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Knowing some tricks of the trade will make better mashed potatoes.

In my opinion, mashed potatoes are not worth making unless they are so delicious everyone will pine for them after you are dead and gone! Think of the family, sitting around and saying, "If only she/he were here to make her/his mashed potatoes, Thanksgiving would be perfect."

That said, there are so many ways to make mashed potatoes it is dizzying. If you are just starting out, there are some things to be learned right away. First, not everyone likes the same kind of mashed potatoes. My roommate, Beverly, didn't like my potatoes, for instance, so after the first year, she made her own: her mother's recipe.

There are those, for instance, whose mother made lumpy potatoes and yearn for them because that's what reminds them of Mom. Others like creamy, runny potatoes, almost saucelike in their consistency rather than substantive enough to make a hollow and put in butter, sour cream and chives or just gravy.

And then there are the smashed with skins on — sort of a hunky, ugly potato dish — and those who like smashed or bashed without skin. Some want them mashed along with sweet potatoes, turnips or some other combination. Then there are whipped vs. riced vs. mashed. What's a cook to do?

Mashing potatoes begins with the potatoes. What kind is best for your purposes? High-starch potatoes, such as russets, make fluffy mashed potatoes, and many people prefer them. I prefer Yukon Golds, not quite as fluffy, because they have more flavor and color. Avoid using just any old potato because you may choose a starchy one that will make a gluey mashed potato.

If smashing potatoes, some little "fingerling," "baby" or "creamer" potatoes are good, cooked in their skins, and smashed quickly over the heat with melted butter or olive oil.

Cooking the potato is the next important consideration. Some people boil the potatoes whole, in their skin, until fork tender, then drain them, peel them quickly with a knife, cut into large pieces and mash, rice or whip. I prefer peeling them, cutting into halves or quarters and boiling them, sacrificing perhaps a bit of the flavor from the skin, but making it much easier than peeling after cooking. Too many small pieces will make a watery potato. That said, if time is short, then the smaller they are, the faster they cook.

I peel, rinse quickly and drop in the pan of cold water as each is peeled. This keeps them from turning color and is the easiest way for me to deal with them without washing a lot of bowls and pots. If I HAD to peel them ahead of time, I would keep them in water with a slice or two of lemon. Peeling them ahead and storing them in water will make them more watery and should be avoided if possible.

How to cook

All large potatoes should be started in cold water and covered by an inch or two. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, reduce until simmering, cover loosely and simmer until the potatoes are just tender when pricked with a knife or fork.

Timing is dependent on size. Half-potatoes take 25-35 minutes. Whole a bit longer; smaller pieces cook more rapidly. Those people who like lumpy potatoes should remove the potatoes a little sooner. (After removing the test potato, I usually mash it between my thumb and forefinger to see if it is the smoothness I desire. Lumpy potatoes will have just a little white in them.)

Fingerling, creamer or baby potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, should be added to boiling water, like a green vegetable.

Mashing tools

Deciding on the type of mashing or smashing implement also is an important decision.

I prefer my potatoes whipped. The potatoes are drained, then beaten in the pan with a sturdy hand mixer.

Someone once described a ricer to me as an oversized garlic press with holes in the bottom that holds a half a potato. The top is pressed down, pushing the potato through. (If the potatoes aren't peeled, the ricer will keep the skin in the base, which indeed is a handy way to peel a potato and enables the potatoes to be cooked in their skin and peeled easily.) The skin needs to be discarded after each potato half, and another potato added. It is the most tedious of the methods, but results in a fluffy potato.

Food mills usually have little legs that will go over the pan, holding the mill up out of the pan and steadying it. Big chunks are put into the mill and the handle is turned, pushing out the potato.

Hand potato mashers are for the strong-armed, holding the drained pot with one hand and pumping the flat holed part of the masher into the pot. It is nearly impossible to mash potatoes with a masher unless one is Goliath.

Smashing is, however, faster as the potatoes are left all together in the pan, and do not need to be smooth and creamy. Care should be taken not to over-smash but to leave the potatoes chunky and lumpy.

The pan

The pan should be heavy enough to prevent the potatoes from burning. Ideally, the potatoes should be in only two or three layers in the pan. The more layers in the pan, the greater the likelihood of burning the bottom ones.

Butter, etc.

Butter is preferred for its creaminess and should go into the hot drained pan before the potatoes are added. It is best to melt it in the pan or to add it to the hot pan already melted. If cream or half-and-half is added before the butter, the potatoes will not be as creamy. Margarine should be saved for a mundane family meal. No one will wish for a margarine-doused potato.

Olive oil is for the dietary conscious. It has its own distinctive flavor, and with some Italian seasonings, perhaps rosemary or oregano, and garlic added will yield a tasty and somewhat light potato.

A few tricks

One person will usually eat 1/2 pound of potatoes; i.e., two pounds of potatoes for four people. When feeding a crowd of more than eight people, only 1/3 pound of potatoes per person is necessary. It's like the loaves and the fishes: The food multiplies.

The pan must always be hot when the drained potatoes hit it. There should be melted butter (or olive oil) in the bottom of the hot pan. Any liquid added should be hot: cooking water, milk, half-and-half or whipping cream.

Whipping cream is my favorite. The hot cooking water and/or milk are fine for an everyday family meal but may yield a watery potato. For a major meal such as Thanksgiving, warm half-and-half or cream should be used.

Once mashed, potatoes can be kept in the pan, covered with another layer of melted butter and a layer of hot cream or half-and-half, or rushed into a heat-proof container or plastic bag and kept at room temperature for several hours or refrigerated. When ready to heat, add more hot butter and cream or half-and-half (a lot of the liquid will be absorbed as they are resting) in the microwave or on top of the stove in a pan, stirring until heated through.

Add salt and pepper at the end. Although white pepper can be used by the fastidious, I like the black specks.

Variations

Half-potatoes and half-sliced white turnips can be cooked together and mashed, making a very tasty potato. Peeled garlic cloves are a good addition when boiling the potatoes, once again enhancing the flavor.

Grated cheddar, parmesan, goat or Gruyere cheese can be added to the hot potatoes just before serving.

Top with yogurt or sour cream, chives or other herbs, fried bacon bits, gravy or butter.

Mashed Potatoes

Serves 4

2 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, at room temperature

1/2 to 1 cup half-and-half or heavy whipping cream, heated

Salt

Freshly ground white or black pepper

Cut the peeled potatoes into chunks and toss them into a pot. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, partially cover, reduce the heat until modestly bubbling and cook until the potatoes are tender when a small amount is rubbed between the fingers.

Drain into a colander, return the pan to the heat with 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add the drained potatoes and mash or whip over low heat until a slight residue clings to the bottom of the pan.

Add the remaining butter and continue mashing or whipping over the heat. Taste for seasoning and add salt as needed. Add the hot half-and-half or cream a little bit at a time to see how the potatoes absorb it. Taste again and season with salt and pepper. Serve at once or keep for later use as described above.