatoes are at your desired level of creaminess, stop. Too much liquid and/or stirring will leave you with a pot of gluey gook.

Give them a taste to see if they need more butter or seasoning. Then add cheese, bacon bits, chives, etc., and you're good to go. Serve your creation warm right out of the pot (try not to eat it all before serving), and revel in your "perfect" mashed potato-making skills.

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