Of all the beloved dishes on the holiday table, mashed potatoes are beloved-est. Fluffy billows of creamy white, crowned with butter or gravy, they fill the biggest bowlfuls on the sideboard, and sidle up so well to the mains at any classic American feast, vegetarian or meaty.
But strive as we might toward potato perfection, who hasn’t messed up the mashed on at least one occasion? Too wet, too dry, gluey or pasty, mashed potato fails are a holiday heartbreaker. To help you avoid mashed mishaps this year, we reached out to two top Chicago chefs for favorite methods and how-tos toward potato perfection.
Chicago Chefs Matthias Merges, owner of four restaurants and former director of operations for Charlie Trotter’s various ventures, and Michael Sheerin, executive chef at Embeya and, the soon-to-come Packed dumpling house, had these combined tips to offer. The good news? Perfection is possible. The challenging news? Don’t wait til the last minute! Achieving superlatives like “best” does take time. You’ll need to start your potato process in the morning on feast day for marvelous mashed results.
The main keys: Start potatoes in cold water, and don’t boil it! Both chefs say to slowly bring the temperature of the water only to 200 to 205 degrees, just below a boil. “Never let the water boil,” says Merges. “This causes the cells in the potato to burst and become watery.” Also, leaving the skin on, says Merges, helps protect the potato “meat” from getting soggy and promotes more even cooking. Once cooked, placing the cooked potatoes in a warm oven to dry out the skins before peeling and mashing ensures perfect consistency. Also crucial: Be sure to warm the cream/butter/olive oil you are going to stir in before adding to the hot mashed potatoes.
In sum? “Cook them slow, mash them hot and warm the cream/butter before mixing in,” says Sheerin.
Once you’ve got the basics down, turn your creativity to mashed potato recipes with mix-ins like Chef Alec Sherman’s rustic, skin-on Smashed Potatoes with Sunchokes Roasted Garlic and Baby Spinach. The earthy flavor of roast garlic and sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), and the bright green shock of the spinach makes this flavorful variation a pretty addition to holiday tables.
And don’t forget the gravy! For gravy like liquid gold, think about roasting a small turkey a few days before Thanksgiving, saving the meat from the carcass for after-holiday sandwiches, pot pies and casseroles, and using the bones to make Mike Sheerin’s favorite gravy. Enhanced with onion, garlic, white wine, thyme, and loads of mushrooms, this gravy is truly the crowning glory worthy of topping your marvelous mashed.